LINGUIST List 2.632

Wed 09 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf

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  • Allan C. Wechsler, 2.610 Whorfian relativism
  • Niko Besnier, Whorf again

    Message 1: 2.610 Whorfian relativism

    Date: Tue, 8 Oct 1991 11:05-0400
    From: Allan C. Wechsler <ACWYUKON.SCRC.Symbolics.COM>
    Subject: 2.610 Whorfian relativism
    In the fifties, Brown and Lenneburg did some research on color-naming that is relevant to the history of linguistic "Whorfian" relativism. This is described in an article (by Brown?) in tribute to Eric (?) Lenneburg in some old issue of LI, perhaps from 1974. I'm sorry I don't have the reference at hand. But I recall that it was a well-written and intriguing piece.

    Message 2: Whorf again

    Date: Tue, 08 Oct 91 13:23:10 EDT
    From: Niko Besnier <UTTANUYALEVM.BITNET>
    Subject: Whorf again
    Re.: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and "popular" beliefs, cf. most recently Bob LeChevalier in 2:610 The reason why linguistic anthropologists "still" believe in some version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (SWH) is not that they know less about language than mainstream linguists (many fields have much to say about language, and it is a delusion to think that any one field has a monopoly on the subject), but that they focus on language in a different way from linguists. The prototypical anthropological paradigm focuses on diversity, on the particular, and builds theory on the particular, looking at, for example, relational patterns between the particular in language and the particular in society and culture. This contrasts with the avowed universalism extant in most linguistic paradigms. Having been "brought up" in the latter paradigm, to then move to some version of the former, I am at a loss to decide that one is "better," more intellectually worthwhile, etc., than the other. I doubt that mud- slinging ("butterfly collector!" "universalist-schmuniversalist!") will get either field very far. There *is* room for the SWH in a particularistic approach to language. But what it has to be grounded on is a careful reading of poor Whorf, who must be on the most misread (unread?) thinkers of the century. Interpretations of Whorf extant amongst mainstream linguists have little to do with what Whorf actually wrote, and this had led linguists to call the man by all sorts of names (e.g. "weekend linguist"--Geoffrey Pullum in _NLLT_). It is telling, for example, that in my linguistic training at two institutions I was never required to read a single original text by Whorf. To a certain extent this is understandable, since Whorf wrote in an opaque, dense style. John Lucy ("Whorf's view of the linguistic mediation of thought," in _Semiotic Mediation_, ed. by Elizabeth Mertz & Richard Parmentier, Academic P, 1985) shows that one of the important aspects of the SWH missing from laypersons' accounts (i.e. accounts by those who have not read Whorf) is that Whorf is not talking about determinism by all of language of all aspects of world view. Rather, *fashions of speaking* determine *habitual thought*. Fashions of speaking are broad patternings of grammatical categories and discourse strategies in a language, across what Whorf calls *overt* and *covert* categories. Areas of language where one should seek "weak" determinism (the strong version of determinism was never advocated by Whorf, but by subsequent linguists who never seem to have read Whorf) are in fact very different from areas that Whorf is usually said to have claimed to be deterministic. I'd point to work like that of Elinor Ochs as example of where determinism is to be found between language and habitual thought: the shape of, even the presence/absence of baby talk in a speech community, provides a pretty strong deterministic "lesson" to language acquirers about the relationship between structure (=institutions) and agency (=person) extant in the society, i.e. about the type of things that social theorists worry about. This posting is already too long, but I'd like to point to Alan Rumsey's (1990) paper, "Wording, Meaning, and Linguistic Ideology," _American Anthropologist_ 92:346-361, for an excellent discussion of where Whorfianism works. Niko Besnier Department of Anthropology Yale University

    Message 3: SAPIR-WHORF

    Date: Tue, 08 Oct 91 17:51 EDT
    Subject: SAPIR-WHORF
    Re: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis It is curious that no one has mentioned some of the most interesting research relative to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- that done by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay on basic color terms. Their book, BASIC COLOR TERMS (University of California Press, 1969), is a classic in anthropological linguistics, and they have gone on to produce more evidence over the years, published in various papers (if anyone is interested in refs, I'll dig them up). Their argument runs something like this. If the S-W hypothesis is true, at least in its strong form, then we would expect natural continua like the visual spectrum to be categorically chopped up at random. If culture is the only variable at play, then there should be a great number of ways that language expresses color. In fact, they found that how languages discriminate the color spectrum is extremely lawful and predictable. Languages appear to scale between those languages exhibiting the fewest basic color terms to those exhibiting the maximum basic color terms. This is as one would expect if universal (perhaps heritable biological) factors determine how the mind discriminates the spectrum. So far as I am aware, the Berlin and Kay researches are the best empirical tests yet done of the S-W hypothesis, and it is disconfirmed. I would be interested in any other good empirical tests of the hypothesis that have been carried out and of which I am unaware. Charles Laughlin Department of Sociology & Anthropology Carleton University Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6 charles_laughlincarleton.bitnet Charles Laughlin <CHARLESLCARLETON.CA>