LINGUIST List 2.657

Mon 14 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf

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  1. , RE: 2.632 Whorf
  2. , NONE
  3. , RE: 2.632 Whorf
  4. , 2.636 Whorf

Message 1: RE: 2.632 Whorf

Date: Thu, 10 Oct 1991 17:28:43 EDT
From: <SEGUINVAXS.SSCL.UWO.CA>
Subject: RE: 2.632 Whorf
The posting by Laughlin mentioning the Berlin & Kay work done in the sixties
as "disconfirming" the Whorfian position might be disconfirmed itself by a
more recent study (Kay was a co-author I think) in which there was an effect
on perception attributable to the colour term system of a language. Instead
of finding that speakers of a language such as Tarahumara which doesn't cut
the green-blue line as English does lack the ability to perceive the distinction
(they can do all of the sorting tasks very well), the test discovers that it is
the speakers of English whose perception is skewed. Specifically, the judge-
ments that English speakers make about "how different" pairs of chips are that
are actually spaced evenly along the wave-length continuum are systematically
skewed to "push apart" pairs where a colour term boundary intervenes. As many
of the contributors have noted this is not the sort of effect that most
interested Whorf, but as Laughlin noted it is the field from which many had
thought that definitive disconfirmation had come. So we have met the natives
whose language filters the world -- and they are us.
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Message 2: NONE

Date: Fri, 11 Oct 91 09:58:00 PAC
From: <STEVEROYIDUI1.bitnet>
Subject: NONE
 THE DISCUSSION ON WHORF AND LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY SHOWS AGAIN HOW
DIFFICULT IT IS TO DEMONSTRATE CAUSALITY EMPIRICALLY. HISTORICALLY,
THE DIFFICULTY OF DOING SO FOR THE SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS SUGGESTS THAT
THERE IS NO STRONG CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP. HOWEVER, THE LARGELY NEGATIVE
RESULTS ALSO MAY MEAN THAT THE QUESTIONS WERE NOT QUITE RIGHT. SO FAR
AS I KNOW (NOT VERY FAR) THE EARLY ATTEMPTS TO TEST THE HYPOTHESIS (AS
IT EVOLVED) FOCUSED ON LINGUISTIC INFLUENCE ON THE PERCEPTION AND CATE-
GORIZATION OF ONE'S PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT (COLORS, SHAPES, BASIC TYPES,
ETC.). SINCE CATEGORIZATION OF CONCRETE OBJECTS IS CONSTRAINED (AT
LEAST IN PART, PERHAPS LARGE PART) BY SENSORY RECEPTORS AND LOW-LEVEL
COGNITIVE PROCESSING, PERHAPS IT NEVER WAS REALLY REASONABLE TO EXPECT
LINGUISTIC CATEGORIES TO AFFECT SUCH COGNITIVE CATEGORIES MUCH.
HOWEVER, ONCE WE GO BEYOND CONCRETE CATEGORIES TO ABSTRACT CATEGORIES,
THERE IS MUCH MORE OPPORTUNITY FOR LANGUAGE TO INFLUENCE THINKING.
LAKOFF AND JOHNSON, AND LAKOFF IN MUCH MORE DETAIL IN _WOMEN, FIRE, AND
DANGEROUS THINGS_, HAVE SUGGESTED HOW CATEGORIZATIONS OF SOCIAL,
AFFECTIVE AND CULTURAL ABSTRACTIONS MAY DEVELOP AS METAPHORICAL EXTEN-
SIONS OF CONCRETE CATEGORIZATIONS TO ABSTRACT ONES. OF COURSE, SUCH
CULTURAL ABSTRACTIONS ARE PASSED ALONG LINGUISTICALLY ANYWAY, AND SO TO
TALK ABOUT CAUSALITY MAY BE CIRCULAR, BUT THE HYPOTHESIS SHOULD STILL
RAISE INTERESTING QUESTIONS ABOUT CORRELATIONS IF NOT OUTRIGHT CAUSALITY
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Message 3: RE: 2.632 Whorf

Date: Fri, 11 Oct 1991 13:58:45 -0400 (EDT)
From: <J_LIMBERUNHH.UNH.EDU>
Subject: RE: 2.632 Whorf
I have been struck by the somewhat narrow focus of the discussion about
Whorf and linguistic relativity. Perhaps my personal recollections will
broaden the discussion! As an undergraduate in the late 50s and early 60s it
was commonplace, I'm sure, to read not only about linguistic relativity but
some of Whorf's own writings. I first encountered Whorf in an intro social
psychology class--the several papers in the Newcombe reader which was
widely used. We also used the Saporta reader in an undergraduate
psycholinguistics class. The Saporta volume also contains excerpts from
Whorf and some papers by Lenneberg, Greenberg, Vygotsky, Roger Brown
and an interesting experimental paper.
	Vygotsky, as one might surmise from a "socialist" theorist, was
influenced by various German writers including von HUmboldt--whose
veiws are developed in Brown (1967) and in some papers by Aarsleff
(1982). Similarly the interest in relativity within psychology and linguistics
at the same time is not surprising given the parallel behaviorist climate in
the USA--(the apocryphal "languages can very in infinitely many ways...)
Finally, it is obvious that Kuhn's work follows along the same tradition. As I
try to persuade my students, there is not much more in Kuhn than what
follows from the propositions that "a scientific theory is a language" and
"linguistic relativity is true."
	What is most irksome to me even today in discussions of relativity is
the continued emphasis on the morpheme (the fabled numbers of "words"
for camel, snow, etc.) without recognition that the functional linguistic
referential structure is the phrase or clause.. While there may be interesting
cultural aspects to specific lexical entries--and perhaps some important
implications for memory and information processing, it remains the case that
the unique and fundamental aspect of human languages is in the realm of
syntactically generated "names" for concepts for which no specific morpheme
is available. It is not a coincidence that the earliest relative clauses
 observed
in 2-3 year olds are on empty noun heads like "one, thing, kind, way, place"-
-e.g. "I want one like Lev has."
						John Limber, Psychology,
 University of New Hampshire
Brown, R. L. (1967). Wilhelm Von Humboldt's Conception of Linguistic
Relativity . The Hague: Mouton.
Rheingold, H. (1988). They Have A Word For It. . Los Angeles: Jeremy P.
Tarcher, Inc.
Saporta, S. (1960) (Ed) Psycholinguistics : A book or readings. HOlt Rinehart
Newcombe etc. ?? (1958??) (Eds) Readings in Social Psychology
Vygotsky Language and Thought
Kuhn, T. (1960?) Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd Ed)
Aarsleff, H. (1982). From Locke to Saussure . Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
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Message 4: 2.636 Whorf

Date: Thu, 10 Oct 91 17:58:12 EDT
From: <Alexis_Manaster_Ramermts.cc.wayne.edu>
Subject: 2.636 Whorf
I am very grateful to those who have written in to note that
the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was NOT what Whorf (or
a fortiori Sapir) maintained. And also to those who have
written in reminding us of the results, such the Berlin and
Kay ones, that seem in fact to support the Un-Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis. However, it should be noted that these results
do NOT show a causal relation going from language to cognition.
Indeed, the often-noted fact that color terminologies seem
to become more and more complex as the speakers' material
culture becomes more and more complex would argue for
precisely the opposite causality: People find they need to distinguish
more colors because of material, nonlinguistic reasons, and then
devise the necessary linguistic means to formalize the distinctions.
I would also like to address briefly the question of a connection
with Humboldt. As I noted in my first message on the subject of
Whorf, Whorf (like most of his contemporaries) PRESUPPOSED the
existence of a connection between language and cognition, a
connection which Humboldt was one of the first (if not the first)
to make. The issue is very simple,really. Before Humboldt and
others like him, the standard way of describing languages was
in terms of how they would be glossed in some Western metalanguage
like Latin or Spanish. This is why people were perfectly happy
to describe ergative constructions (in e.g. Greenlandic) or
"active" ones (e.g., in Huron and Guarani, see Mithun's recent
Language article) without noticing anything odd. They would just
say that the subject and the verb had different forms in transitive
as opposed to intransitive constructions. People like Humboldt
came up with the revolutionary idea of describing languages in
their own terms, which meant that the superficial patterns of each language had
 to be taken at face value.
Hence, Humboldt's argument that Malayo-polynesian verbs are
really nouns, for example. Or later arguments by various people
that ergatives are really passives (or other things). But
that then made it imperative to explain why exotic peoples
say things that we would not, e.g., why do they use "nouns"
instead of verbs or "passives" instead of actives. And the
explaination, of course, was that they THINK differently from
us as well. Whorf, like almost all his contemporaries, was
steeped in this way of thinking, but certainly did not originate
it. As I noted before, his point to show just HOW EXOTIC languages
could get, and this he tried to do by discussing the Hopi treatment
of time, events, and quantities.
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