The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Hoax on VMs List

Wed, 22 Sep 1999
From: Robert Firth

Let me confess - I've never really accepted the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Mainly because it didn't seem to square with my own experience of language.

To give one example: there was no people ever who were more concerned with the future than the Egyptians. But their verb has no future tense! You have to use the optative, so instead of "I will come tomorrow" you say "I hope to come tomorrow".

And take another example: English. English is a very rich language, but its words are imprecise, they carry broad shades of meaning (see what I mean). But the practice of science, for instance, requires extreme precision. In theory, then, speakers of English should be absolutely useless at science. But we're not, for the simple reason that, when we talk about science, we don't use English, we use a vocabulary drawn almost entirely from latin and Greek. Oh, and some German, for instance in quantum mechanics.

This suggests strongly that Whorf was wrong: people are quite capable of thinking against the grain of their language, and to do so they use metaphors, linguistic conventions, or in extreme cases steal the appropriate words from other languages. It doesn't really matter where the words come from - if the concept is needed, the words will happen.

"Black cat, white cat, catch rat, good cat"

[Joao Leao 22 Sep 1999]

Robert Firth says: ... there was no people ever who were more concerned with the future than the Egyptians. But their verb has no future tense! You have to use the optative, so instead of "I will come tomorrow" you say "I hope to come tomorrow".
This is something which is easy to be cavalier about though language is ALLWAYS a very slippery business. Most of everything you can find a handy example off you can also find a counterexample. I am a native portuguese speaker and was always amazed by the extensive usage of the future subjunctive in common portuguese speech. This is a verbal form that is absent in French and Italian for example and hardly ever used in Spanish. It comes very close to the form you have above but not quite. The best english reconstruction starts with "If I was to, as I hope, come tomorrow..."

This reflects quite much the prevailing uncertainty of a culture which ventures but undecisively as we have for centuries. What am I suggesting about Sapir-Whorf? Is it language that binds thinking or the other way around? Both, of course!

Robert Firth says: ... English is a very rich language, but its words are imprecise, they carry broad shades of meaning (see what I mean). But the practice of science, for instance, requires extreme precision. In theory, then, speakers of English should be absolutely useless at science. But we're not, for the simple reason that, when we talk about science, we don't use English, we use a vocabulary drawn almost entirely from latin and Greek. Oh, and some German, for instance in quantum mechanics.
[Joao Leao:]

I beg to differ here too. What gives english it's edge over other competing languages is a mix between being easy enough to be taught to foreigner and smart enough to appropriate whatever words it does not have! So an "eigenvalue" in quantum mechanics, to take your example, is a much more precise concept-word than the german "eigenwert" because it has only one reference in english while it has at least two in german!

Robert Firth says: This suggests strongly that Whorf was wrong: people are quite capable of thinking against the grain of their language, and to do so they use metaphors, linguistic conventions, or in extreme cases steal the appropriate words from other languages. It doesn't really matter where the words come from - if the concept is needed, the words will happen.
[Joao Leao:]

Exactly. Only some languages are more reluctant than other to appropriate. Think of Spanish for example. I think Whorf's main contribution was to call attention for the pragmatic interplay of language and culture rather than by the verifiability of his hypothesis. The relationship between what one can think and one can say is a much subtler and non linguistic matter (see Wittgenstein).

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[Moonhawk:]
Robert Firth wrote: Let me confess - I've never really accepted the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Please state "the Hypothesis" this is an example of. Is it that people who have no word for something can't think about it? If so, that has nothing to do with anything Whorf actually wrote.
Robert Firth wrote: And take another example: English. English is a very rich language, but its words are imprecise, ...
Again: Please state the Hypothesis this is an example of. Is it that people who have what you characterize as "imprecise" words can't be precise? If so, that has nothing to do with anything Whorf actually wrote. And that's now possibly a second version of "the Hypothesis".
Robert Firth wrote: This suggests strongly that Whorf was wrong: people are quite capable of thinking against the grain of their language, ...
Where exactly did Whorf say that people are not capable of thinking against the grain of their language? My 37 years of reading Whorf closely shows exactly the opposite, and you would know that too if you actually read Whorf instead of relying on his critics. The force of Whorf's insights says instead that most people *generally* think within the ruts laid down by their language; he wrote about the "fashions of speaking" that people usually use -- NOT what people were capable of doing or not. Dan Slobin coined the phrase "thinking for speaking" as one form of human thinking, among others, which is close to Whorf's conception. In THAT form of thinking, speaking to self or rehearsing for others, the thinking is entirely at the mercy of the grammar and lexicon and culture of the language one is thinking in -- true also for mathematical and computer languages.

Let's remember too that English has no "future tense," only work-arounds such as modals (will, shall), adverbs of time (I fly to Chicago tomorrow), etc., but no formal verb-form-changing tense such as Latin has -- yet we are very future-oriented. Is this some falsification of Whorf? Hardly, since -- unlike Chomsky, who made language autonomous from culture -- for Whorf language and culture were two sides of the same coin, and we get our whole past/present/future conception of time from our historical euro-culture.

I'll say to you what I have been saying to linguists since 1978: let's PLEASE not talk about the details of The Great Whorf Hypothesis Hoax anymore. If you want to talk about Whorf and what he ACTUALLY wrote, please include a quotation and citation so we can all be on the same page!

I start teaching in two days, and I'll have to pull back on trying to educate this list about Whorf, logic, syllabaries, etc.

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Joao Leao wrote: ...I am a native portuguese speaker and was always amazed by the extensive usage of the future subjunctive in common portuguese speech. This is a verbal form that is absent in French and Italian for example and hardly ever used in Spanish. It comes very close to the form you have above but not quite. The best english reconstruction starts with "If I was to, as I hope, come tomorrow..."

This reflects quite much the prevailing uncertainty of a culture which ventures but undecisively as we have for centuries. What am I suggesting about Sapir-Whorf? Is it language that binds thinking or the other way around? Both, of course!

[Moonhawk:]

FINALLY! SOMEONE WHO GETS IT RIGHT! That careful wording is exactly in line with Whorf's writings.

Joao Leao wrote: I think Whorf's main contribution was to call attention for the pragmatic interplay of language and culture rather than by the verifiability of his hypothesis. The relationship between what one can think and one can say is a much subtler and non linguistic matter (see Wittgenstein).
[Moonhawk:]

Exactly, except it wasn't HIS hypothesis! Please stick with your more careful wordings. It was Brown, Lenneberg, Slobin, Cole & Scribner and others who concocted the hypotheses and attached Whorf's name to their monstrosities. He wrote no hypothesis.

Otherwise, "By George, he's GOT it!"

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[R. Brzustowicz 22 Sep 1999]

(I suppose that (say) if a number of Hopis had studied Aristotelian logic in the 19th century (say from Jesuits, in Latin) they would have been able to discuss it in Hopi -- and other Hopis would have thought their mode of speech as bizarre as people think the English that represents what Hegel or Heidegger wrote. In this case one might I think speak more readily about calquing -- the point is that it's the *way* words are used, rather than the source of the words, that's the key.)

[Moonhawk]

Very nice. Although speakers of some Native American languages do not use nouns in their daily "fashions of speaking," they are still capable of creating the nouns which would be essential for Aristotelian logic -- and they DO for teaching purposes. The difference is that they erase them when they're finished rather than, as we do, build their entire systems of logic, science, philosophy and worldview on said nouns!

Are my elucidations of Whorf becoming clearer with endless repetition?