LINGUIST List 5.1449

Wed 14 Dec 1994

Disc: Sapir-Whorf, Words for snow

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  1. Logical Language Group, Sapir-Whorf
  2. , Re: 5.1401 Sum: Snow

Message 1: Sapir-Whorf

Date: Mon, 12 Dec 1994 03:10:05 Sapir-Whorf
From: Logical Language Group <>
Subject: Sapir-Whorf

)From: David Prager Branner (
)Subject: Pseudo-summary: Eskimo Snow
)The third issue is a major theoretical shibboleth, of which the
)Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis represents one view - the so-called relativistic
)view. People often talk about "proving" or "disproving" Sapir-Whorf,
)which seems to me to overlook the two chief facts about the controversy.
)One is that Sapir-Whorf is not really a hypothesis at all, but an
)ideology, an axiom, a world view, a philosophical standpoint. We can no
)more prove or disprove it than we can prove or disprove Muslim theology
)or Polish drinking customs. It is because unprovable philosophical
)positions are involved that there is such heated dispute about
)The other thing is that if you put Sapir-Whorf into a form that makes it
)honestly testable in some concrete way, you are usually dealing with
)psychology, and psychology is far enough from linguistics that any
)results are easy for linguistic ideology to ignore. Even though a
)number of experiments have been done - tests involving conceptualization
)of color, among others - it doesn't appear that many linguists on either
)side of the debate have changed their views because of them.
)In that form in which it is often articulated, Sapir-Whorf is obvious,
)even trivial - anyone who has tried doing idiomatic translation between
)two radically different languages knows that language positively rules
)the way we think. This is too fully self-evident to justify listing
)examples and testimonials.

)From: (Michael Newman)
)Subject: sapir-whorf
)I have done translation between English and Spanish, and I don't know if
)they count as radically different, but my conclusion from that
)experience was hardly the same as Branner's. I would say instead that
)language positively rules how we express ourselves, not how we think.
)Now, I suspect, along with Branner, that Sapir-Whorf is not really a
)hypothesis, and it is certainly not a coherent one as it is stated since
)"think" can be construed in many different ways. I suspect that my
)disagreement with Branner here is as much a function of how we use that
)word as substantially about how language shapes or doesn't shape
)congitive processes.

I think that regardless of your definition of "thought", it seems likely
that most thought occurs with reference to a context - and that context
is usually tied to the environment and/or culture of the thinker.

If "language positively rules how we express ourselves", then language
rules much of the interaction between people of a culture. What person
A says is "positively ruled" by language. What person B understands
from the language used by person A, is considerably governed by
language, if not "positively ruled" by it. To a considerable extent
then, the culture of a society, consisting of the mass of interactions
among the people of that society, is "ruled" by language. And this in
turn sets the context for further thought by the individuals of a

This then sounds like a fairly "strong" version of the SWH, implying
that only "thought" that takes place free from cultural/linguistic
context is truly independent of language. This is close enough to
Branner's statement that I see the two as expressing the same
philosophical position.

But my interpretation of this philosophical position leads to a testable
version of the SWH which IS of interest to linguists rather than
psychologists, because it deals in the manifestations of thought as
language. The question is to determine TO WHAT DEGREE linguistic
factors "rule" the expression of thought by individuals, and massed as
culture. The former will of course affect the details of individual
linguistic expression. The latter will affect pragmatics and probably
language evolution.

In addition to the implications for theory, this version of the SWH
affects the public perception of linguistics. The hottest and most
controversial topics in public discussion of matters linguistic -
prescriptivism, gender neutrality, validity of non-standard dialects are
all largely determined by the degree to which language "rules" cultural
thought and transmission.

Bob LeChevalier, President, The Logical Language Group, Inc.
2904 Beau Lane, Fairfax VA 22031-1303 USA 703-385-0273
 For the artificial language Loglan/Lojban, see /pub/lojban
 or see Lojban WWW Server: href="";
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Message 2: Re: 5.1401 Sum: Snow

Date: Fri, 09 Dec 1994 11:13:23 Re: 5.1401 Sum: Snow
Subject: Re: 5.1401 Sum: Snow

Dear Linguists:
The Pseudo-summary by David Prager Branner once more conveys the
impression that it was Pullum that first pointed out to the
scholarly community the strange history of "Eskimo words for snow".
Not so. Read Pullum carefully, and you will know that it is
Laura Martin, in an American Anthropologist Research Note, who did
the original research. It's great that Pullum popularized the topic
like this, but in a summary like this, Martin's name should be mentioned
as the original source on the topic, and it should be mentioned first.

Willem de Reuse
Department of Anthropology
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
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