LINGUIST List 2.632

Wed 09 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf

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  1. Allan C. Wechsler, 2.610 Whorfian relativism
  2. Niko Besnier, Whorf again

Message 1: 2.610 Whorfian relativism

Date: Tue, 8 Oct 1991 11:05-0400
From: Allan C. Wechsler <ACWYUKON.SCRC.Symbolics.COM>
Subject: 2.610 Whorfian relativism
In the fifties, Brown and Lenneburg did some research on color-naming
that is relevant to the history of linguistic "Whorfian" relativism.
This is described in an article (by Brown?) in tribute to Eric
(?) Lenneburg in some old issue of LI, perhaps from 1974. I'm sorry I
don't have the reference at hand. But I recall that it was a
well-written and intriguing piece.
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Message 2: Whorf again

Date: Tue, 08 Oct 91 13:23:10 EDT
Subject: Whorf again
Re.: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and "popular" beliefs, cf. most
recently Bob LeChevalier in 2:610
The reason why linguistic anthropologists "still" believe in some
version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (SWH) is not that they know
less about language than mainstream linguists (many fields have
much to say about language, and it is a delusion to think that any
one field has a monopoly on the subject), but that they focus on
language in a different way from linguists. The prototypical
anthropological paradigm focuses on diversity, on the particular,
and builds theory on the particular, looking at, for example,
relational patterns between the particular in language and the
particular in society and culture. This contrasts with the avowed
universalism extant in most linguistic paradigms. Having been
"brought up" in the latter paradigm, to then move to some version
of the former, I am at a loss to decide that one is "better," more
intellectually worthwhile, etc., than the other. I doubt that mud-
slinging ("butterfly collector!" "universalist-schmuniversalist!")
will get either field very far.
There *is* room for the SWH in a particularistic approach to
language. But what it has to be grounded on is a careful reading
of poor Whorf, who must be on the most misread (unread?) thinkers
of the century. Interpretations of Whorf extant amongst mainstream
linguists have little to do with what Whorf actually wrote, and
this had led linguists to call the man by all sorts of names (e.g.
"weekend linguist"--Geoffrey Pullum in _NLLT_). It is telling, for
example, that in my linguistic training at two institutions I was
never required to read a single original text by Whorf. To a
certain extent this is understandable, since Whorf wrote in an
opaque, dense style.
John Lucy ("Whorf's view of the linguistic mediation of thought,"
in _Semiotic Mediation_, ed. by Elizabeth Mertz & Richard
Parmentier, Academic P, 1985) shows that one of the important
aspects of the SWH missing from laypersons' accounts (i.e. accounts
by those who have not read Whorf) is that Whorf is not talking
about determinism by all of language of all aspects of world view.
Rather, *fashions of speaking* determine *habitual thought*.
Fashions of speaking are broad patternings of grammatical
categories and discourse strategies in a language, across what
Whorf calls *overt* and *covert* categories. Areas of language
where one should seek "weak" determinism (the strong version of
determinism was never advocated by Whorf, but by subsequent
linguists who never seem to have read Whorf) are in fact very
different from areas that Whorf is usually said to have claimed to
be deterministic. I'd point to work like that of Elinor Ochs as
example of where determinism is to be found between language and
habitual thought: the shape of, even the presence/absence of baby
talk in a speech community, provides a pretty strong deterministic
"lesson" to language acquirers about the relationship between
structure (=institutions) and agency (=person) extant in the
society, i.e. about the type of things that social theorists worry
This posting is already too long, but I'd like to point to Alan
Rumsey's (1990) paper, "Wording, Meaning, and Linguistic Ideology,"
_American Anthropologist_ 92:346-361, for an excellent discussion
of where Whorfianism works.
Niko Besnier
Department of Anthropology
Yale University
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Message 3: SAPIR-WHORF

Date: Tue, 08 Oct 91 17:51 EDT
Re: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
It is curious that no one has mentioned some of the most interesting
research relative to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- that done by
Brent Berlin and Paul Kay on basic color terms. Their book,
BASIC COLOR TERMS (University of California Press, 1969), is a
classic in anthropological linguistics, and they have gone on to
produce more evidence over the years, published in various papers
(if anyone is interested in refs, I'll dig them up).
Their argument runs something like this. If the S-W hypothesis is
true, at least in its strong form, then we would expect natural
continua like the visual spectrum to be categorically chopped
up at random. If culture is the only variable at play, then there
should be a great number of ways that language expresses color.
In fact, they found that how languages discriminate the color
spectrum is extremely lawful and predictable. Languages appear to
scale between those languages exhibiting the fewest basic color terms
to those exhibiting the maximum basic color terms. This is as one
would expect if universal (perhaps heritable biological) factors
determine how the mind discriminates the spectrum.
So far as I am aware, the Berlin and Kay researches are the best
empirical tests yet done of the S-W hypothesis, and it is disconfirmed.
I would be interested in any other good empirical tests of the
hypothesis that have been carried out and of which I am unaware.
Charles Laughlin
Department of Sociology & Anthropology
Carleton University
Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6
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