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 <peeterstasman.cc.utas.edu.au>
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 Bert.Peetersmodlang.utas.edu.au
Hobart TAS 7001
Message 2: Whorf and Relativity
Date: Sat, 28 Sep 91 21:02:12 EDT
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
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" <princechaos.cs.brandeis.edu>
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.
Message 4: Re: 2.567 Einstein
Date: Sat, 28 Sep 91 12:28:54 -0500
From: "Michael Kac" <kaccs.umn.edu>
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.