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