LINGUIST List 10.1268

Tue Aug 31 1999

Disc: Re:Universal Word Order

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. JFThiels, Re: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

Message 1: Re: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

Date: Mon, 30 Aug 1999 20:19:28 EDT
From: JFThiels <>
Subject: Re: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

	In a message dated 99-08-30 19:42:26 EDT, you write:
	<< Now, suppose the woman eats the apple and visits her boyfriend, who offers
	 to cook dinner for her. According to the SVO rationale and Sapir-Whorf, the
	 woman realizes that she has already eaten before she realizes that the apple
	 is what she ate. Thus, cognitive perception of the preterit, 'to eat',
	 precedes perception of the direct object, 'the apple'. SOV speakers,
	 therefore, must modify the order of cognitive perception to fit the word
	 order demands of their languages. >>
	I think it is important to clarify here what one can actually find out from 
	the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and what it refers to; there are two versions, the 
	strong version (which a careful reading of Sapir will dispel) and a weaker 
	version which is not usually contested as such. The following are from my 
	class notes from linguistics with Dr. Judith Irvine, who has compiled many of 
	Sapir's collected works and reconstructed his lectures on the Psychology of 
	The strong version holds that language determines perception and therefore 
	expression...this is not what Sapir ever wrote. Whorf said some things which 
	could be read that way, but even then, considering that his articles were 
	written for engineers not acquainted with linguistics, it is important to 
	read very carefully and consider what his inclusion of the diagrams meant.
	The hypothesis makes three propositions about language and thought:
	First, there is the issue of linguistic relativism:
	1) Ways of thought are intimately related to the structure of language 
	(Questions: what is meant by thinking? What are the relevant linguistic 
	2) Relative linguistic structures significantly differ between language
	3) There is a causative link between some structures of language and the 
	thinking of its speakers. Does that link influence only habitual, 
	inattentive thinking (weak version) or does it absolutely determine or 
	control or prevent alternatives (stronger version)
	The geneology of this idea is through Boas, Sapir and Whorf. Boas, who was 
	one of the first to argue against the randomness of sounds made by speakers 
	of indigenous American languages (oh, how far we've come) spoke a lot about 1 
	and 2, and very little about three...where he came close was in the 
	obligatoriness of certain categories for speakers of particular languages. 
	Jakobson took this up in his paper on Boas, pointing out for example, that 
	languages that force the speaker to reveal the gender of a friend 
	(amigo/amiga) do so...English, for example does not and if someone asks , "Is 
	it a male or female friend", the English speaker can reply "It's none of your 
	business." English does not, however, prevent one from noticing the gender 
	of one's friend. (Neither does Portuguese, either)
	The strongest point Sapir himself made in this direction was in stating that 
	language is an essential part of the determination of SOCIAL life, but he did 
	not say the material world or the perception of it. Whorf, who came closest 
	to stating #3 in strong terms, was not writing for linguists, and was talking 
	about what language forced you to notice about the material world and the 
	strength of convention in habitual thinking and expression. These are hardly 
	earth-shaking propositions if, admittedly, difficult to test by today's 
	standards. Much of the testing that has been done has been with categories 
	directly linked to lexical items and color terms that are as close as 
	possible to hard-wired in. These are probably the least interesting aspects 
	of language to investigate and also very easily manipulated by consciousness. 
	There is so much ink spilled in condemning or misunderstanding Sapir for his 
	supposed hypothesis, but actually testing it is difficult. If people are 
	actually interested, John Lucy has published two books on the hypothesis and 
	his experiments with speakers of a Mayan language in classifying certain 
	kinds of objects. I have not read his books carefully but I have heard they 
	are worth a look. 
	There is also a collection of papers looking at S-W called "Rethinking 
	Linguistic Relativity" (I have neither "bold" nor "underline" right now) that 
	you can look at with a multiplicity of views...
	Michael Silverstein of the University of Chicago has published a couple of 
	papers which might be interesting on this point. One from 1984 is called 
	"The Limits of Awareness" and another is "Shifters, Linguistic Categories and 
	Cultural Description," republished in a book called Language, Culture and 
	Society (Waveland Press). 
	By the way, what about the VSO languages (such as Irish Gaelic) and OSV 
	(Malagasy)... German also makes you wait for the main verb quite often, 
	although its basic formula is SVO (Like this contribution, you have to wait 
	until the end to get to another point...)
	All the best in your thinking
	John Thiels
	Ph.D. candidate
	Brandeis University
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