Preamble: Benjamin Lee Whorf

Dan Moonhawk Alford (CIIS, JFKU,CSUH)
 

E-peheve-esheheve--its a good day! Tom, I appreciate your inviting us to talk to this distinguished group of thinkers, to whom I will pose the question: What is language?

But before I talk about language itself, I'd like to take a few moments to highlight a linguist of whom the three of us are exceedingly fond: Benjamin Whorf, best known for postulating the relativity of our conceptual systems and the role played by language in our knowing.

For any of you who know his name, but only in association with the unfortunate Whorf Hypothesis Hoax perpetrated by academic critics who don't practice holistic thinking as Whorf did, I can only urge you to go read Whorf in the original--in English, in one small book of collected writings called Language, Thought and Reality, by MIT Press. I can promise you insights about systems and wholeness which you can then adapt to your own concerns. I often discover hidden insights on the 20th or 30th reading of his articles!

One of Whorf's insights still actively being researched nearly 50 years after his death concerns our cultural notion of time as a verbal hallucination which we project onto reality and see there. Even Einstein talked about time and space being more about how we think about reality than about reality itself; yet, post-Einstein, even some linguists arent convinced. But the linguistic evidence is clear: though most human languages treat space in more or less the same ways, the same cannot be said of time. Our parochial notion of linear time--broken into three parts, past/present/future in one-directional time, everything at the same rate--is just one human conception of the elusive fourth dimension, in no way privileged over competing ways, such as the Hopi two-part manifesting-to-manifested sequence, an inner-to-outer conception which turns out to be closer than ours to the quantum-to-classical sequence of modern physics.

Continuing Whorf's work, I've been honored to attend, since 1992, not one but six (the seventh is next month) Dialogues between Western and Indigenous Scientists and thinkers. Starting with the first, presided over by David Bohm, a consensus emerged that what physicists call quantum, what Indians call spirit, and what linguists call meaning seem to be different angles on the same non-physical realm. The principles held in common included: a primary, causal realm of frequency and vibration--whatever exists vibrates; non-stability--the only constant is flux; and interrelationship--everything is interconnected in a part/whole relationship.

Physicists present had a difficult time understanding how the Indians had pre-knowledge of a realm they weren't supposed to know about, much less why Native languages are better suited to describing quantum-like eventings, where there are no things to hang nouns on, than our own noun-heavy Western languages such as English. Compare Whitehead's description of the atom ("All we know an atom by is its radiating--but there is no thing there radiating!") with statements by my Native friends that they can talk all day long without uttering a single noun!

We did not know until this century that mathematical languages come in at least two complementary flavors--object-oriented and process/relationship-oriented--so it should come as no surprise that it is neither well-known nor yet fully accepted that spoken human languages as well exist in these same two flavors, with our own Western languages exemplifying only one flavor, which we often fancy to be universal. Out of each flavor flows unique worldviews, thinking, logics, grammars and consciousness in delightfully diverse ways, relatively speaking, none inherently inferior to any other--just different.

This variety in the basic makeup of human languages exemplifies Whorf's famous line about the profound worldview and cosmological changes that occur in changing from one language to another, as well as Einstein's deep linguistic point in relativity.

There's no better way to conclude this preamble than to quote one of Whorf's most prophetic insights, from the late 1930s, which I believe manifested at the 1992 Bohmian Science Dialog. He said,