Saturday, September 4, 2010

the original Whorf

Guy Deutcher's NYT's article on how language affects thought continues to get buzz, as surely his book Through The Language Glass will when people read it (it was just released 3 days ago and is currently #234 on Amazon's book rank). One common reaction amongst bloggers is that Deutscher gives Whorf himself unfairly harsh treatment, and ultimately mis-represents Whorf's own opinions.

For example, Kathryn Woolard, SLA President, says "Whorf’s own statements of his theory look little like the caricature that opens the NYT article and much more like the position that Deutscher himself offers as reasonable and compelling. Far from holding that “the inventory of ready-made words” in a language “forbids” speakers to think specific thoughts, Whorf argued that patterns of grammatical structures, often the most covert ones at that, give rise not to a language prison but to a “provisional analysis of reality” and habits of mind, very much as Deutscher concludes."

Mark Liberman says "And in fairness to Whorf, he mostly ... suggested that linguistic differences would have exactly the sorts of minor biasing effects on perception and memory that Boroditsky and others have found."

Greg Downey says "The one thing that turns me off to Duetscher’s writings is his pretty harsh bashing of Benjamin Whorf, who, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting anthropological linguists."

However, we don't need to rely on these secondary sources to stand up for Whorf, we can read one of Whorf's original papers that started this kerfluffel (60 years ago): Science and Linguistics (pdf). Happily for the lay reader, that paper is neither very science-ee nor linguistic-ee, nor is it very long. It's actually quite readable. It's basically a series of thought experiments and casual language facts. If you can read Deutescher's article, you can read Whorf's.

So let's take a look at what Whorf said in his own words.

Whorf begins the article by describing what he calls "natural logic": Every normal person in the world, past infancy in years, can and does talk. By virtue of that fact, every person — civilized or uncivilized — carries through life certain naive but deeply rooted ideas about talking and its relation to thinking. Because of their firm connection with speech habits that have become unconscious and automatic, these notions tend to be rather intolerant of opposition. They are by no means entirely personal and haphazard; their basis is definitely systematic, so that we are justified in calling them a system of natural logic (emphasis added).

He then goes on to describe what natural logic says about the difference between language and thought. Namely that "Natural logic says that talking is merely an incidental process concerned strictly with communication, not with formulation of ideas. Talking, or the use of language, is supposed only to “express” what is essentially already formulated nonlinguistically. Formulation is an independent process, called thought or thinking, and is supposed to be largely indifferent to the nature of particular languages.[...] Natural logic holds that different languages are essentially parallel methods for expressing this one-and-the-same rationale of thought and, hence, differ really in but minor ways..."

So Whorf claims that the average person is walking around (in 1940, mind you) believing that language and thought are independent processes and that thought is the same across all people, it's only languages that differ, and only slightly. Personally I find this a simplistic straw man argument. I'm not convinced all that many people held this view. Nonetheless, Whorf spends the rest of the article attacking his own straw man. A little too easy. But let's see what he actually says.

Whorf then says that because people hold this view of natural logic, we are unable to see its flaws, that it is a part of our background assumptions and hence invisible to our thinking. This becomes a crucial part of his argument. We are unable to to imagine possibilities outside of natural logic: What it might well suggest to us today is that, if a rule has absolutely no exceptions, it is not recognized as a rule or as anything else; it is then part of the background of experience of which we tend to remain unconscious. Never having experienced anything in contrast to it, we cannot isolate it and formulate it as a rule until we so enlarge our experience and expand our base of reference that we encounter an interruption of its regularity (emphasis added). This rung quite hollow with me. He uses a couple of examples that undermine his very point. He asks us to imagine a person who could only see blue. That person would be unable to discover that they could only see blue because they wouldn't know what it was not see something else. Then he writes about gravity: The phenomenon of gravitation forms a rule without exceptions; needless to say, the untutored person is utterly unaware of any law of gravitation, for it would never enter his head to conceive of a universe in which bodies behaved otherwise than they do at the earth’s surface (emphasis added).

Huh? Neither the blue-only example nor the gravity-ignorant example are convincing precisely because we stand (as they did in 1940) as examples of the opposite. Humans only perceive a limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum (not as limited as blue only, but limited nonetheless). Yet we managed to discover our limitations! Same with gravity. Note the qualifier Whorf added "untutored person." How did the tutored person get that way? At some point, she was tutored by someone else, but there was someone who first grasped that gravity must be a force. More to the point, Whorf assumes a model of the average person wherein imagination does not exist. I agree that people can be biased by their beliefs about the world, but we are not as trapped by them as Whorf seems to believe.

Next, Whorf lists two fallacies of natural logic:
  • It does not see that the phenomena of a language are to its own speakers largely of a background character and so are outside the critical consciousness and control of the speaker.
  • It confuses agreement about subject matter, attained through use of language, with knowledge of the linguistic process by which agreement is attained.
The first one I've already addressed, but the second one is interesting. Basically, it says that we mistake what it means when we agree through language. If we agree on directions to the movies, then we assume there is some objective fact we've discovered about the world, otherwise we would not have come to agree. I think there is something to this. And this is why it's difficult to break past our biases (essentially, agreement masquerades as objectivity). But again, Whorf takes it too far and writes, in all caps to be sure we all understand that this is an important point: THIS AGREEMENT IS REACHED BY LINGUISTIC PROCESSES, OR ELSE IT IS NOT REACHED.

But surely there are examples of non-linguistic agreement in the world? Imagine two strangers are passing each other in a tight hallway, and they both move a bit to make way. Have they not agreed to not collide? Yes there are cultural attitudes bound to this situation, but they need not be linguistic. I think evolutionary biologists could list cooperative strategies that non-humans engage in to survive and because they are non-humans, they cannot be linguistic strategies, right? Do we need to claim that agreement and cooperation are different to save Whorf's point?

Whorf continues by claiming it was the expansion of comparative linguistics that really led to the ability to think outside the box and that led to recognition that our perception of the world is not the same  thing as the world itself. This really is the crucial paragraph in the paper:

When linguists became able to examine critically and scientifically a large number of languages of widely different patterns, their base of reference was expanded; they experienced an interruption of phenomena hitherto held universal, and a whole new order of significances came into their ken. It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATORY; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees (emphasis added).

I think the underlying conclusion here is perfectly fair: our cognitive processes cut up the world in particular ways. We parse the input, so to speak. We parse the visual input, the auditory input, and all the other inputs flowing into our bodies as we go about our lives. But he still takes it too far by suggesting that our minds are largely linguistic systems. I just do not think that's true.

And here Whorf introduces the term relativityWe are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can insome way be calibrated.

Again, I think this is a fair claim as it stands. He then goes into a critique of word classes (aka, parts-of-speech) that is pretty familiar to anyone who's taken an intro to syntax class and very familiar to me since I was in part trained by a typologist who is famous for this kind of argument. Yep, word classes are bunk (in the sense that there's no universality to them). But he also perpetuates the now classic Eskimo snow hoax at the same time. He then gives examples of how English and Hopi differ, and calls Hopi a "timeless language."

He ends by arguing that a scientist from a timeless culture would have a hard time talking to a scientist from our culture because their notions of velocity and intensity would be different. I thought those last few paragraphs were vague and poorly argued overall.

Now keep in mind that this is just one of Whorf's papers, not his entire body of work.
Benjamin Lee Whorf (1940). Science and Linguistics MIT Technology Review, 42 (6)


Chris Crawford said...

A question regarding the "Eskimo snow hoax". I know that the concept, as usually presented ('Eskimos have X words for snow') is incorrect, but what I read was that, because the Inuit language is an agglutinating language (do I use the correct term correctly?), there are theoretically an infinite number of words about snow, or zero words about snow, depending solely on how you treat the agglutination.

My first question is: is the slightly more nuanced explanation correct?

My second question is: would it be fair to say that the Inuit language has more ways to talk about snow (regardless of how you classify words and phrases) than, say, a typical Khoisan language, solely because frozen water is much more common in the Inuit environment than in the Khoisan environment?

Chris said...

Chris, thanks for the interesting questions.

There is no reason, as far as I know, to believe that agglutinating languages have a larger possible set of words than other kinds of languages. Isolating languages can simply make up new word forms, presumably infinitely.

Whorf himself was making the point that the words a language has is related to the lives that its speakers lead.

Check out this PDF for a more complete discussion: The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax

Chris Crawford said...

Thanks for the PDF link; I read it but was disappointed. The author speaks at great length about the extent to which the mythical meme has spread through the population. I was also hoping for a detailed explanation of the truth, but the author says little about that, only that Boas cited four different words for snow. I would have liked to see more detail about how the words are agglutinated with others to build numerous compounds.

Can you point me to any discussions of environmental effects on language? I suppose that I should just read Deutsch's new book, but I'm sure that somebody else has published on the matter. Do jungle-dwellers who have a large pharmacology of plants have extended vocabularies for describing the colors, leaf-shapes, stems, and flowers of plants? Do seashore-dwellers show any excess of words regarding surface conditions on the sea?

On the other side of the coin, do we have any evidence that some languages have small vocabularies for rare experiences? Do Australian aborigine languages have a dearth of words for snow? Are the central Australian aborigine languages poverty-stricken in words for bodies of water? Do the Polynesian languages show a lack of words for large expanses of land, horses, or masonry?

Chris said...

Chris, I think the big picture answer is that sure, lexical inventories differ. One rich source of evidence is words for emotions. You can find words for certain kinds of emotions in Japanese, for example, that you can't find in English and vice versa. But we don't want to jump to the conclusion that this means those emotional experience is impossible for English speakers to feel.

You may want to track down the work of Anna Wierzbicka who has done extensive work on emotion words across languages.

Anonymous said...

As someone who lived in another culture and language (spanish) for 4 months, I could not stop thinking about the legitimacy of Whorf's premise. Language affects perception, and shapes it to focus on some things to the exclusions of others. Language is the storehouse of tradition, values and coming to consciousness. This was the most liberating insight I'd had in years.

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