LINGUIST List 2.657

Mon 14 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf

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  • , RE: 2.632 Whorf
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  • , RE: 2.632 Whorf
  • , 2.636 Whorf

    Message 1: RE: 2.632 Whorf

    Date: Thu, 10 Oct 1991 17:28:43 EDT
    From: <SEGUINVAXS.SSCL.UWO.CA>
    Subject: RE: 2.632 Whorf
    The posting by Laughlin mentioning the Berlin & Kay work done in the sixties as "disconfirming" the Whorfian position might be disconfirmed itself by a more recent study (Kay was a co-author I think) in which there was an effect on perception attributable to the colour term system of a language. Instead of finding that speakers of a language such as Tarahumara which doesn't cut the green-blue line as English does lack the ability to perceive the distinction (they can do all of the sorting tasks very well), the test discovers that it is the speakers of English whose perception is skewed. Specifically, the judge- ments that English speakers make about "how different" pairs of chips are that are actually spaced evenly along the wave-length continuum are systematically skewed to "push apart" pairs where a colour term boundary intervenes. As many of the contributors have noted this is not the sort of effect that most interested Whorf, but as Laughlin noted it is the field from which many had thought that definitive disconfirmation had come. So we have met the natives whose language filters the world -- and they are us.

    Message 2: NONE

    Date: Fri, 11 Oct 91 09:58:00 PAC
    From: <STEVEROYIDUI1.bitnet>
    Subject: NONE
    THE DISCUSSION ON WHORF AND LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY SHOWS AGAIN HOW DIFFICULT IT IS TO DEMONSTRATE CAUSALITY EMPIRICALLY. HISTORICALLY, THE DIFFICULTY OF DOING SO FOR THE SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS SUGGESTS THAT THERE IS NO STRONG CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP. HOWEVER, THE LARGELY NEGATIVE RESULTS ALSO MAY MEAN THAT THE QUESTIONS WERE NOT QUITE RIGHT. SO FAR AS I KNOW (NOT VERY FAR) THE EARLY ATTEMPTS TO TEST THE HYPOTHESIS (AS IT EVOLVED) FOCUSED ON LINGUISTIC INFLUENCE ON THE PERCEPTION AND CATE- GORIZATION OF ONE'S PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT (COLORS, SHAPES, BASIC TYPES, ETC.). SINCE CATEGORIZATION OF CONCRETE OBJECTS IS CONSTRAINED (AT LEAST IN PART, PERHAPS LARGE PART) BY SENSORY RECEPTORS AND LOW-LEVEL COGNITIVE PROCESSING, PERHAPS IT NEVER WAS REALLY REASONABLE TO EXPECT LINGUISTIC CATEGORIES TO AFFECT SUCH COGNITIVE CATEGORIES MUCH. HOWEVER, ONCE WE GO BEYOND CONCRETE CATEGORIES TO ABSTRACT CATEGORIES, THERE IS MUCH MORE OPPORTUNITY FOR LANGUAGE TO INFLUENCE THINKING. LAKOFF AND JOHNSON, AND LAKOFF IN MUCH MORE DETAIL IN _WOMEN, FIRE, AND DANGEROUS THINGS_, HAVE SUGGESTED HOW CATEGORIZATIONS OF SOCIAL, AFFECTIVE AND CULTURAL ABSTRACTIONS MAY DEVELOP AS METAPHORICAL EXTEN- SIONS OF CONCRETE CATEGORIZATIONS TO ABSTRACT ONES. OF COURSE, SUCH CULTURAL ABSTRACTIONS ARE PASSED ALONG LINGUISTICALLY ANYWAY, AND SO TO TALK ABOUT CAUSALITY MAY BE CIRCULAR, BUT THE HYPOTHESIS SHOULD STILL RAISE INTERESTING QUESTIONS ABOUT CORRELATIONS IF NOT OUTRIGHT CAUSALITY

    Message 3: RE: 2.632 Whorf

    Date: Fri, 11 Oct 1991 13:58:45 -0400 (EDT)
    From: <J_LIMBERUNHH.UNH.EDU>
    Subject: RE: 2.632 Whorf
    I have been struck by the somewhat narrow focus of the discussion about Whorf and linguistic relativity. Perhaps my personal recollections will broaden the discussion! As an undergraduate in the late 50s and early 60s it was commonplace, I'm sure, to read not only about linguistic relativity but some of Whorf's own writings. I first encountered Whorf in an intro social psychology class--the several papers in the Newcombe reader which was widely used. We also used the Saporta reader in an undergraduate psycholinguistics class. The Saporta volume also contains excerpts from Whorf and some papers by Lenneberg, Greenberg, Vygotsky, Roger Brown and an interesting experimental paper. Vygotsky, as one might surmise from a "socialist" theorist, was influenced by various German writers including von HUmboldt--whose veiws are developed in Brown (1967) and in some papers by Aarsleff (1982). Similarly the interest in relativity within psychology and linguistics at the same time is not surprising given the parallel behaviorist climate in the USA--(the apocryphal "languages can very in infinitely many ways...) Finally, it is obvious that Kuhn's work follows along the same tradition. As I try to persuade my students, there is not much more in Kuhn than what follows from the propositions that "a scientific theory is a language" and "linguistic relativity is true." What is most irksome to me even today in discussions of relativity is the continued emphasis on the morpheme (the fabled numbers of "words" for camel, snow, etc.) without recognition that the functional linguistic referential structure is the phrase or clause.. While there may be interesting cultural aspects to specific lexical entries--and perhaps some important implications for memory and information processing, it remains the case that the unique and fundamental aspect of human languages is in the realm of syntactically generated "names" for concepts for which no specific morpheme is available. It is not a coincidence that the earliest relative clauses observed in 2-3 year olds are on empty noun heads like "one, thing, kind, way, place"- -e.g. "I want one like Lev has." John Limber, Psychology, University of New Hampshire Brown, R. L. (1967). Wilhelm Von Humboldt's Conception of Linguistic Relativity . The Hague: Mouton. Rheingold, H. (1988). They Have A Word For It. . Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc. Saporta, S. (1960) (Ed) Psycholinguistics : A book or readings. HOlt Rinehart Newcombe etc. ?? (1958??) (Eds) Readings in Social Psychology Vygotsky Language and Thought Kuhn, T. (1960?) Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd Ed) Aarsleff, H. (1982). From Locke to Saussure . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Message 4: 2.636 Whorf

    Date: Thu, 10 Oct 91 17:58:12 EDT
    From: <Alexis_Manaster_Ramermts.cc.wayne.edu>
    Subject: 2.636 Whorf
    I am very grateful to those who have written in to note that the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was NOT what Whorf (or a fortiori Sapir) maintained. And also to those who have written in reminding us of the results, such the Berlin and Kay ones, that seem in fact to support the Un-Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. However, it should be noted that these results do NOT show a causal relation going from language to cognition. Indeed, the often-noted fact that color terminologies seem to become more and more complex as the speakers' material culture becomes more and more complex would argue for precisely the opposite causality: People find they need to distinguish more colors because of material, nonlinguistic reasons, and then devise the necessary linguistic means to formalize the distinctions. I would also like to address briefly the question of a connection with Humboldt. As I noted in my first message on the subject of Whorf, Whorf (like most of his contemporaries) PRESUPPOSED the existence of a connection between language and cognition, a connection which Humboldt was one of the first (if not the first) to make. The issue is very simple,really. Before Humboldt and others like him, the standard way of describing languages was in terms of how they would be glossed in some Western metalanguage like Latin or Spanish. This is why people were perfectly happy to describe ergative constructions (in e.g. Greenlandic) or "active" ones (e.g., in Huron and Guarani, see Mithun's recent Language article) without noticing anything odd. They would just say that the subject and the verb had different forms in transitive as opposed to intransitive constructions. People like Humboldt came up with the revolutionary idea of describing languages in their own terms, which meant that the superficial patterns of each language had to be taken at face value. Hence, Humboldt's argument that Malayo-polynesian verbs are really nouns, for example. Or later arguments by various people that ergatives are really passives (or other things). But that then made it imperative to explain why exotic peoples say things that we would not, e.g., why do they use "nouns" instead of verbs or "passives" instead of actives. And the explaination, of course, was that they THINK differently from us as well. Whorf, like almost all his contemporaries, was steeped in this way of thinking, but certainly did not originate it. As I noted before, his point to show just HOW EXOTIC languages could get, and this he tried to do by discussing the Hopi treatment of time, events, and quantities.