Date: Tue, 8 Nov 1994 01:06:21 -0800 From: Dan Alford Subject: FYI -- hot debate shaping up on LINGUIST re: Whorf I know this will be repetitious for some of you who are cross-subscribed (you can delete any time!), but I thought the others might like to peek in, and maybe even cross-discuss (but no cross replies, please!). It started with this posting: >> Date: Sun, 06 Nov 1994 09:59:38 -0500 (EST) From: "Leslie Z. Morgan" Subject: Re: 5.1239 Eskimo "snow" The returned discussion of "snow" in Eskimo has brought my thoughts around to a related issue which I do not recall having seen discussed on _Linguist_ since I've subscribed: the Sapir- Whorf hypothesis. I just read an article in _Foreign Language Annals_ 27.3, "Awareness of Text Structure: Is There a Match Between Readers and Authors of Second Language Texts?" by Sally A. Hague and Rene'e Scott (343-363), where one of the hypotheses in examining Spanish texts is that they will differ because of the difference in culture-set ways of writing (based on articles by Kaplan (1966 & 1976). In fact, their sample DOES NOT show such a difference. I was under the impression that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is generally NOT accepted and is somewhat of an error in interpre- tation. A dean here has cited the hypothesis (without knowing that is what he was citing) as the main reason for studying foreign languages. Does anyone have some suggestions of readable refutations of Sapir-Whorf, something one could send students, deans, etc. to? Or is this a returning issue that is under debate? Thank you- I'll summarize responses for the list. Leslie Morgan MORGAN[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]LOYOLA.EDU or MORGAN[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]LOYVAX.BITNET >> To which I replied ----------------------------------------- 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.] NOTES: [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> <-- John Lennon>