Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis


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My presentation for Anthropological Linguistics graduate class at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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  • For Whorf, the goal of linguistic analysis is to describe such worldviews. Since they cannot be inferred from direct questioning of informants, who are often not aware of their choices and habits, they must be studied on the basis of systematic observations of grammatical patterns and, in particular, on the basis of comparison between languages that are radically different,
  • One of the strongest statements of the position that the way in which we think about the world is influenced by the language we use to talk about
  • These ideas generated a considerable debate within anthropology and psychology, including a fair number of empirical studies aimed at either confirming or disproving the linguistic relativity hypothesis
  • These indices of professional credentialization were indeed important by the 1930s; Whorf stood out among his contemporaries in not attempting to obtain formal credentialization from his apprenticeship with Sapir or to earn his living as a linguist.North American linguistics was still becoming professional, its disciplinary autonomy dating back only to the founding of the Linguistic Society of America and its journal Language in 1925. Whorf’s publication outlets challenged these new-found respectabilities and disciplinary specializations.
  • 3. Such religious preoccupations were readily dismissed in an intellectual climate that emphasized the superficial appearance of science. Science was understood to be self-consciously and unequivocally secular.4. Thus, Whorf’s access to the Hopi language in its proper cultural context and amongmonolingual speakers was extremely limited. Whorf was not able to carry out conventional fieldwork except on an occasional vacation from his non-academicemployment, although he did receive prestigious and highly competitive funding from the Social Science Research Council for fieldwork. His contemporaries, however, spent much more time “in the field,” which was consideredpart of the mystique of being a “real” anthropologist.
  • One of the strongest criticisms of linguistic relativity came from researchers who studied color terms cross linguistically.
  • The same eleven categories in the same ordering can be interpreted temporally, in terms of an evolutionary scale which goes from a system that has only white and black to the more differentiated system with more basic color terms.
  • Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

    1. 1. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis<br />Jessie G. Varquez, Jr.<br />Anthro 270. 10 August 2011.<br />
    2. 2. Sapir-Whorf HypothesisWhorfian HypothesisLinguistic Relativism<br /><ul><li>Language coerces thought
    3. 3. The limit of my language is the limit of my world.
    4. 4. people's thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language
    5. 5. humans are at the mercy of the particular language they speak</li></li></ul><li>Outline<br /><ul><li>Reading Sapir/Whorf firsthand
    6. 6. Who are they?
    7. 7. Critiques
    8. 8. Defenders</li></li></ul><li>References<br /><ul><li>Darnell, Regna. 2006. “Benjamin Lee Whorf and the Boasian Foundations of Contemporary Ethnolinguistics”. In Language Culture and Society: Key topics in Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    9. 9. Duranti, Alessandro. 1997. Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    10. 10. Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: William Morrow & Co.</li></li></ul><li>“I find it gratuitous to assume that a Hopi who knows only the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of his own society has the same notions, often supposed to be intuitions, of time and space that we have, and that are generally assumed to be universal. In particular he has no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a present, into a past; or, in which, to reverse the picture, the observer is being carried in the stream of duration continuously away from a past and into a future.”<br />Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. An American Indian Model of the Universe. In J. B. Carroll (ed.), Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (pp. 57–64). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.<br />
    11. 11. “It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems in communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”<br />Sapir, Edward. 1949. The Status of Linguistics as a Science. In D. G. Mandelbaum (ed.), Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality (pp. 160–6). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.<br />
    12. 12. “From this fact proceeds what I have called the “linguistic relativity principle,” which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers, but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.”<br />Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Linguistics as an Exact Science. In J. B. Carroll (ed.), Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (pp. 220–32). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.<br />
    13. 13. Famous example<br />Empty drum analysis<br />although the physical, non-linguistic situation is dangerous (“empty” drums contain explosive vapor) speakers take it to mean “innocuous” because they associate the word empty with the meaning “null and void” and hence “negative and inert”<br />
    14. 14. Lucy, John A. 1992. Grammatical Categories and Cognition: A Case Study of theLinguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge University Press.<br />
    15. 15. Whorf’s biographical sketch<br />Holds chemical engineering degree from MIT and worked as fire inspector at Hartford Fire Insurance Company<br />an avid reader of Middle America prehistory and Maya archaeology. Whorf later studied Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament<br />Taught a required course, on “Problems of American Indian Linguistics” to anthropology graduate students at Yale while Sapir was away for a sabbatical leave<br />
    16. 16. Intellectual tradition<br />
    17. 17. Critiques<br />Amateur linguist<br /><ul><li>he never held an academic degree in anthropology or linguistics; moreover, his only teaching position was in 1937 to 1938 when he replaced Edward Sapir, who was on sabbatical, for a single course in American Indian linguistics</li></ul>Writing appeared in unconventional journals<br /><ul><li>Directed to engineers or Theosophists, and aimed to make technical linguistic material accessible to educated but non-professional audiences</li></li></ul><li>Critiques<br />Theosophical Society leanings and fascination with Asian philosophies<br /><ul><li>have inspired charges of mentalism, already highly suspect, degenerating into mysticism</li></ul>How much he actually knew about the Hopi<br /><ul><li>He worked extensively with the language in New York City with Ernest Naquayouma, a native speaker of Hopi who, obviously, was bilingual.</li></li></ul><li>Malotki (1983), for example, showed that Hopi verbs do have tense inflection (present, past, future) and that the Hopi language does use spatial metaphor for talking about time. <br />Hopi speech contains tense, metaphors for time, units of time (including days, numbers of days, parts of the day, yesterday and tomorrow, days of the week, weeks, months, lunar phases, seasons, and the year), ways to quantify units of time, and words like "ancient," "quick,”"long time," and "finished.“<br />Malotki, Ekkehart. 1983. Hopi Time: a linguistic analysis of the temporal concepts in the Hopi language. Berlin: Mouton. [Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs, 20.]<br />
    18. 18. Critique<br />Berlin and Kay (1969) reported results based on the empirical study of color terminology in twenty languages and the consultation of the literature of an even larger number (78) and argued that there are universal constraints on <br /><ul><li>How languages encode and organize basic color terms and
    19. 19. how languages change over time by adding new basic color terms to their lexicon.</li></li></ul><li>Berlin, Brent and Paul Kay. 1969. Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.<br />
    20. 20. When we hear or read, we usually remember the gist, not the exact words, so there has to be such a thing as a gist that is not the same as a bunch of words. And if thoughts depended on words, how could a new word ever be coined? How could a child learn a word to begin with? How could translation from one language to another be possible?<br />
    21. 21. But the more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make. Take the story about the worker and the "empty" drum. The seeds of disaster supposedly lay in the semantics of empty, which, Whorf claimed, means both "without its usual contents" and "null and void, empty, inert." The hapless worker, his conception of reality molded by his linguistic categories, did not distinguish between the "drained" and "inert" senses, hence, flick . . . boom! But wait. Gasoline vapor is invisible. A drum with nothing but vapor in it looks just like a drum with nothing in it at all. Surely this walking catastrophe was fooled by his eyes, not by the English language.<br />The language instict<br />
    22. 22. But it is wrong, all wrong. The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications.<br />
    23. 23. Language as metaphor<br />George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) suggested that <br /><ul><li>our everyday language is much richer in metaphors than we might suspect,
    24. 24. metaphors are means of viewing one kind of experience in terms of another, and
    25. 25. metaphors imply certaintheories (or “folk theories”) about the world or our experience of it.</li></li></ul><li>Language as metaphor<br />English: understanding is seeing<br /><ul><li>“I see what you’re saying.”
    26. 26. “It looks different from my point of view.”
    27. 27. I’ve got the whole picture.”</li></ul>Tagalog: sexual metaphors<br /><ul><li>“Tigangnaako.”
    28. 28. “Ginamit mo langsiya.”</li></ul> Cebuano’s world<br /><ul><li>Kalibutan, root word ‘libot’-going around</li></li></ul><li>Defender: Regna Darnell<br /> I have argued elsewhere (Darnell 2001) that Whorf’s formulation of the linguistic relativity principle owes much to Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934), whose goal was for the anthropologist to become “culture-conscious.”<br />
    29. 29. Post-war positivism further eclipsed the humanistic linguistics that neither Sapir nor Whorf were around to defend.<br />Again, Whorf’s most contentious positions are deeply grounded in Boasian anthropology, in the intersection of linguistics and ethnology around the study of the American Indian. Again, this is the context which has been obscured in recent readings of Whorf.<br />
    30. 30. The end – daghangsalamat!<br />The object lesson here is that the Whorfian tradition within Americanist anthropology is not necessarily incompatible withthe rationalist and universalist agendas of cognitive science. Whorf, like Sapir, explored the foundations of what today is called ethnolinguistics as a critical part of his linguistic relativity principle.<br />