LINGUIST List 2.682

Fri 18 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis

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  1. "Bruce E. Nevin", interest in II, not III
  2. "Bruce E. Nevin", more on W-S Hypothesis
  3. Margaret Fleck, neuroscience and Sapir-Whorf

Message 1: interest in II, not III

Date: Thu, 17 Oct 91 09:06:02 EDT
From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <>
Subject: interest in II, not III
I wrote yesterday re the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis:
>It would be interesting to see a resumption of attention to
>III e.g. employing techniques developed for study of non-human
I meant to say "a resumption of attention to II," which is where the
greatest intrinsic interest lies:
 II. The structure of anyone's native language strongly influences or fully
 determines the world-view he will acquire as he learns the language.
 (p. 128)
	Bruce Nevin
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Message 2: more on W-S Hypothesis

Date: Thu, 17 Oct 91 10:13:00 EDT
From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <>
Subject: more on W-S Hypothesis
I might as well include some additional material relating to the
Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis. Construe this as continuing from the end of my
post yesterday. (That includes the possible response of deleting it
now if your reading of the prior part so indicates to you.)
In formal linguistics, Zellig Harris and his co-workers have come full
circle to the work on information structures in discourse that opened
the whole field of transformational grammar. Harris, Ryckman, Gottfried
et al. _The Form of Information in Science_ (1990) develops a
representation of the information immanent in a body of texts written
over a span of years in the history of a subfield of a science
(immunology). Changes in this structure correlate transparently with
historically well-documented changes and developmental stages of the
science during that period, although the structure was determined by
clearly defined formal means and without reference to any knowledge of
that historical context. In this way, they have demonstrated strongly
that structures found in the sublanguage of that science (and not
imposed a priori on it) correlate on the one hand with aspects of the
social reality of the science and on the other with the structure of the
real-world domain which is the concern of that science. The latter
correlation is reflexive, however, in the sense that, as the structure
changed, it (and the undestanding of the scientists writing the original
research reports on which the analysis was done) over time came into
closer conformity with a reality whose nature was in process of being
discovered. Before that change, certain characteristics of reality
could not be stated or thought; afterward, they could. But the
discovery and the change in structure were simultaneous (though of
course the writing down for publication was not). No better
confirmation could be offered of Sapir's claim of the essential unity of
language and thought by one of his students.
5. The confirmation is equivocal, however, since the work clearly
demonstrates (as Harris stated at the end of _Mathematical Structures of
Language_ (Wiley, 1968)) that language is not identical with thought but
instead provides a rather rigid channel for thought. This corresponds
precisely to the observation above that the discovery and the language
for talking about it co-evolved. By using this term I refer
specifically to the common misperception regarding biological evolution
that e.g. eohippus evolved into the horse in response to environmental
changes, when one must instead acknowledge eohippus and its environment
co-evolved into the horse and its environment. Synecdoche is fallacious
in both cases.
To illustrate this point further, I should like to adduce a recent
contribution to the enormous literature in the study of kinship
categories, always a favorite topic in anthropological linguistics.
Wierzbicka, in Semantics and the interpretation of cultures: the meaning
of 'alternate generations' devices in australian languages, proposes a
new set of metalanguage terms for discussing the alternate sets of
pronouns used in many Australian languages. She urges that the
terminology of "generation harmony" and "disharmony" that has become
traditional in anthropology is arcane and psychologically arbitrary,
does not capture native speakers' meaning and does not make that meaning
accessible to people from other cultures, and claims that her new
terminology provides a better fit. This paper illustrates a Whorfian
effect in the sublanguage of a specialization within the science of
anthropology. With the traditional terminology, aspects of aborigine
culture are difficult to come to recognize and understand, and not
possible to communicate; she claims that with the proposed new
terminology it is.<6> Thus, while providing an illustration of Whorfian
6. This is part of ongoing work on natural language semantics based,
ultimately, on a proposed set of universal semantic primitives,
including: I,you, this, someone, something, want, don't want, say,
think of, imagine, know, become, part, place, and world (Wierzbicka,
Semantic Primitives (1972), Lingua Mentalis (1980). Be it noted
that Harris denies there can be a lingua mentalis or any metalanguage
external to natural language. For one thing, were there such one would
need to account for the grammar and semantics of that metalanguage. For
another, he has demonstrated that the information structures immanent in
texts account precisely for the information that the texts report, so
that, like LaPlace, he has no need for this additional hypothesis. All
this notwithstanding, Wierzbicka's proposal here concerns a sublanguage
serving as metalanguage for a subfield of anthropology.
effects within a subfield of a science, she proposes to overcome such
effects by devising a perfect metalanguage for that subfield. Since the
subfield concerns an area that is by nature a matter of social
convention and so in social reality rather than physical reality (to
make that Durckheimian distinction again), she may be able to get away
with it. I do not doubt the creativity of human cultures, however, and
would build in means for the sublanguage to evolve.
An abiding interest of Harris, as of his teacher Sapir, has been the
question of refinements and possibly extensions of natural language that
foster international scientific communication. In his analysis,
language-particular characteristics due to the reduction system
(extended morphophonemics) of one language or another are partitioned
from operator-argument structures that `carry' information, which are
remarkably uniform from one language to another. This uniformity
becomes very close indeed in the grammar of a science sublanguage, where
classifications and selection restrictions are much more closely
constrained than in other domains. But even in nontechnical domains
Harris has a great deal to say about linguistic universals,<7> and about
the distinctions between what is universal in language and culture and
what is idiosyncratic and therefore pertinent to the Whorf-Sapir
7. See e.g. _Language and Information_ (Columbia 1989) and _A Theory of
Language and Information_ (Oxford, 1990), which is a more philosophical
companion volume to _A Grammar of English on Mathematical Principles_
(Wiley 1982).
	c 1991 Bruce Nevin
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Message 3: neuroscience and Sapir-Whorf

Date: Thu, 17 Oct 91 11:04:07 -0500
From: Margaret Fleck <>
Subject: neuroscience and Sapir-Whorf
I have some sympathy with Charles Laughlin's position that one might
eventually want to use information from neuroscience to establish
the truth of, and mechanisms behind, nature vs. nurture type questions.
However, from my experience in computer vision, the information
available from the neuroscientists is still rough and preliminary,
even for the lowest levels of sensory processing. Much of what we know
about human abilities is via psychophysics, not neuroscience. Even then,
the information is only suggestive, not enough to be able to outline
(still less construct the details of) formal or computational theories.
By the time you get up to the level of shape perception and object
recognition, the information on humans is fragmentary, pretheoretical,
and pretty damn near useless. At higher-levels, e.g. describing spatial
arrangments of objects and their behavior, even the psychophysics
peters out.
This is not intended to run down the neuroscientists. They are doing as
well as we have any right to expect. But they are not in a position to
solve my low level problems, let alone the high level ones that make
up the bulk of the S-W discussion.
Margaret Fleck
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