Things My Language Told Me to Say

There is a debate going on at several blogs (starting at EmptyBottle and continuing at the heart of things , akma’s random thoughts , commonplaces , Ming the Mechanic , Epeus’ epigone , and elseblog) about the relationship between language and thought, and about the Sapir-Whorf Relativity Hypothesis (S-W) in particular. As might be expected of a theory that reached it’s peak over a lifetime ago and whose primary intellectual developer died in his early 40s, S-W comes in for something of a beating. Since one of my central interests is the relation between thought and cultural expression (including language, but also art, music, consumption, ritual, and so on), I thought I’d throw my two cents (in large bills) into the fray. It bears pointing out at the beginning that, although the work of Sapir and Whorf are linked in our memory, their work was quite different, and it is really Whorf’s work which makes up the bulk of what we today know as the Sapir-Whorf Relativity Hypothesis. Sapir made some important contributions, but never focused on the problem with the intensity or the lucidity with which Whorf attacked it. So, below, I’ll refer to “Whorfian relativism” more often than S-W.

So, first of all, what is it? Sapir and Whorf were anthropologists in the early part of the 20th century, students of Franz Boas and strongly influenced by his largely undeveloped (by Boas, that is) relativism. A common sort of relativist device is to examine a cultural trait or complex of traits, something that may seem primitive, silly, or even stupid to outsiders, and to show how it “fits” into the world-view of it’s practitioners. Sapir and Whorf were arguing against the idea that Western languages were more “developed” than “primitive” languages–that they were better able to describe the world, and to describe it truthfully (i.e. scientifically) than non-Western languages–and were therefore a mark of the inferiority of non-Western peoples. Thus the famous example of the many Eskimo words which describe the multitude of variations that English-speakers refer to simply as “snow”–Whorf showed that in matters where it mattered to them, Eskimos could be every bit as precise, indeed even more precise, than their Western counterparts. This is more than simply a matter of vocabulary, however–Whorf saw this as an example of the differences in the way people actually saw and interacted with the world around them. The Eskimo doesn’t see “snow” and then categorize it–s/he perceives the different kinds of crystalline water the same way we perceive the difference between a tree and a car: immediately, unconsciously, directly. Drawing on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structural linguistics, Whorf saw language as the instrument of categorization, in effect saying that our language determines the way we perceive and act in the world.

The problem is that most people get stuck at the level of vocabulary suggested by the “snow” example, while Whorf and Sapir are both fairly clear in using this as an illustration, not as evidence. For instance, of the ” Great Eskimo Snow Silliness”, Stavros of Emptybottle says “This… is where the argument runs off the rails for me” (but later reddems himself by embracing a strong Whorfian Relativism while attempting its critique). Fleming Flunch of Ming the Mechanic writes “For an English speaker it is obvious that noodles is plural, because there are many noodles on a plate. A Chinese person is just as likely to call it “noodle”, not because he can’t count, but because he’s seeing it differently. I suppose focusing on the substance, not on the individual pieces”–a good example of the power of vocabulary in shaping perceptions, but only a tiny foray into Whorfian territory.

The real action in Whorf’s theory–as befitting one strongly influenced by Saussurean structuralism–takes place at the level of structure: grammar, syntax, semiotics. For instance, a standard sentence in most languages (maybe all–I’m not much of an expert in comparative linguistics) has a “subject-predicate” structure–that is, a subject performs an action. According to Whorf, this deep structure of language shapes the way we interact with the world around us, that it shapes the way we imagine ourselves as actors in the world. Whorf saw this “deep structure” as varying between populations, though–good Saussurean that he is–he doesn’t get into the problem of origins. A debate arises with Chomskyans who see many elements of linguistic structure as innate, but I don’t think it matters–if there are universal structures, there may very well be elements that all world-views share. I would say that the subject-predicate structure is fairly universal, although Whorf describes some languages he feels don’t share this structure. Though his linguistic knowledge was undoubtedly superiour to mine, I don’t find these examples very compelling; I see them as variations on a theme, rather than a different order of things. Regardless, even the Chomskyans recognize that linguistic variations exist, whether or not it is constrained by inborn tendencies, so there is still a lot of world-view left unaccounted for.

Which is not to say that Whorf had all the answers. I’ve called attention to the Saussurean influence because, in some ways, I think Saussure led Whorf astray. I wrote an essay some years ago on S-W some years ago that explains my thoughts in full–as well as providing a much more fulfilling look at Whorf’s work than I feel comfortable making space for here–which, to keep this already lengthy post from becoming ungodly, I have posted separately: Notes on Whorfian Relativism . Basically, I see in Whorf an attempt to force a model that Saussure intended for studying language in the abstract into service to study the concrete use of language–which Saussure explicitly excludes. Whorf made excellent use of the best tools available to him at the time, but the best tools weren’t quite good enough.

I have more on this, but this is enough for now: what I want to get into more is the linguistic structuring of the relationship between subjects and the world around them, as well as the way language changes and is reshaped by speakers. The über-hangup for most people thinking about Whorf is the determinism, which implies both a lack of agency on the part of language users and an inflexibility in the language itself. As I noted, Whorf left the question of language change unaddressed. This follows directly from Saussure, and fits quite comfortably with the anthropology of his time, which tended to ignore history and focus on the “ethnographic present”, the unchanging now to which the researcher has access. But I don’t think Whorf’s thinking is strictly opposed to these considerations–they just weren’t his considerations. But more on this when I get my head together.

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