Performative vs. Descriptive

The term "performative utterances" was coined by John Langshaw Austin ("How to do things with words"; Harvard University Press, 1962) and names a class of linguistic constructions. Example:

"I name this ship the 'Enterprise'."

As it were, at the moment of speaking becomes this statement "reality". Also the sentence

"She / He is the one."

can be used performatively. Another example from everyday life:

"Hereby we dissociate ourselves from the contents of all linked sites."

It has been pointed out by Austin and others, that such constructions result in meaningful statements only in a certain social and semiotic environment. I.e. the attention of certain rules is necessary. With "It shall be light" it functions rather rarely.

A phenomenon: The terms "lifelong learning" or "sustainable economic development" come along, nobody actually knows from where, and our handling of the terms suggests, that the contents would be new, and until the terms coinage not existent. Which is not correct, these terms designate established facts, possibly pointed, or from a special perspective, which is actually not expressed. Or they use well-known facts, which came so far without an explicit term, in order to introduce a new content.

Immanuel Kant wrote: "Percepts without concepts are blind, concepts without percepts are meaningless / Intuitions without concepts are blind, concepts without intuitions are empty".

Benjamin Lee Whorf: The principle of linguistic relativity

Most languages have a grammatical gender system which assigns all objects (e.g., cows, noses, and toasters) a gender. This is done in spite the fact that objects don't actually have a biological gender. In some languages only masculine and feminine genders are used, but most also assign neuter genders.

It has been argued that the assignment of a grammatical gender to an object is semantically irrelevant.

Mark Twain noted, in German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. [...] a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female tomcats included, of course;

The grammatical genders assigned to objects vary greatly across languages. For example, the sun is feminine in German, but masculine in Spanish and French, and neuter in Russian. The moon is feminine in Spanish, French and Russian, but masculine in German.


Edward Sapir identified in the early 1900's the concept, that language defines the way a person perceives the surrounding world and that thus language, to some extent, determines the way a person thinks and behaves.


Benjamin Whorf, one of his students, picked up on the idea of linguistic determinism and developed it, based on his studies of the Hopi language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was born. The main idea: language is not just a way of voicing ideas, but is the underlying substrate which shapes and, more importantly, also confines our ideas and our view of the world.

There is an ongoing debate within the linguistic field, what exactly this means: from a strict position of absolute determinism to a moderate view, that language merely "shapes" or "influences" our thoughts a lot of slightly different positions are found. Unfortunately, the terms "influence" etc. are not clearly defined, nor are the assumed effects of determinism of the mother tongue, when a person learns a second language well analyzed.

Whorf developed his idea on several observations, the most famous being the existence of a plethora of words for "snow" in the Inuit language, which outnumbers the words for "snow" in the English language. Since snow is an important part of their daily life, it seems appropriate to develop a language, which uses more refined expressions for snow, than, say, for a language used by a population based in the desert.

Later studies (The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, Geoffrey K. Pullum, 1991) claimed that if you do include phrases, and not only words, the English language has a comparable ability to describe different forms of "snow". The basic idea is, that also the vocabulary of some languages might be more efficient or precise in describing certain aspects of the world; others just transmit the same perceptions / ideas / thoughts by using a different approach (e.g. more words).