LINGUIST List 2.588

Sat 28 Sep 1991

Misc: Whorf, Einstein, Change

Editor for this issue: <>


  • bert peeters, Another myth: "unconditioned change"
  • , Whorf and Relativity
  • "Alan Prince", Re: 2.567 Einstein
  • "Michael Kac", Re: 2.567 Einstein

    Message 1: Another myth: "unconditioned change"

    Date: Sat, 28 Sep 91 13:20:25 EST
    From: bert peeters <>
    Subject: Another myth: "unconditioned change"
    > Date: Thu, 26 Sep 91 15:42 CDT > From: Joe Stemberger <STEMBERGER%ELLVAXUMNACVX.BITNET> > You find > unconditioned sound changes where almost all instances of a vowel raise, > lower, front, unround, etc., but very few where all velars become dentals, > for example. Unconditioned sound changes do not exist. It is a most unfortunate label which has been around for a long time. It was about time we tried to get rid of it. There is always a cause behind the change - whether we know that cause or not is a different matter. But sounds just don't change all by themselves. Any sound change is conditioned. The so-called "unconditioned" changes are probably due to pressures in the phonological system, or else to influences from neighbouring languages. Dr Bert Peeters Tel: +61 02 202344 Department of Modern Languages 002 202344 University of Tasmania at Hobart Fax: 002 207813 GPO Box 252C Hobart TAS 7001 Australia

    Message 2: Whorf and Relativity

    Date: Sat, 28 Sep 91 21:02:12 EDT
    From: <Alexis_Manaster_RamerMTS.CC.WAYNE.EDU>
    Subject: Whorf and Relativity
    In several recent messages there are references to Whorf or Sapir and Whorf together as having originated the idea of "human thinking patterns being relative to the inventory of the available language system" (to quote one contributor). However, like the story of the Eskimo words for snow, this story about Whorf and Sapir is not factually correct. First of all, it was Sapir who fought against such simplistic language-thought claims of earlier scholars such as Uhlenbeck (one of the guys who claimed that certain "primitive" folks don't have the same perception of action as we do because they speak ergative languages and that some of them also have trouble distinguishing between themselves and their bodyparts because they speak languages in which possessors of subjects or objects are sometimes treated as subjects and objects). Second, it is true that Whorf took for granted (as did almost everybody else at the time) the idea that the structure of a language can be taken literally as giving the underlying ontology (not that it causes it, mind you, but that it does reveal it). We know for example that Whorf was much impressed with the claims (I forget whose at the moment) that Chinese has no relative clauses, only things that were rendered as Jack build-ish house (i.e., the house that Jack built). Third, all of Whorf's claim about Hopi are quite explicitly of this same variety: He does not assert that the structure of the language causes the world view, merely that it reveals it. He also does not claim this connection between the ontology and the language to be a new idea. He presupposes it. That is a big difference, of course, because Whorf is often accused of claiming such a connection without giving any independent evidence about the ontology. But in fact he did not make any such claims, he merely assumed that there was such a connection because everybody around him assumed it also. His contribution (as he saw it) was entirely different: it was to show that the way people view time, events, quantities, etc., can be culture- and hence language-specific. What I find particularly surprising about the need to reiterate all this is that the relevant writings of Whorf's are all reprinted in a widely avaialble collection, and that Sapir's writings are hardly obscure either. It would be an interesting question, incidentally, who started the canard about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I believe that Clyde Kluckhohn and Harry Hoijer are prime suspects, but perhaps somebody else has more information on this. Alexis Manaster Ramer

    Message 3: Re: 2.567 Einstein

    Date: Fri, 27 Sep 91 11:58:46 -0400
    From: "Alan Prince" <>
    Subject: Re: 2.567 Einstein
    Lest we forget: the Principle of Relativity is the following: ``All the laws of physics are the same in every inertial reference frame.'' All. The same. The point is not that the world looks different to different observers (a trivial observation), but rather that the world (as law not appearance) is constant and uniform. This is very much in the classic mode of science, seeking invariance. The relevant comparison is surely with Chomsky, not Whorf. -Alan Prince

    Message 4: Re: 2.567 Einstein

    Date: Sat, 28 Sep 91 12:28:54 -0500
    From: "Michael Kac" <>
    Subject: Re: 2.567 Einstein
    Ralf Thiede alludes to Einstein's having come up with the principle of relativity. That's false: the principle had been in physics for a long time (was due, I think, to Newton in fact). What Einstein did was to resolve certain contradictions in Newtonian physics by abandoning the notions of absolute time and space. Michael Kac