The ([Anti-]Sapir-)Whorf Hypothesis
Leslie Z. Morgan wants to know why we haven't discussed the infamous
hypothesis. Before we do, I'd like to weigh in with what will undoubtedly
be a minority opinion. I'm bypassing the usual summarizing process in
hopes of shaping any discussion.
By "the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis", what exactly are you referring to? I
usually take it to mean any of four or five hypotheses (with such names as
perception, non-translatability, circularity of evidence, cognition, etc.)
found in the critical literature of linguistics, anthropology, psychology and
sociology. If that's what you're referring to, I can save you and all of us the
trouble -- not only do most or all of the critics think it's wrong, so do
Whorfian supporters like me! And Whorf refuted most of those before
critics ever came up with them, so this rejection is no reflection on him.
The ([Anti-]Sapir-)Whorf Hypothesis was all a bad mistake, founded on
insensitive misreading (and perhaps non-reading, as critics read mainly
each other) of Sapir and Whorf, and we wasted a lot of time trying to "test"
it, and now maybe it's over. Kaput. Finis. There's really no reason to send
people to refutations -- it's wrong, ill-conceived from the beginning, never
happened-- WHICHEVER version they happen to be citing. [N1]
Now if you want to talk about the linguistic relativity principle that Whorf
wrote (note: principle is what he called it, not hypothesis -- apples and
oranges in scientific terminology and must be treated entirely differently),
and talk about its Einsteinian pedigree (Whorf extended Einstein's limited
geometry problem to natural language in general [N2]) or its
Locke/Herder/von Humboldt/Boas/Sapir pedigree before Whorf cast it into
formal scientific language [N3], which was probably his main contribution
in the historical sequence, then we might talk very fruitfully about that.
Or we could explore the linguistic relativity principle as a case in point for
how Whorf was attempting to update the notion of *science* for linguists
while physics was forging forward from its Newtonian principles into the
new worldviews and principles of relativity and quanta -- toward whole
systems, dynamic and interactive, where opposites are complementary
rather than bipolar. We could talk about how Whorf's most 'damning'
statements look quite different in a systems perspective than in a model that
promotes monocausal determinism as REAL. And we could talk about how
at least four different disciplines crucified him for this -- and for asking
linguistics in particular to raise its THEORIES to the same systems level
that its METHODOLOGIES have always been, balancing form and
meaning. (I tell my graduate students from various departments to look
within their own discipline for who it is that everybody's ganging up on and
see what it is they're trying to keep people from knowing -- it's worth at
least a thesis every time!)
In fact, we could even go further and show how Whorf's insights very
seriously influenced physicist David Bohm in the last years of his life as he
attempted to discover whether Whorf's reply [N4] to Heisenberg's famous
lament about our European languages was true -- but I can't really go into
that here. Maybe privately if you're interested.
So maybe, in order to discuss the linguistic relativity principle cogently, if
it is this instead of the ([Anti-]Sapir-)Whorf Hypothesis that we want to
discuss, we need to bring in some extra-linguistics, cross-disciplinary data
-- like understanding the basic insights of this century's physics, the way
Whorf did; in my over 25 years in linguistics, however, I have found few
linguists who care.
And before we start, we should probably put John Lucy's two _Language
diversity and thought_ volumes on the table as the most comprehensive and
sensitive treatment to date of this and many related issues.
So if we can cast our discussions into this kind of framework, maybe we'll
actually get somewhere for the first time, and maybe even talk about
interesting ideas! If we want to talk about something particular that
Whorf wrote, let's cite page numbers and get to it -- I'll be happy to
join such a discussion. But if all you want to do is indulge in some
customary Whorf-bashing, as the tone of your post indicates, then
don't look for me.
[Morgan: Is this what you wanted, or just something simple to rub your
dean's nose in? But thanks, from me at least, for opening this thread up.]
[N1] Alford, "The Demise of the Whorf Hypothesis". BLS-4, 1978
[N2] Alford, "Is Whorf's Relativity Einstein's Relativity?" BLS-7, 1981
[N3] Alford, "A Hidden Cycle in the History of Linguistics -- out of print,
defunct journal called PHOENIX: New Directions in the Study of Man
[N4] Whorf, "An American Indian Model of the Universe"
-- Moonhawk (%- )
"The fool on the hill sees the sun going down and
the eyes in his head see the world spinning round"
-- John Lennon