Subject: Re: Whorf's idea

From: Dan Moonhawk Alford

Date: Tue, 29 Feb 2000 17:23:12 -0500


How can I not intervene, with such an opening?

On Sat, 26 Feb 2000, Norman Holland wrote:

Signifiers "belong to a symbolic structure that shapes us daily." Now, this is what is known in linguistic circles as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.
Although this simplistic monocausal deterministic argument is known in linguistic (psychological, sociological, anthropological, etc.) circles as the Sapir-Whorf or simply Whorf Hypothesis, it has absolutely nothing to do with anything that either Whorf or Sapir actually wrote. It's a strawman argument devised by small minds that can't grasp the full complexity of a complementary argument: the way people think has something important to do with the way they speak -- AND VICE VERSA -- would be closer to the ways in which Sapir and Whorf approached this issue. The additional phrase above is critically important and overlooked by most critics/commentators.
Whorf argued that Amerindian languages, very differently structured from Indo-European, changed their speakers' way of seeing the world.
More carefully, since their view is not actually CHANGED from some universalized underlying Indo-European worldview to something else, we might say that the language/culture (mainly post-1957 Chomskyian linguists are so foolish as to arbitrarily make language autonomous from culture) of a people shapes their worldview as well as reflects it. If, as I have learned from Native America, you can in many of these languages talk all day long without ever uttering a single noun, focusing on verbs of processes and relationships instead of "things," with no obligatory split between subject and predicate, can anyone here claim that is not a different way of seeing and being in the world?
On our list, Dan Alford Moonhawk defends this view vigorously (and may intervene in our discussion),
Moonhawk is my given Cheyenne name (Aenohe-eshe?e) rather than family name. ;-) And, as you can see, it's not the simplistic strawman view, but what Sapir and Whorf actually wrote, which I defend vigorously.
but most linguists do not accept it or accept it in a very limited form.
Okay. Try this as an alternative: I haven't searched all of Sapir, but I can safely say, and stake whatever reputation I have on saying it, that in all of Whorf's writings, there is not a single Hypothesis that he wrote. He called it "the PRINCIPLE of linguistic relativity." All hypotheses (and there are literally hundreds!) have been written by other people who failed to put their own names to them, blaming Whorf for their failures.

Further, Whorf's has everything to do with Einstein's principle of relativity, since both Sapir and Whorf got the idea from the founder of linguistics, Wilhelm von Humboldt -- and so did Einstein, through his mentor and rooming house owner Jost Winteler, a Humboldtian trained relativity linguist, when he was a grad student in Zurich. (See my "Stealing the Fire" and other Whorf articles on my webpage.) So anyone taking on Whorf must take on Einstein as well. At bottom of Einstein's principle: you can't use a 3D language (Euclidean geometry) to describe a 4D universe; for that you need a non-euclidean language. As Whorf said, a change in language can change your view of the cosmos.

20th-C social science, however, deals with testable hypotheses built on monocausal determinism, which Whorf rejected in favor of the more subtle logic of complementarity. Thus, the linguists et. al. who accept monocausal deterministic interpretations "in a more limited view" are still deterministic -- while Whorf, whom they accuse of it, is not. Does the term "projection" mean anything to you?

Their argument is that all languages have to conform to the ecology we face--something like Freud's reality principle--so they can't change our perceptions of things very much or at all.
I guess that would be true if reality consisted entirely of "things," but invisible processes and relationships are up for grabs, IMO. Well, actually, even "things" are up for grabs: "duck" and "rattlesnake" have little in common in English, but SO much in common in Cheyenne that both words begin with the same morpheme, "she?she," and then rattlesnake has an extra morpheme meaning "goes down in a hole." So a rattlesnake is a duck that goes down in a hole? Patently absurd for any human being. Except that "she?she' really refers to the combined sound/motion as either one is going away from you. The morphemes don't refer to "things" at all, but physical primes of animate movement from which "things" may be inferred.

And if that isn't a fundamentally different way of seeing the world than we do, I have no idea what would qualify!

Finally, I tell my grad students that if they really want to know the deepest and most important issues of their discipline, whatever that may be, then see who the discipline is beating up on! And if they are ever so lucky as me to find someone that four or five disciplines are ganging up to beat up on, they'll know they've struck gold!

Again, if anyone is interested in what Whorf REALLY said, check out my webpage. You'll be amazed.

warm regards, moonhawk