Monday, April 27, 2009 4/27/09--Hopi Language

In today's excerpt--in the 1930s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced the theory that the structure of language profoundly changes the way its users think and vice-versa, and that, for example, since they believed the Hopi had no way to mark past or future tense, they further believed Hopi society thought very differently about the concept of time. John McWhorter disagrees:

"One of the most popular ideas is that a language's grammar and the way its words pattern reflect aspects of its speakers' culture and the way they think. Countless times I have witnessed the hush in a classroom when introducing undergraduates to this hypothesis. If one doesn't pick this up in college, one will catch it in newspaper and magazine articles about indigenous groups, or even in bits of folk wisdom floating around. ...

"This idea that 'grammar is thought' became influential from the writings of Edward Sapir ... [and] Sapir's student Benjamin Lee Whorf. ... The hypothesis is known, therefore, as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

"The hypothesis has also failed. Repeatedly and conclusively. Decade after decade, no one has turned up anything showing that grammar marches with culture and thought in the way that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claimed. At best, there are some shards of evidence that language affects thought patterns in subtle ways, which do not remotely approach the claims of Whorf.

"Yet the Sapir-Whorf idea is cited enthusiastically in textbooks even today, and is a favorite approach to language by journalists. In 2004 a New York Times writer supposed that the language of the Kawesqar tribe in Chile has no future tense marking because, having been nomads traveling often in canoes in the past, they would usually have been so unclear on what was going to happen in the future that there was no need to ever talk about it (!). Never mind that Japanese has no future markers either, and yet the Japanese hardly seem unconcerned with the future. The point is that this Times writer would not have even floated such a notion if it weren't for the seed planted by [Sapir and] Whorf's work. ...

"Whorf's piece de resistance was an observation about the language of the Hopi: that it does not mark time in any way. He argued that this made Hopi speakers think in a way completely different from us Westerners, with our persnickety obsession with past, present, and future. The Hopis, he argued, think of time as cyclical, to the extent that they even have a concept of 'time' as an ongoing process in the way that we do.

"Grammars do differ in what concepts they choose to mark. Spanish marks gender on nouns. Japanese does not, but it has markers showing whether a noun is a subject or object. All grammars mark some things; no grammar marks everything. Whorf's idea was that which things a grammar happens to mark determines what its speakers perceive most readily in their daily lives. ...

"Therefore, [Whorf espoused that] Western scientific advances presumably correspond to our languages' rich tense marking: [He wrote] 'Newtonian space, time, and matter are no intuitions. They are recepts from culture and language. That is where Newton got them.' This is why, therefore, it was not Native Americans who gave the world theoretical physics.

"Whorf, as it happened, was a fire insurance inspector by day, and perhaps it was partly because of this that he did not know Hopi very well. Quite simply, Hopi has as much equipment for placing events in time as any language. ... Yet Whorf s claim about Hopi was quite explicit; i.e., that Hopi has 'no words, grammatical forms, constructions, or expressions that refer directly to what we call time; or to past, or future, or to enduring or lasting.' In other words, Whorf was just wrong. ... It is dismaying to see how deeply the idea has permeated educated thought nevertheless."

John McWhorter, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Gotham, Copyright 2008 by John McWhorter, pp. 137-144


Blogger Peter Gordon said...

Whorf claimed that language was a filter on experience, that emphasized some aspects of categorizing reality and de-emphasized others. He never claimed that grammar was the same as thought, or that it "marched in step" with thought or anything so brazen. Although Whorf undoubtedly overextended claims with respect to Hopi time expressions, the sloppiness goes both ways when one overextends Whorf's claims to become straw man arguments. Similarly, the claim that there is NO evidence for the Whorfian hypothesis is contradicted by a currently very active rigorous experimental field of research at the nation's top institutions that shows effects of language on thought in many domains including number, color, space, time etc. Ad hominem remarks about Whorf's previous career as an insurance inspector (which he did not in fact continue as his "day job" on the faculty at Yale) could perhaps be compared to those of TS Elliot, Wittgenstein, and Albert Einstein, who were bank and patent clerks in their respective "day jobs".

12:30 PM  

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