LINGUIST List 2.682

Fri 18 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis

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  • "Bruce E. Nevin", interest in II, not III
  • "Bruce E. Nevin", more on W-S Hypothesis
  • Margaret Fleck, neuroscience and Sapir-Whorf

    Message 1: interest in II, not III

    Date: Thu, 17 Oct 91 09:06:02 EDT
    From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <>
    Subject: interest in II, not III
    I wrote yesterday re the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis: >It would be interesting to see a resumption of attention to >III e.g. employing techniques developed for study of non-human >communication. I meant to say "a resumption of attention to II," which is where the greatest intrinsic interest lies: 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) Bruce Nevin

    Message 2: more on W-S Hypothesis

    Date: Thu, 17 Oct 91 10:13:00 EDT
    From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <>
    Subject: more on W-S Hypothesis
    I might as well include some additional material relating to the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis. Construe this as continuing from the end of my post yesterday. (That includes the possible response of deleting it now if your reading of the prior part so indicates to you.) In formal linguistics, Zellig Harris and his co-workers have come full circle to the work on information structures in discourse that opened the whole field of transformational grammar. Harris, Ryckman, Gottfried et al. _The Form of Information in Science_ (1990) develops a representation of the information immanent in a body of texts written over a span of years in the history of a subfield of a science (immunology). Changes in this structure correlate transparently with historically well-documented changes and developmental stages of the science during that period, although the structure was determined by clearly defined formal means and without reference to any knowledge of that historical context. In this way, they have demonstrated strongly that structures found in the sublanguage of that science (and not imposed a priori on it) correlate on the one hand with aspects of the social reality of the science and on the other with the structure of the real-world domain which is the concern of that science. The latter correlation is reflexive, however, in the sense that, as the structure changed, it (and the undestanding of the scientists writing the original research reports on which the analysis was done) over time came into closer conformity with a reality whose nature was in process of being discovered. Before that change, certain characteristics of reality could not be stated or thought; afterward, they could. But the discovery and the change in structure were simultaneous (though of course the writing down for publication was not). No better confirmation could be offered of Sapir's claim of the essential unity of language and thought by one of his students. ____________________ 5. The confirmation is equivocal, however, since the work clearly demonstrates (as Harris stated at the end of _Mathematical Structures of Language_ (Wiley, 1968)) that language is not identical with thought but instead provides a rather rigid channel for thought. This corresponds precisely to the observation above that the discovery and the language for talking about it co-evolved. By using this term I refer specifically to the common misperception regarding biological evolution that e.g. eohippus evolved into the horse in response to environmental changes, when one must instead acknowledge eohippus and its environment co-evolved into the horse and its environment. Synecdoche is fallacious in both cases. ____________________ To illustrate this point further, I should like to adduce a recent contribution to the enormous literature in the study of kinship categories, always a favorite topic in anthropological linguistics. Wierzbicka, in Semantics and the interpretation of cultures: the meaning of 'alternate generations' devices in australian languages, proposes a new set of metalanguage terms for discussing the alternate sets of pronouns used in many Australian languages. She urges that the terminology of "generation harmony" and "disharmony" that has become traditional in anthropology is arcane and psychologically arbitrary, does not capture native speakers' meaning and does not make that meaning accessible to people from other cultures, and claims that her new terminology provides a better fit. This paper illustrates a Whorfian effect in the sublanguage of a specialization within the science of anthropology. With the traditional terminology, aspects of aborigine culture are difficult to come to recognize and understand, and not possible to communicate; she claims that with the proposed new terminology it is.<6> Thus, while providing an illustration of Whorfian ____________________ 6. This is part of ongoing work on natural language semantics based, ultimately, on a proposed set of universal semantic primitives, including: I,you, this, someone, something, want, don't want, say, think of, imagine, know, become, part, place, and world (Wierzbicka, Semantic Primitives (1972), Lingua Mentalis (1980). Be it noted that Harris denies there can be a lingua mentalis or any metalanguage external to natural language. For one thing, were there such one would need to account for the grammar and semantics of that metalanguage. For another, he has demonstrated that the information structures immanent in texts account precisely for the information that the texts report, so that, like LaPlace, he has no need for this additional hypothesis. All this notwithstanding, Wierzbicka's proposal here concerns a sublanguage serving as metalanguage for a subfield of anthropology. ____________________ effects within a subfield of a science, she proposes to overcome such effects by devising a perfect metalanguage for that subfield. Since the subfield concerns an area that is by nature a matter of social convention and so in social reality rather than physical reality (to make that Durckheimian distinction again), she may be able to get away with it. I do not doubt the creativity of human cultures, however, and would build in means for the sublanguage to evolve. An abiding interest of Harris, as of his teacher Sapir, has been the question of refinements and possibly extensions of natural language that foster international scientific communication. In his analysis, language-particular characteristics due to the reduction system (extended morphophonemics) of one language or another are partitioned from operator-argument structures that `carry' information, which are remarkably uniform from one language to another. This uniformity becomes very close indeed in the grammar of a science sublanguage, where classifications and selection restrictions are much more closely constrained than in other domains. But even in nontechnical domains Harris has a great deal to say about linguistic universals,<7> and about the distinctions between what is universal in language and culture and what is idiosyncratic and therefore pertinent to the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis. ____________________ 7. See e.g. _Language and Information_ (Columbia 1989) and _A Theory of Language and Information_ (Oxford, 1990), which is a more philosophical companion volume to _A Grammar of English on Mathematical Principles_ (Wiley 1982). c 1991 Bruce Nevin

    Message 3: neuroscience and Sapir-Whorf

    Date: Thu, 17 Oct 91 11:04:07 -0500
    From: Margaret Fleck <>
    Subject: neuroscience and Sapir-Whorf
    I have some sympathy with Charles Laughlin's position that one might eventually want to use information from neuroscience to establish the truth of, and mechanisms behind, nature vs. nurture type questions. However, from my experience in computer vision, the information available from the neuroscientists is still rough and preliminary, even for the lowest levels of sensory processing. Much of what we know about human abilities is via psychophysics, not neuroscience. Even then, the information is only suggestive, not enough to be able to outline (still less construct the details of) formal or computational theories. By the time you get up to the level of shape perception and object recognition, the information on humans is fragmentary, pretheoretical, and pretty damn near useless. At higher-levels, e.g. describing spatial arrangments of objects and their behavior, even the psychophysics peters out. This is not intended to run down the neuroscientists. They are doing as well as we have any right to expect. But they are not in a position to solve my low level problems, let alone the high level ones that make up the bulk of the S-W discussion. Margaret Fleck