LINGUIST List 2.567

Fri 27 Sep 1991

Disc: Einstein

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. John Coleman, RE: 2.558 Linguist
  2. Ralf Thiede, Einstein

Message 1: RE: 2.558 Linguist

Date: Thu, 26 Sep 91 12:05 BST
From: John Coleman <>
Subject: RE: 2.558 Linguist
Re: Einstein the Linguist
The anecdote about Einstein getting the idea of relativity from
linguistics is reported in "The Sound Shape of Language" by
Roman Jakobson and Linda Waugh, p. 17. Einstein lodged with
Winteler when he (Einstein) was a student. Winteler, a phonologist
who worked on Swiss German, developed a concept called "situational
relativity" in his dissertation.
--- John Coleman
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Message 2: Einstein

Date: Wed, 25 Sep 91 13:26:30 EST
From: Ralf Thiede <FEN00RT1UNCCVM.BITNET>
Subject: Einstein
I think Einstein has graduated to a new topic in our discussion, which is
timely because of the current discussion on cultural differences and lan-
guage variation. Geoffrey Russom's recollection that Einstein had some
contact and conversations with a Swiss linguist on "dialectal variation"
and Nancy L. Dray's anecdote on the two letter editors of Einstein and
Roman Jakobson discussing a connection during a party are intriguing. So
far, I think it has been assumed that it was the widespread acceptance of
Einstein's Theory of Relativity which influenced similar observations in
linguistics (to wit: the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis"). For example, at the
Wilhelms-Universitaet Muenster, I studied with Helmut Gipper, whose office
sported an oversized poster of Einstein and who formulated an explicit
link between the principle of relativity in theoretical physics and a
similar principle in linguistics (Helmut Gipper, _Gibt es ein sprachliches
Relativitaetsprinzip?: Untersuchungen zur Sapir-Whorf-Hypothese_, Fischer
Now what if the hints on Einstein's contacts with linguistics can be con-
densed to allow the speculation that the influence was exactly the other
way around, namely, that there was some sort of principle of relativity in
linguistics first before Einstein came up with a similar one in physics?
Anyone who looks at Einstein's letter exchanges, writings, biographies will
not fail to be impressed by the limitless diversity of his interests. Just
look through the index of Nathan and Norden's _Einstein on Peace_. Gipper
himself pointed out that the so-called "Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis could also
be named the "Humboldt-Weisgerber" hypothesis [though he found no evidence
that Whorf read either Wilhelm von Humboldt nor Leo Weisgerber]. Thus we
can document that the idea of human thinking patterns being relative to
the inventory of the available language system and its semantic structures
precedes the idea that motion, velocity, and mass must be defined in re-
lation to each other and that matter, time, and space are interdependent.
Is anyone aware of any influence of 'Humboldtian' thought on Einstein?
P.S.: Of course I'm comparing apples and oranges... :-)
 Ralf Thiede
 UNCC Dept. of English
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