LINGUIST List 2.670

Thu 17 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf Part 1

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  • , on the SW hypothesis

    Message 1: on the SW hypothesis

    Date: Tue, 15 Oct 1991 13:38 EET
    Subject: on the SW hypothesis
    The strong version of the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is falsified if it can be shown that conceptual thinking is possible independently of language. Now, consider profoundly deaf children with very deficient linguistic capacities. It is more probable than not that they can think conceptually independently of language. Martti Nyman Dept of General Linguistics, Univ of Helsinki, Finland

    Message 2: MORE ON SWH

    Date: Tue, 15 Oct 91 10:45 EDT
    Subject: MORE ON SWH
    The psychologist, Henry A. Murray said it best, I think: "In some ways all men are alike, in some ways some men are alike, and in some ways no men are alike." But depending upon one's taste, personal history, cultural background, or theoretical orientation, one may have a bias toward seeing one set of ways more clearly than, or to the exclusion of, the other sets of ways. Euroamerican cultures make it more difficult than most because of an inherent, prescientific world view characterized by a mind-body dualism which predisposes its scientists and philosophers toward polarizations like "determinism vs. free will," "realism vs. idealism," "structure vs function, or content," "nature vs. culture," "cultural universalism vs. relativism," and so on. It is ever thus. This dualism inevitably surfaces in discussions of the SWH and evaluations of evidence for and against the notion that culture or personal history may influence perception. As the initiator of the present discussion noted -- correctly I think -- most everyone accepts at least a soft form of the SWH. The trouble is, most do not seem to have a frame of reference for believing in panhuman universals. This is because linguistics (and especially my discipline, anthropology) has yet to become really permeable to the (now largely interdisciplinary) neurosciences. Without grounding in the neurosciences, all approaches to cultural or linguistic universals remain deductive. And as we all know, any explanandum may be derived from a variety of explanans, any behavior from a variety of structures, any effect from a variety of causes. Only through the neurosciences can we look at structures directly. All considered, the best picture of the influence of culture and language on perception from a neuroscience perspective is one of partial penetrance. THere is no such thing as a human neural system that does not develop to some extent relative to the environment. On the other hand, some systems develop less than, and sooner in life than, other systems. All in all, the closer to the sensory structures of the nervous system one looks, the less influence language and culture have upon their organization and function, and the closer to higher cortical structures one looks, the more open to linguistic and cultural influences. Keep in mind that all sensory systems are in place and functioning all the way to the cortical level BEFORE BIRTH. And most of the postpartum neural development at the sensory level of perception is completed within the first 6 months or so after birth. Generally speaking, the higher in the nervous system one looks, the longer the development takes. it seems to me that only by incorporating the neurosciences into our perspectives that we can actually operationalize Henry Murray's balanced approach to how all, some, and no humans are alike. Charles Laughlin <CHARLESLCARLETON.CA>