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Defending Sapir-Whorf

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David Jones

on 25 September 2012

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Transcript of Defending Sapir-Whorf

Defending Sapir-Whorf
ENG 776
Beth Couture and Dave Jones
25 Sept 12 Edward Sapir, 1884-1939 Benjamin Lee Whorf, 1897-1941 - Student of Franz Boas
- Inspired to study Native American languages
(Navajo, Nootka, Paiute, Takelma, Yana) "Father of Modern Anthropology"
Cultural Relativism: elements of a culture
are meaningful in that culture's terms even if they may be meaningless in a another culture - Developed understanding of Chinook sound system
- Sapir carefully noted native speakers' intuition regarding sound patterns
- Developed (1929) a revised classification scheme for "American Indian Languages North of Mexico" -- part of the "lumper" movement in Native American language classification (assigns examples broadly, assuming that differences are less important than signature similarities) "Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation." - Interest in Biblical mysticism led Whorf to
a desire to study Hebrew and Mayan glyphs
- Conducted extensive fieldwork in Mexico
- At Yale, studied under Sapir (who was already impressed by Whorf's fieldwork)
- Subsequent field study of Hopi (Arizona) "We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees." - Fire Prevention Engineer (Hartford Fire Insurance Company)
- Language affects habitual behavior ("empty" gas drums)
- Religious Theosophist ("divine wisdom")
- Linguistic interest stoked by deep reading of Bible passages
(wrote a semantic and grammatical analysis of Biblical Hebrew) - Interest in Biblical mysticism led Whorf to
a desire to study Hebrew and Mayan glyphs
- Conducted extensive fieldwork in Mexico
- At Yale, studied under Sapir (who was already impressed with Whorf's field-related writings
- Subsequent field study of Hopi (Arizona) The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Linguistic Determinism Strong Weak Language determines thought
and limits cognitive categories Linguistic categories and usage
influence thought and other
non-linguistic behaviors Language affects the ways in which
speakers conceptualize their worlds Linguistic Relativism People who speak different languages
understand and think about the
world differently The underlying concept:
the way we perceive the world around us
varies with the languages we know --
even though we perceive the same things
in the same manner with the same equipment Sapir-Whorf Examples Inuit and "Snow" ("snow on the ground") APUT ("falling snow") QANA PIQSIRPOQ ("drifting snow") QIMUQSUQ ("snowdrift") Originally Boas's hypothesis (1910),
referred to in a
1940 paper by Whorf

The rub: are these perceived by the Inuit as various forms of the same idea or as separate concepts altogether? -Whorf: Hopi have "no words, grammatical forms,
constructions, or expressions that refer directly to what we call 'time'..." (1940)
-Pinker interprets Whorf's contention to mean that the Hopi are "oblivious to time"
-Whorf's suggestion is that the Hopi don't see time and tense the way that we (SAE) do ... their system allows them to refer to events without using specific "time markers" Hopi and "Time" What does that mean?
- Whorf continues to analyze differences between Hopi and SAE:
English speakers can pluralize concrete ("three dogs") and imaginary nouns ("three days")
- While the concrete "dogs" may differ in a number of ways, the imaginary "days" must represent equal length
- Time is subjective, but English speakers objectify it by chunking it into known quantities
- Whorf's theory: if our way of counting imaginary objects is commonsense, then speakers of different languages must do the same ... if they don't, then our way of thinking isn't universally commonsense ... this implies that our language influences the way we perceive imaginary objects (i.e., time) So, do the Hopi do as we do?
No, they don't count imaginary nouns
("They stayed for ten days" vs "They left on the eleventh day")
This leaves the subjective quality of time intact
(things happening later and later, rather than after a number of cycles) Going further:
- For us, time is carved into quantities (seasons, months, etc.) ... "Summer" is a defined period of time
- The Hopi use phase terms (like "morning") as adverbs, not as nouns ... The SAE construction "It's summer" translates to the Hopi "It's hot and dry right now"
- There is no "this summer" in Hopi, only "summer now" or "summer recently" So what's the difference?
- In English, it's convenient for us to separate time
into past, present, and future
- The Hopi need only have two: the experienced and the yet-to-be experienced
- In this way, the Hopi can express all the phenomena of the world without the need to develop a concept of linear time This example elaborates on Whorf's actual hypothesis of culture and language: "in the main, they have grown up together, constantly influencing each other" Whorf and Einstein - Whorf saw a relationship between his concept of linguistic relativity and the quantum relativity of Einstein's fame
- Scientists realized that normal words couldn't effectively describe Einstein's theories (many of his postulates are counterintuitive)
- Whorf thought that it might have much to do with the way our language is constructed - For example, we are confused by experiments that show the effect of two electrons where only one is present (like the metaphorical sound of one hand clapping)
- Whorf suggests that our language forces us to assume an implied actor where none is present
(i.e., "It is raining")
- In Whorf's fieldwork with the Nootka tribe, he found that they do not have subjects or objects, rather simply verbs that imply what we call nouns
- For these speakers, action can occur independent of an actor
- Whorf hypothesized that we might better understand the complexities of quantum physics if we could make a conscious effort to make our physics-related language less agent-dependent Critiques of the Sapir-Whorf Critics
- Lenneberg (1953): SAE speakers can understand how the Hopi think but can't actually think in such terms
- Lakoff (1990s): culture-specific metaphors
- Lucy (1980s-90s): structure-centered, domain centered, behavior centered
Even a self-critique:
- Pinker (2007): "When I wrote this chapter, the Whorfian hypothesis was largely out of favor among linguists and psychologists, but the pendulum has swung back, and there is now a lively neo-Whorfian movement. In The Stuff of Thought, I argue that the problem with the idea that language affects thought is not that it's entirely wrong but that there are many ways in which language can affect thought, and people tend to blur them together." Pinker continues:
"In the new book, I argue that the major conclusion in "Mentalese" is right -- we think not in our native language but in more abstract media of thought"
But, Whorf had already written (in 1956):
Language is "in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before communication ... and which also can, at a pinch, effect communication without language's and without symbolism's aid" References:
- Brunett, A. (2006) The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The Linguist List. Retrieved from http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/sapir.cfm
- Pinker, S. (2007) The Language Instinct: How the mind creates language. New York. Harper Perennial.
- Woolard, K. (2012) Linguistic Relativity, Whorf, Linguistic Anthropology. Society for Linguistic Anthropology. Retrieved from http://linguisticanthropology.org/blog/2010/09/01/linguistic-relativity-whorf-linguistic-anthropology/
- Yee, N. (2006) What Whorf Really Said. Retrieved from http://www.nickyee.com/ponder/whorf.html
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