LINGUIST List 10.1268

Tue Aug 31 1999

Disc: Re:Universal Word Order

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  • JFThiels, Re: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

    Message 1: Re: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

    Date: Mon, 30 Aug 1999 20:19:28 EDT
    From: JFThiels <>
    Subject: Re: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

    In a message dated 99-08-30 19:42:26 EDT, you write: << Now, suppose the woman eats the apple and visits her boyfriend, who offers to cook dinner for her. According to the SVO rationale and Sapir-Whorf, the woman realizes that she has already eaten before she realizes that the apple is what she ate. Thus, cognitive perception of the preterit, 'to eat', precedes perception of the direct object, 'the apple'. SOV speakers, therefore, must modify the order of cognitive perception to fit the word order demands of their languages. >> I think it is important to clarify here what one can actually find out from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and what it refers to; there are two versions, the strong version (which a careful reading of Sapir will dispel) and a weaker version which is not usually contested as such. The following are from my class notes from linguistics with Dr. Judith Irvine, who has compiled many of Sapir's collected works and reconstructed his lectures on the Psychology of Culture. The strong version holds that language determines perception and therefore expression...this is not what Sapir ever wrote. Whorf said some things which could be read that way, but even then, considering that his articles were written for engineers not acquainted with linguistics, it is important to read very carefully and consider what his inclusion of the diagrams meant. The hypothesis makes three propositions about language and thought: First, there is the issue of linguistic relativism: 1) Ways of thought are intimately related to the structure of language (Questions: what is meant by thinking? What are the relevant linguistic structures?) 2) Relative linguistic structures significantly differ between language 3) There is a causative link between some structures of language and the thinking of its speakers. Does that link influence only habitual, inattentive thinking (weak version) or does it absolutely determine or control or prevent alternatives (stronger version) The geneology of this idea is through Boas, Sapir and Whorf. Boas, who was one of the first to argue against the randomness of sounds made by speakers of indigenous American languages (oh, how far we've come) spoke a lot about 1 and 2, and very little about three...where he came close was in the obligatoriness of certain categories for speakers of particular languages. Jakobson took this up in his paper on Boas, pointing out for example, that languages that force the speaker to reveal the gender of a friend (amigo/amiga) do so...English, for example does not and if someone asks , "Is it a male or female friend", the English speaker can reply "It's none of your business." English does not, however, prevent one from noticing the gender of one's friend. (Neither does Portuguese, either) The strongest point Sapir himself made in this direction was in stating that language is an essential part of the determination of SOCIAL life, but he did not say the material world or the perception of it. Whorf, who came closest to stating #3 in strong terms, was not writing for linguists, and was talking about what language forced you to notice about the material world and the strength of convention in habitual thinking and expression. These are hardly earth-shaking propositions if, admittedly, difficult to test by today's standards. Much of the testing that has been done has been with categories directly linked to lexical items and color terms that are as close as possible to hard-wired in. These are probably the least interesting aspects of language to investigate and also very easily manipulated by consciousness. There is so much ink spilled in condemning or misunderstanding Sapir for his supposed hypothesis, but actually testing it is difficult. If people are actually interested, John Lucy has published two books on the hypothesis and his experiments with speakers of a Mayan language in classifying certain kinds of objects. I have not read his books carefully but I have heard they are worth a look. There is also a collection of papers looking at S-W called "Rethinking Linguistic Relativity" (I have neither "bold" nor "underline" right now) that you can look at with a multiplicity of views... Michael Silverstein of the University of Chicago has published a couple of papers which might be interesting on this point. One from 1984 is called "The Limits of Awareness" and another is "Shifters, Linguistic Categories and Cultural Description," republished in a book called Language, Culture and Society (Waveland Press). By the way, what about the VSO languages (such as Irish Gaelic) and OSV (Malagasy)... German also makes you wait for the main verb quite often, although its basic formula is SVO (Like this contribution, you have to wait until the end to get to another point...) All the best in your thinking John Thiels Ph.D. candidate Brandeis University