LINGUIST List 5.768

Thu 30 Jun 1994

Disc: Pinker's book and linguist bashing

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  • Dan Alford, Pinker's book and linguist bashing

    Message 1: Pinker's book and linguist bashing

    Date: Wed, 29 Jun 1994 11:43:18 Pinker's book and linguist bashing
    From: Dan Alford <>
    Subject: Pinker's book and linguist bashing

    I thoroughly enjoyed Claudia Brugman's review of Steven Pinker's book, and my mouth dropped open at Michael Newman's recent comment that he doesn't *see anything which could remotely be considered linguist bashing*! Consider the so-called Whorf chapter where Pinker takes on his (supposedly) greatest enemy, Benjamin Whorf. Of course since, as we shall see, since Pinker doesn't really consider Whorf a linguist, he might argue that this isn't linguist bashing at all.

    Predictably, as I pointed out 16 years ago in The Demise of the Whorf Hypothesis (BLS), we find Pinker's text dominated by strawman positions and ad-hominem arguments. We are introduced on p. 57 to "the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism" (how DOES a principle of linguistic relativity become a hypothesis of linguistic determinism?) -- followed immediately by scorn for anyone who finds something of intellectual value in the celebration of cognitive diversity ("perhaps accounting for the perennial appeal of the hypothesis to undergraduates" -- but what accounts for the perennial appeal of the hypothesis itself, rather than Whorf's actual principle of linguistic relativity, to professional linguists, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists?). And then the voice of authority: "But it is wrong, all wrong. The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity..." In context, this is put forth as Sapir or Whorf's belief or stance, or perhaps just a generic strawman position, but of course there are no quotes from Whorf, Sapir, or anyone else showing that ANYONE has ever seriously said this. What is the purpose of this muddying of the waters except to bash?

    In addition, Pinker either does not know about or is resolutely disregarding the work of cognitive scientist Dan Slobin on a particular form of thinking that occurs on-line in the process of speaking, called Thinking for Speaking, during which process our thinking is very much shaped by our grammar; of course Slobin had to move from a monolithic notion of *thought* to different forms of *thinking* in order to arrive at his position -- and this is a far cry from claiming that language is the same thing as thought. Pinker's bias is clear when he says "The idea that language shapes thinking was plausible when scientists were in the dark about how thinking works or even how to study it. Now that cognitive scientists [except Slobin, evidently] know how to think about thinking, ..."

    While Pinker mentions Reagan's famous "Mistakes were made" (assuming that he is talking about the copular "to be" while actually referring to a similar finite form used in passive constructions), he can't resist using the exact same form on p. 59: The linguistic determinism hypothesis IS CLOSELY LINKED [caps mine] to the names Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf." Who is the deleted agent here? My research indicates that the agent is the group of advocates of universal grammar who created, developed and promulgated the strawman Determinism argument in the first place. While Whorf did formulate a PRINCIPLE of linguistic relativity (LTR pp. 215, 221), neither he nor Sapir ever formulated the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis they are so indelibly linked to in some people's minds. Who is Pinker fighting here when even Whorf and Whorfians agree that linguistic determinism is wrong? Pinker, like most Whorf critics, doesn't understand that Whorf generally argued from a systems perspective inherited from quantum physics, where his arguments make sense, not from the Newtonian perspective, where monocausal determinism arguments make sense.

    But on to the ad-hominem arguments. While Sapir is noted as a brilliant linguist, Whorf is "an inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company and an amateur scholar of Native American languages" -- ah, not a real linguist, so we don't have to pay any attention to his ideas! "But the more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make" (followed by an analysis of Whorf's "empty gasoline drums" example which invents facts and includes information which Whorf -- the only writer of this incident that we know of -- didn't himself state, such as the worker tossing a cigarette into an empty drum; Whorf only talked about behavior in general around the full and empy drums). On p. 63, in a discussion of Hopi time, we find the most virulent attack of all: "No one is really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims, but his limited, badly analyzed sample of Hopi speech and his long-time leanings toward mysticism must have contributed." Right -- associate him with mysticism and we don't have to read him. Of course, Whorf points out, our own notions of flowing time and static space are equally mystical to the Hopi, in whose language "time disappears and space is altered, so that it is no longer the homogeneous and instantaneous timeless space of our supposed intuition or of classical Newtonian mechanics." Actually, come to think of it, quantum physicists have been telling us about this for almost a century, that our particular cultural notion of time is a linguistic construct! Is Pinker taking on quantum physics now?

    Finally, let's examine Pinker's color words and Hopi time arguments. In showing the obvious absurdity of language having anything whatsoever to do with influencing perception, he contrasts the way physicists and physiologists look at color: while to the former color is a continuous wavelength dimension without our familiar delineations, to the latter it's a matter of three kinds of cones in the eyes wired to neurons, etc. "No matter how influential language might be, it would seem preposterous to a physiologist that it could reach down into the retina and rewire the ganglion cells." Well, that should certainly silence the true believers -- except that vision is CONSTRUCTED rather than physiologically direct. If it were direct, we would always be aware of the blind spot in our vision where the retina attaches to the eyeball; instead, that is all filled in by the magic of construction, blending the "direct seeing" input with memory and meaning to produce a seamless visual field. Strawman again: who actually said that language reaches down into the retina and rewires the ganglion cells? Got any citations for that, Pinker? Why is this form of argumentation still okay?

    And then there's the famous Hopi time. Pinker cites the work of Ekkehart Malotki to show that Hopis do indeed have time terms. I point you all to a PBS video series on Mind: Language, where Malotki is shown doing fieldwork with a Hopi speaker. As she says a phrase in Hopi, Malotki excitedly interrupts her to ask, "Does that mean THE TIME when you do this?" Your honor, he's leading the witness! Of course she's going to say yes to this authority figure (and which could mean, yes, that's how YOU would say it in English)! And someone at PBS evidently thought this was a great example of how to do fieldwork! A few more quotes: "Deep down, we're all the same -- it couldn't be otherwise." But isn't the question here how deep is deep down? "How could it be that there are people out there that live, that get through the world, completely divorced from this phenomenon of time that we all experience?" Answered moments later with: "They are living with time at every point of their lives, but not necessarily of course in the way we perceive time today. Before the encounter with the whiteman, there had never been a need for naming hour or minutes or seconds. In the Hopi society, time is probably experienced as a more organic or natural phenomenon." Excuse me, but wasn't that Whorf's point -- that such terms as space & time in our language are recast into Hopi expressions of extension, operation, and cyclical process if manifested, and into expressions of subjectivity if unmanifest (LTR p64)? How can Malotki adopt Whorf's exact position and then call Whorf wrong? And therefore, how can I, or Pinker, in all good conscience trust or cite his work?

    Critics ignore the numerous universalist statements by Whorf (as an example relating to the above: "To fit discourse to manifold actual situations, all languages need to express durations, intensities, and tendencies." [LTR p. 145]) in their rush to squeeze him into a mindless determinist mode they can attack. Indeed, Pinker in just a few pages proves what I have suspected for a long time: it's perfectly okay these days to talk about the ideas of Benjamin Whorf as long as you make sure to muddy the waters by linking him to the critics-developed determinism Hypothesis -- and as long as when you're done, you *kick the corpse*, turn out the lights and close the door! We'll see if we can do better than that for the Whorf Centennial Celebration in 1997 in San Francisco! See you there!

    -- Moonhawk (%->)