Einsteinian language: Max Talmey, Benjamin Lee Whorf and linguistic relativity

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This paper explores the significant - albeit little-known - impact that physicist Albert Einstein's theory of relativity had on the development of the science of linguistics. Both Max Talmey, a physician who played a key role in the development of early twentieth-century constructed-language movements, and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who is closely associated with the notion of 'linguistic relativity', drew on their understanding of relativity to develop their ideas (and, in Talmey's case, also on his personal relationship with Einstein). Linguistic relativity, which posits that humans' linguistic categories shape their perceptions of nature, has often been tied to 'relativism' in the social sciences and humanities. In contrast, Talmey's commitment to reformulating the language of Einsteinian relativity - especially through a constructed language he built in the 1920s and 1930s - emphasized the significance of 'invariance' simultaneously in the scientific doctrine and in the language in which it was discussed. The semiotic flexibility of Einstein's 'relativity theory' as it was widely (and wildly) appropriated outside the small community of theoretical physicists enabled the two opposing moves, while obscuring the historical linkage between physics and linguistics for both.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-165
Number of pages21
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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