Notes on Whorfian Relativity

The study or linguistics over the last century, as in the social sciences in general, has been characterized by a departure from the historical comparative method dominant in the 1800s. Modern students of language left behind the strongly evolutionist search for origins and took up the investigation of language as a working system and its implications for humans who use language in society. The foundation for such synchronic investigation was laid by Ferdinand de Saussure, from whom all following investigations have either developed or departed (or both). One of the important developments inspired by Saussurean linguistics was the examination of language’s role in thought, a problem which led Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf to develop their Relativity Hypothesis. Although their work ultimately failed to answer satisfactorily the question of how language and thinking are related, the Sapir-Whorf Relativity Hypothesis has continued to be influential, and the implications for further study has been significant.

Put simply, Sapir and Whorf believed that the language we speak profoundly influences the way we construct our worlds. Saussure himself had stated that language is fundamental to human thought. “[T]hought is like a swirling cloud,” he says in Course in General Linguistics, “where no shape is intrinsically determined. No ideas are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction of linguistic structure” (Saussure: 110[155]). But where Saussure took this relationship for granted, Sapir and Whorf investigated what it means that we think with language. The focus is not on the words themselves, the vocabulary, but on the system, in the Saussurean sense of the total language considered as a self-contained and integrated whole, wherein sounds, words, and grammar operate according to mutual relationships.

The effect of language on thought was especially developed by Whorf in his investigation of “covert” categories, systematic relations in language which are not overtly marked. A basic instance of this is the difference between “sheep” (singular) and “sheep” (plural), where the plurality of the second word is not indicated by the word itself, but by grammatical relations within the sentence. Covert categories were interesting to Whorf because they function on a deeply unconscious level and thus, Whorf believed, would have a motivational quality not easily resisted.

One covert category Whorf found especially significant is the case of gender in English. In contrast to other languages such as French and German, English has no covert gender markings for nouns. However, Whorf points out, many English nouns are not gender-neutral. For example, in Romance languages, female names are overtly marked with an “-elle” or “-ella” affix, as in “Danielle” or “Marguella”. In English, though, there are no clear differences between male and female names. Despite this lack of overt markings, it is still understood that George, William, and Richard are male, while Jane, Susan, and Betty are female. The gender of the named person is determined unconsciously, covertly; it is established through systematic relations within the entire language structure.

The implications of language for world-view are drawn more dramatically in Whorf’s comparison of Western European languages (called “SAE”, Standard Average European, for convenience) with Hopi. In SAE, non-real abstracts, such as time, are dealt with the same way real objects are. Thus time is spoken of in terms of measurable units (years, hours, days) and is counted as if those units were physical objects (1 hour, 10 days, compared with 1 chair, 10 walnuts). Furthermore, we apply spatial adjectives to temporal phenomena (“What a long day. ” “Is your week going smoothly?”). Hopi, on the other hand, does not treat time and other abstract concepts at all the same way. Where SAE expresses time in terms of units, Hopi expresses it in terms of the process of getting later. Thus, a “length of time” in SAE becomes a relational comparison of the difference in lateness between two events. Time units are not expressed as things which can be considered together, but as a measure of how far along in the process of becoming later an event occurs.

The metaphorical treatment of abstract concepts as reified entities recurs throughout SAE; words and ideas are treated as things which, when “relayed”, “carry” a message which, if “made clear”, a person could “receive”, and thus we “get a messages across”; substance qualities, such as “water” are used which treat them as if it were possible to apprehend them as a whole (“I’d like water” is said the same way as “The Earth’s surface is 70% water”). Hopi does not use metaphorical analogy in describing the world. Where SAE speakers say “water” as a description of any substance with that quality, the Hopi term describes the specific form in which it appears, so that it is unnecessary to use phrases like “a cup of… ” or “a gallon of… ” in order to give the water manipulable form. Likewise, instead of relying on spatial metaphors to describe abstract concepts, Hopi has “abundant conjugational and lexical means of expressing duration, intensity, and tendency directly as such” (Whorf: 146).

Whorf argues that the differences between SAE and Hopi linguistic systems are expressed in the cultural behaviours of their speakers. The Hopi linguistic expression of time as a process of becoming later is seen reflected in the Hopi cultural emphasis on preparedness and “constant insistent repetition” (Whorf: 151). Whorf says that, “To the Hopi, for whom time is not a motion but a ‘getting later’ of everything that has ever been done, unvarying repetition is not wasted but accumulated” (151). Similarly, the SAE linguistic reification of abstracts is held responsible for “materialism, psychophysical parallelism, physics… and dualistic views of the universe in general, Indeed… almost everything that is ‘hard, practical common sense’” (Whorf: 152).

Unfortunately, Whorf’s arguments are ambiguous as to the exact relationship between language and world-view. He seems to be arguing for a causal relationship: “Concepts of ‘time’ and ‘matter’… depend upon the nature of the language or languages through the use of which they have been developed” (Whorf: 158). However, his evidence does not prove causality–the statement quoted above could as easily read “The nature of a language depends upon the concepts which it has been developed to express.” Whorf himself admits that culture and its language system develop together in a state of feedback. It is no surprise then that at any given moment, linguistic structure is reflected in cultural world-views. To point out such correlations as exist at a given moment does not seem to be Whorf’s goal, anyway; besides, such correlations would shed little light on the nature of the relationship between language and culture. In keeping with Saussure’s notion of a language imposed on the individual from without, however, a sort of causal relationship can be inferred which has not so much to do with the relation between language and culture as between language and individuals, by saying that language as it is learned and used by individuals shapes the way they apprehend and construct their world. The problem is that this sort of argument necessitates dealing with language as an individual phenomenon, a situation which goes against one of the basic premises of Saussurean linguistics: that the object of study is langue, the level of language which is collective and shared by all speakers, and not parole, which is the level of language which is individual and variable. In order to study the motivational aspect of language in forming individual world-views, we should have to enter the forbidden realm of parole.

Saussure’s langue/parole distinction stood as a major factor in Sapir’s and Whorf’s failure to satisfactorily develop their Relativity Hypothesis. In Whorf’s writing, the tendency towards the field of parole is apparent. In “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language”, he uses examples from his experience as an insurance investigator to illustrate the relation between thought and language. For instance:

A drying room for hides was arranged with a blower at one end to make a current of air along the room and thence outdoors through a vent at the other end. Fire started at a hot bearing on the blower, which blew the flames directly into the hides and fanned them along the room, destroying the entire stock. This hazardous setup followed naturally from the term ‘blower’ with its linguistic equivalence to ‘that which blows’ implying that its function necessarily is to ‘blow.’ Also its function is verbalised as ‘blowing air for drying,’ overlooking that it can blow other things, e. g. flames and sparks. In reality, a blower simply makes a current of air and can exhaust as well as blow (Whorf: 136-7).

Whorf makes it clear that the accident described was caused as a result of habitual thinking which reflects linguistic usage. The word “blower” acts more powerfully to motivate behaviour than does the actual function of the device, to “create a current of air. ” However, this example, as well as the others he gives, is dependent on the context in which the speech act occurs. In other words, Whorf’s examples are all instances of language in use, that which Saussure designated parole and declared “ancillary and more or less accidental” ( Saussure: 14 [30]) and thus unnecessary for linguistic consideration. Much of Whorf’s ambiguity is the result of trying to study instances of parole according to the rules of langue. His failure to do so reflects not so much a lack of reasoning ability on his part but a weakness in the basic assumptions of Saussurean linguistic analysis. What is called for is a linguistic methodology for the study of language in use, and of the complex relationship between the shared system of meanings (langue) and the way those meanings influence behaviour in specific contexts (parole). While Saussure’s method is adequate for the study of language as a human trait, Whorf’s method begins to look at language as something which people do, for which Saussure’s method is sorely lacking.

While the Sapir-Whorf Relativity Hypothesis ultimately failed, it did so in interesting and even constructive, ways. As students of Franz Boas, Sapir and Whorf set out to prove the intellectual equality between Westerners and so-called “primitive” peoples. Whorf stresses that while the Hopi language and world-view are certainly different from our own. they are not inferior, and in many ways may in fact be superior as a way of perceiving and describing the world; “English compared to Hopi is like a bludgeon compared to a rapier” (Whorf: 85). While Whorf certainly succeeds in making this point, he fails in adequately addressing the greater issues raised by his work. Perhaps, had he lived longer, he may have transcended the Saussurean limitations on his work. Perhaps not. As it stands, he left a slew of unanswered questions, and a clue that the study of language has to be expanded it we are ever going to understand what it means to be language-using creatures.

References Cited
Saussure, Ferdinand de.

1972. (trans. 1983) Course in General Linguistics. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee.

1956. Language, Thought, and Reality. Cambridge. MA: M. I. T. Press.

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