Whorf, Redux

A good solid entry in the ongoing Sapir/Whorf debate by Kerim over at Keywords. I’ve posted quite a bit on Whorf here and here, and it’s always good to see the discussion carried forward. Kerim hits the key issue head on in his post, writing:

Whorf’s point was that some cultural differences in behavior where linked to conceptual differences arising from linguistic analogies. That is to say, it wasn’t so much that we are locked into thinking about the world a certain way because of our language, but we have a tendency to do so – and this tendency has an effect on our cultural behavior.

As he notes, the overdrawn version of Whorfian relativity — that language determines culture — is such a parody that it’s easily dismissed, leading most people to miss out on the richness of Whorf’s thought. What Whorf is really trying to do is to draw our attention to the ways in which language subtly influences thought and, more crucually, behaviour. In anthropology, as just about everywhere else, it’s often the littlest differences that make the biggest differences, becauase their effects are so small and so taken-for-granted that they a) are rarely even noticed, and b) hard to single out as the cause of misunderstandings.

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