LINGUIST List 2.671

Thu 17 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf Part 2

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  • "Bruce E. Nevin", Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis

    Message 1: Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis

    Date: Wed, 16 Oct 91 08:28:26 EDT
    From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <>
    Subject: Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis
    I want to outline the views of Sapir and of Whorf on linguistic and cultural relativism as I understand them and survey some of what has been done with these ideas, both as deriving explicitly from their writings and as arising from less clearly articulated cultural and intellectual antecedents that it is difficult for any of us not in some measure to share as we grapple with universals and idiosyncrasies of language and culture. These ideas arose for Sapir in the context of his work on language typology on the one hand and psychology on the other. In the background lay social Darwinism, or at least the pervasive evolutionist perspective of 19th- century anthropology, and in this respect Sapir's interest here was a continuation of Boas' restitution of "primitive" languages as on an equal footing with the languages of familiar literate cultures, and an all- important entre'e into "the network of cultural patterns of a civilization," which "In a sense . . . is indexed in the language which expresses that civilization." (1929:162) In his conception of the relation of language, personality, culture, and "the world," Sapir distinguished between social reality "Language is a guide to `social reality.' . . . it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. . . the world of social activity as ordinarily understood"<1> ____________________ 1. Hoijer, in the 1953 conference proceedings, adduces passages of a similar sort in the writings of Boas. ____________________ and objective reality, as had Durckheim and others, and affirmed of the former that "No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different sodcieties live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached." It was in this sense that he made his famous assertion "The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group." (Preceeding quotations all loc. cit.) The core of the matter for Sapir, however, was an identification of language, specifically grammatical categories, with thought: I quite frankly commit myself to the idea that thought is impossible without language, that thought is language. (In a letter of 8 April 1921 keeping Lowie abreast of progress on the manuscript of Language; quoted in Darnell 1990:99.) In other places, Sapir severely divorces language from culture, but in this he appears to mean material culture, the "inventory" of cultural artefacts. The correlation of these things with associated vocabulary he regarded as trivial.<2> ____________________ 2. Darnell (1990:434 n) says Sapir's strongest relativity statement was a brief note titled "Conceptual Categories of Prinitive Languages," an abstract of a paper read to the National Academy of Sciences in 1931. This was published only after his death. Her bibliography lists it as appearing in Science 74:578. I have not seen it and cannot comment. ____________________ Whorf may have been a Theosophist. His philosophical interests attracted him to Sapir and to linguistics, and his fascination with the "hidden metaphysics" of languages remained always the central thing for him, for which the tools of linguistics were subordinate means. From the point of view of an emerging profession, then, he was quite literally eccentric, in that specific sense. His ideas began to crystallize with preparation to teach a course at Yale during Sapir's leave in 1937-38. His intention was to "excite [students'] interest in the linguistic approach as a way of developing understanding of the ideology of other peoples" (letter to Spier). He would focus on "a psychological direction, and the problems of meaning, thought and idea in so-called primitive cultures," aiming to "reveal psychic factors or constants" and the "organization of raw experience into a consistent and readily communicable universe of ideas through the medium of linguistic patterns" (to Carroll; both quoted in Darnell 1990:381). Whorf developed his ideas about linguistic relativity during Sapir's illness and elaborated it after his death, so Sapir never had a chance to comment. Whorf died in 1941 at the age of forty-four, leaving less sympathetic colleages to pursue the implications of his work. (Darnell 1990:375) Sapir had confined the constitutive role of language to social reality. Whorf went farther, and developed the claim that It is the grammatical background of our mother tongue, which includes not only our way of constructing propositions but the way we dissect nature and break up the flux of experience into objects and entities to construct propositions about. (1956:239) The identification of language and thought takes an adversive twist: [T]hinking . . . follows a network of tracks laid down in the given language, an organization which may concentrate systematically upon certain phases of reality, certain aspects of intelligence, and may systematically discard others featured by other languages. The individual is utterly unaware of this organization and is constrained complete within its unbreakable bonds. (256) Since if a rule has absolutely no exceptions, it is not recognized as a rule or as anything else; it is then part of the background of experience of which we tend to remain unconscious. In the background always is Theosophy, as in The Voice of the Silence: The mind is the great slayer of the real. (Quoted on p. 253) His views were recast in terms more acceptable to prevalent conceptions of operational test and verification, as by Eric Lenneberg in 1953, summarized by Roger Brown (Reference: In Memorial Tribute to Eric Lenneberg, Cognition 4:125-153): I. Structural differences between language systems will, in general, be paralleled by nonlinguistic cognitive differences, of an unspecified sort, in the native speakers of the two languages. II. The structure of anyone's native language strongly influences or fully determines the world-view he will acquire as he learns the language. (p. 128) Behind this was the assumption (presumably "part of the unconscious background" of every student in the Boas-Sapir tradition, and indeed of virtually everyone as has been argued on the LINGUIST list) that III. Languages, and hence cognitive systems, can vary without constraint. Proposition II has generally been presumed to be untestable because of the identification of language and any means of communicating one's world-view. Attempts to verify or falsify the hypothesis have concerned themselves either with I or III (with indirect evidence for II sought from III). It would be interesting to see a resumption of attention to III e.g. employing techniques developed for study of non-human communication. A conference organized by Robert Redfield in 1953 drew together a relatively small number of linguists and anthropologists with the aim of defining problems related to the hypothesis, reviewing work undertaken and plans for future work relating to it, and attempting to establish a minimal framework of institutional support for these research interests. Their proposals concerned mostly methods for getting at I. Their conclusions were cautious, as noted above, in keeping with the temper of the times. Kay and Kempton (AA 86:66), perhaps somewhat parochially but truthfully as regards empirical research, claim that most of this research has been in the domain of color. They give citations of work bearing on III beginning about the time of the Redfield conference (Ray 1952, Conklin 1955, Lenneberg and Roberts 1956, Gleason 1961, Bohannan 1963), and probably the best known study, their own (Berlin and Kay 1969). They remark that "studies before 1969 tended to support III; those since 1969 have tended to discredit III" (loc.cit.) They accept the finding of Kay and McDaniel (1978) explaining universal constraints in color classification in terms of the neurophysiology of human color vision, and discrediting III with respect to color. They affirm of course that research into II and III is an open matter for domains other than color perception, in particular domains (they mention religion) where characteristics of peripheral neural mechanisms like those of color perception have no bearing. A parallel tradition of research into aspect I of the hypothesis has been carried out primarily by psychologists, and Kay and Kempton (1984) is a continuation of this. They cite Brown and Lennebert 1954, Burnham and Clark 1955, Lenneberg 1961, Lantz and Stefflre 1964, and Stefflre, Castillo, and Morely 1966. This line of research seeks a correlation between a linguistic variable (codability and communication accuracy) and a nonlinguistic cognitive variable (memorability) within a single language, and is thus a weak form of I. After initial claims of success in finding a positive correlation between the memorability of a color and its value on a linguistic variable, Rosch showed that both memorability and the combined variable of of codability and accuracy of communication is determined universally by focality or perceptual salience. The assumption that the linguistic variables of codability and communication accuracy differ across languages (III again) was falsified by this research, and therefore any correlation between memorability and a linguistic variable was not relevant to the hypothesis. Lucy and Shweder determined that the problem of focality or salience was an artefact of how the color chips were presented, and devised an array by repeatedly re-randomizing chips from the initial array so that there is no relation between focality and findability. By this means they have reinstated the earlier correlation in favor of I with respect to color categories. There remain problems of interpretation and relevance to the broader aims of the enterprise, as unfortunately often happens in narrowly empirical work. Research of a broader sort has gone on in many fields. In social and cultural anthropology it is difficult to find anything that is absolutely irrelevant to the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, though the latter can be made irrelevant to some forms of anthropological work essentially by legislating a rather narrowly realist, anti-constructivist perspective for science. Among clearly relevant issues I name questions of symbolism, including especially money and symbols of political and/or religious stature, magic and cargo cults, studies of kinship systems and their role in the construction of interpersonal and social relations, and work in social categories. To this must be added work of more obviously linguistic nature, such as projection of prehistoric cultures from reconstructed protolanguages, Studies of the bases of prejudice, of stereotyping, and of national character in a more genuine sense (as pioneered by Gregory Bateson) . . . the list is seemingly endless. The fields of ethnolinguistics and sociolinguistics, themselves extremely broad and diversified (and themselves polarized rather as the right and left hemispheres of the brain of the archetypal anthropological linguist), have obvious bearing on the hypothesis. Hymes has urged a reinterpetation of the hypothesis, investigating patterns of language use rather than of language structure per se. The perhaps contentiously named field of cognitive linguistics has a strong constructivist bent. Work in psycholinguistics in general often has clear bearing, though the direction of interest (and funding) to linguistic universals has tended to obscure investigation of linguistic idiosyncrasies that might correlate with cognitive differences. >From Bateson's work on communication and learning and in particular the discovery of the double bind in relation to these have developed lines of clinical research that have developed practical techniques of reframing and use of metaphor, and an understanding of human systems in cybernetic terms, as therapy (particularly the field of family therapy). Lastly, I must mention the resurgence of feminism in all its many forms, especially as a scholarly concern in anthropology. I will describe in a little more detail a new test of aspect I of the hypothesis devised by Kay and Kempton (1984) so as not to be so restricted in interpretive scope as the previous communicability/codability studies had been. Speakers of Tarahumara (a Uto-Aztecan language of northern Mexico) lack the basic lexical distinction between green and blue (as do various other languages, including Achumawi). Aspect I of the hypothesis predicts that speakers of English will polarize their perceptions near the border of green and blue, but speakers of Tarahumara will not.<3> In the first experiment, English- speaker's judgements reflected the division of green against blue in 29 trials out of 30; Tarahumara speakers responded even-handedly with 13 out of 24, extremely close to a 50-50 split, vindicating the hypothesis. ____________________ 3. This phenomenon of polarization, by the way, is the reason speakers of English can disagree so strongly about the assignment of marginal colors to either green or blue. A slight difference in idiosyncratic placement of the boundary makes a large difference in categorization. This would provide the basis of an interesting study relating to I. ____________________ These experiments involve discriminating among three chips. In the first experiment, the subject had an opportunity to assign a color name to the intermediate chip, and this may have prejudiced the later step of the experiment, when the alternate comparison was made. The second experiment made the comparisons with the three chips adjacent in a box with a sliding cover that covered the chip on one end. In the setup stage, the subject agrees that the middle chip is greener with respect to one chip, and then that it is bluer than the other. It thus has both names associated with it when the subject is invited to alternate views as often as desired, and judge which difference is greater. In this experiment the polarization effect disappears. This accords with an interpretation by categorization (experiment 1) versus an interpretation by discrimination (experiment 2). An exact parallel could be made with the fact that people can discriminate differences between sounds with indeterminate fineness (phonetics), but discriminate relevant differences that make a difference4 in small numbers of categories (phonemes, contrasts, distinctions) and displaying characteristic polarization effects at the boundaries. A culturally/linguistically determined contrast can be repeated, a difference requiring perceptual discrimination can only be imitated. Kay and Kempton interpret these findings as disconfirming what they call radical linguistic determinism, in which "human beings . . . are very much at the mercy of the particular language" (Sapir, quoted previously). Because the polarization associated with naming can be made to disappear simply by not naming, we are not hopelessly at the mercy of our language. To this I would add that it is difficult to do many sorts of things cooperatively with other human beings or with social consequence and recognition without employing the categories inherent in language. The exceptions, it seems to me, are in the realms of art, of religion, of play and creativity. These are the domain of the _pleroma_ in Bateson's terms, the realm of cybernetic explanation, as opposed to the _creatura_, the realm of forces and impacts dealt with in the conventional categories of one's shared language and culture. c 1991 Bruce Nevin