LINGUIST List 2.670

Thu 17 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf Part 1

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , on the SW hypothesis

Message 1: on the SW hypothesis

Date: Tue, 15 Oct 1991 13:38 EET
Subject: on the SW hypothesis
The strong version of the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is
falsified if it can be shown that conceptual thinking is
possible independently of language. Now, consider profoundly deaf
children with very deficient linguistic capacities. It is more
probable than not that they can think conceptually independently of
 Martti Nyman
 Dept of General Linguistics, Univ of Helsinki, Finland
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: MORE ON SWH

Date: Tue, 15 Oct 91 10:45 EDT
Subject: MORE ON SWH
The psychologist, Henry A. Murray said it best, I think: "In some
ways all men are alike, in some ways some men are alike, and in
some ways no men are alike." But depending upon one's taste,
personal history, cultural background, or theoretical
orientation, one may have a bias toward seeing one set of ways
more clearly than, or to the exclusion of, the other sets of
ways. Euroamerican cultures make it more difficult than most
because of an inherent, prescientific world view characterized by
a mind-body dualism which predisposes its scientists and
philosophers toward polarizations like "determinism vs. free
will," "realism vs. idealism," "structure vs function, or
content," "nature vs. culture," "cultural universalism vs.
relativism," and so on. It is ever thus.
This dualism inevitably surfaces in discussions of the SWH and
evaluations of evidence for and against the notion that culture
or personal history may influence perception. As the initiator
of the present discussion noted -- correctly I think -- most
everyone accepts at least a soft form of the SWH. The trouble
is, most do not seem to have a frame of reference for believing
in panhuman universals. This is because linguistics (and
especially my discipline, anthropology) has yet to become really
permeable to the (now largely interdisciplinary) neurosciences.
Without grounding in the neurosciences, all approaches to
cultural or linguistic universals remain deductive. And as we
all know, any explanandum may be derived from a variety of
explanans, any behavior from a variety of structures, any effect
from a variety of causes. Only through the neurosciences can we
look at structures directly.
All considered, the best picture of the influence of culture and
language on perception from a neuroscience perspective is one of
partial penetrance. THere is no such thing as a human neural
system that does not develop to some extent relative to the
environment. On the other hand, some systems develop less than,
and sooner in life than, other systems. All in all, the closer
to the sensory structures of the nervous system one looks, the
less influence language and culture have upon their organization
and function, and the closer to higher cortical structures one
looks, the more open to linguistic and cultural influences. Keep
in mind that all sensory systems are in place and functioning all
the way to the cortical level BEFORE BIRTH. And most of the
postpartum neural development at the sensory level of perception
is completed within the first 6 months or so after birth.
Generally speaking, the higher in the nervous system one looks,
the longer the development takes. it seems to me that only by
incorporating the neurosciences into our perspectives that we can
actually operationalize Henry Murray's balanced approach to how
all, some, and no humans are alike.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue