Straw Men in the Linguistic Imaginary

“For many of us, the idea that the language we speak affects how we think might seem self-evident, hardly requiring a great deal of scientific proof. However, for decades, the orthodoxy of academia has held categorically that the language a person speaks has no effect on the way they think. To suggest otherwise could land a linguist in such trouble that she risked her career. How did mainstream academic thinking get itself in such a straitjacket?”
~ Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct

Portraying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as linguistic determinism is a straw man fallacy. It’s false to speak of a Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at all as no such hypothesis was ever proposed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Interestingly, it turns out that researchers have since found examples of what could be called linguistic determinism or at least very strong linguistic relativity, although still apparently rare (similar to how examples of genetic determinism are rare). But that is neither here nor there, considering Sapir and Whorf didn’t argue for linguistic determinism, no matter how you quote-mine their texts. The position of relativity, similar to social constructivism, is the wholesale opposite of rigid determinism — besides, linguistic relativism wasn’t even a major focus of Sapir’s work even as he influenced Whorf.

Turning their view into a caricature of determinism was an act of projection. It was the anti-relativists who were arguing for biology determining language, from Noam Chomsky’s language module in the brain to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s supposedly universal color categories. It was masterful rhetoric to turn the charge onto those holding the moderate position in order to dress them up as ideologial extremists and charlatans. And with Sapir and Whorf gone from early deaths, they weren’t around to defend themselves and to deny what was claimed on their behalf.

Even Whorf’s sometimes strongly worded view of relativity, by today’s standards and knowledge in the field, doesn’t sound particularly extreme. If anything, to those informed of the most up-to-date research, denying such obvious claims would now sound absurd. How did so many become disconnected from simple truths of human experience that anyone who dared speak these truths could be ridiculed and dismissed out of hand? For generations, relativists stating common sense criticisms of race realism were dismissed in a similar way, and they were often the same people (cultural relativity and linguistic relativity in American scholarship was influenced by Franz Boas) — the argument tying them together is that relativity in expression and emodiment of our shared humanity (think of it more in terms of Daniel Everett’s dark matter of the mind) is based on a complex and flexible set of universal potentials, such that universalism doesn’t require nor indicate essentialism. Yet why do we go on clinging to so many forms of determinism, essentialism, and nativism, including those ideas advocated by many of Sapir and Whorf’s opponents?

We are in a near impossible situation, Essentialism has been a cornerstone of modern civilization, most of all in its WEIRD varieties. Relativity simply can’t be fully comprehended, much less tolerated, within the dominant paradigm, although as Leavitt argues it resonates with the emphasis on language found in Romanticism which was a previous response to essentialism. As for linguistic determinism, even if it were true beyond a few exceptional cases, it is by and large an untestable hypothesis at present and so scientifically meaningless within WEIRD science. WEIRD researchers exist in a civilization that has become dominated by WEIRD societies with nearly all alternatives destroyed or altered beyond their original form. There is no where to stand outside of the WEIRD paradigm, especially not the WEIRDest of the WEIRD researchers doing most of the research.

If certain thoughts are unthinkable within WEIRD culture and language, we have no completely alien mode of thought by which to objectively assess the WEIRD, as imperialism and globalization has left no society untouched. There is no way for us to even think about what might be unthinkable, much less research it. This doublebind goes right over the heads of most people, even over the heads of some relativists who fear being disparaged if they don’t outright deny any possibility of the so-called strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. That such a hypothesis potentially could describe reality to a greater extent than we’d prefer is, for most people infected with the WEIRD mind virus and living within the WEIRD monocultural reality tunnel, itself an unthinkable thought.

It is unthinkable and, in its fullest form, fundamentally untestable. And so it is terra incognito within the collective mind. The response is typically either uncomfortable irritation or nervous laughter. Still, the limited evidence in support of linguistic determinism points to the possibility of it being found in other as-of-yet unexplored areas — maybe a fair amount of evidence already exists that will later be reinterpreted when a new frame of understanding becomes established or when someone, maybe generations later, looks at it with fresh eyes. History is filled with moments when something shifted allowing the incomprehensible and unspeakable to become a serious public debate, sometimes a new social reality. Determinism in all of its varieties seems a generally unfrutiful path of research, although in its linguistic form it is compelling as a thought experiment in showing how little we know and can know, how severely constrained is our imaginative capacities.

We don’t look in the darkness where we lost what we are looking for because the light is better elsewhere. But what would we find if we did search the shadows? Whether or not we discovered proof for linguistic determinism, we might stumble across all kinds of other inconvenient evidence pointing toward ever more radical and heretical thoughts. Linguistic relativity and determinism might end up playing a central role less because of the bold answers offered than in the questions that were dared to be asked. Maybe, in thinking about determinism, we could come to a more profound insight of relativity — after all, a complex enough interplay of seemingly deterministic factors would for all appearances be relativistic, that is to say what seen to be linear causation could when lines of causation are interwoven lead to emergent properties. The relativistic whole, in that case, presumably would be greater than the deterministic parts.

Besides, it always depends on perspective. Consider Whorf who “has been rejected both by cognitivists as a relativist and by symbolic and postmodern anthropologists as a determinist and essentialist” (John Leavitt, Linguistic Relativities, p. 193; Leavitt’s book goes into immense detail about all of the misunderstanding and misinterpretation, much of it because of intellectual laziness or hubris  but some of motivated by ideological agendas; the continuing and consistent wrongheadedness makes it difficult to not take much of it as arguing in bad faith). It’s not always clear what the debate is supposed to be about. Ironically, such terms as ‘determinism’ and ‘relativity’ are relativistic in their use while, in how we use them, determining how we think about the issues and how we interpret the evidence. There is no way to take ourselves out of the debate itself for our own humanity is what we are trying to place under the microscope, causing us tremendous psychological contortions in maintaining whatever worldview we latch onto.

There is less distance between linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism than is typically assumed. The former says we are only limited by habit of thought and all it entails within culture and relationships. Yet habits of thought can be so powerful as to essentially determine social orders for centuries and millennia. Calling this mere ‘habit’ hardly does it justice. In theory, a society isn’t absolutely determined to be the way it is nor for those within it to behave the way they do, but in practice extremely few individuals ever escape the gravity pull of habitual conformity and groupthink (i.e., Jaynesian self-authorization is more a story we tell ourselves than an actual description of behavior).

So, yes, in terms of genetic potential and neuroplasticity, there was nothing directly stopping Bronze Age Egyptians from starting an industrial revolution and there is nothing stopping a present-day Piraha from becoming a Harvard professor of mathematics — still, the probability of such things happening is next to zero. Consider the rare individuals in our own society who break free of the collective habits of our society, as they usually either end up homeless or institutionalized, typically with severely shortened lives. To not go along with the habits of your society is to be deemed insane, incompetent, and/or dangerous. Collective habits within a social order involve systematic enculturation, indoctrination, and enforcement. The power of language — even if only relativistic — over our minds is one small part of the cultural system, albeit an important part.

We don’t need to go that far with our argument, though. However you want to splice it, there is plenty of evidence that remains to be explained. And the evidence has become overwhelming and, to many, disconcerting. The debate over the validity of the theory of linguistic relativity is over. But the opponents of the theory have had two basic strategies to contain their loss and keep the debate on life support. They conflate linguistic relativity with linguistic determinism and dismiss it as laughably false. Or they concede that linguistic relativity is partly correct but argue that it’s insignificant in influence, as if they never denied it and simply were unimpressed.

“This is characteristic: one defines linguistic relativity in such an extreme way as to make it seem obviously untrue; one is then free to acknowledge the reality of the data at the heart of the idea of linguistic relativity – without, until quite recently, proposing to do any serious research on these data.” (John Leavit, Linguistic Relativities, p. 166)

Either way, essentialists maintain their position as if no serious challenge was posed. The evidence gets lost in the rhetoric, as the evidence keeps growing.

Still, there is something more challenging that also gets lost in debate, even when evidence is acknowledged. What motivated someone like Whorf wasn’t intellectual victory and academic prestige. There was a sense of human potential locked behind habit. That is why it was so important to study foreign cultures with their diverse languages, not only for the sake of knowledge but to be confronted by entirely different worldviews. Essentialists are on the old imperial path of Whiggish Enlightenment, denying differences by proclaiming that all things Western are the norm of humanity and reality, sometimes taken as a universal ideal state or the primary example by which to measure all else… an ideology that easily morphs into yet darker specters:

“Any attempt to speak of language in general is illusory; the (no doubt French or English) philosopher who does so is merely elevating his own mother tongue to the status of a universal standard (p. 3). See how the discourse of diversity can be turned to defend racism and fascism! I suppose by now this shouldn’t surprise us – we’ve seen so many examples of it at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century.” (John Leavit, Linguistic Relativities, p. 161)

In this light, it should be unsurprising that the essentialist program presented in Chomskyan linguistics was supported and funded by the Pentagon (their specific interest in this case being about human-computer interface in eliminating messy human error; in studying the brain as a computer, it was expected that the individual human mind could be made more amenable to a computerized system of military action and its accompanying chain-of-command). Essentialism makes promises that are useful for systems of effective control as part of a larger technocratic worldview of social control.

The essentialist path we’ve been on has left centuries of destruction in its wake. But from the humbling vista opening onto further possibilities, the relativists offer not a mere scientific theory but a new path for humanity or rather they throw light onto the multiple paths before us. In offering respect and openness toward the otherness of others, we open ourselves toward the otherness within our own humanity. The point is that, though trapped in linguistic cultures, the key to our release is also to be found in the same place. But this requires courage and curiosity, a broadening of the moral imagination.

Let me end on a note of irony. In comparing linguistic cultures, Joseph Needham wrote that, “Where Western minds asked ‘what essentially is it?’, Chinese minds asked ‘how is it related in its beginnings, functions, and endings with everything else, and how ought we to react to it?” This was quoted by Jeremy Lent in the Patterning Instinct (p. 206; quote originally from: Science and Civilization in China, vol. 2, History of Scientific Thought, pp. 199-200). Lent makes clear that this has everything to do with language. Chinese language embodies ambiguity and demands contextual understanding, whereas Western or more broadly Indo-European language elicits abstract essentialism.

So, it is a specific linguistic culture of essentialism that influences, if not entirely determines, that Westerners are predisposed to see language as essentialist, rather than as relative. And it is this very essentialism that causes many Westerners, especially abstract-minded intellectuals, to be blind to essentialism as being linguistically cultural, but not essentialist to human nature and neurocognitive functioning. That is the irony. This essentialist belief system is further proof of linguistic relativism.

 

* * *

The Patterning Instinct
by Jeremy Lent
pp. 197-205

The ability of these speakers to locate themselves in a way that is impossible for the rest of us is only the most dramatic in an array of discoveries that are causing a revolution in the world of linguistics. Researchers point to the Guugu Yimithirr as prima facie evidence supporting the argument that the language you speak affects how your cognition develops. As soon as they learn their first words, Guugu Yimithirr infants begin to structure their orientation around the cardinal directions. In time, their neural connections get wired accordingly until this form of orientation becomes second nature, and they no longer even have to think about where north, south, east, and west are.3 […]

For many of us, the idea that the language we speak affects how we think might seem self-evident, hardly requiring a great deal of scientific proof. However, for decades, the orthodoxy of academia has held categorically that the language a person speaks has no effect on the way they think. To suggest otherwise could land a linguist in such trouble that she risked her career. How did mainstream academic thinking get itself in such a straitjacket?4

The answer can be found in the remarkable story of one charismatic individual, Benjamin Whorf. In the early twentieth century, Whorf was a student of anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir, whose detailed study of Native American languages had caused him to propose that a language’s grammatical structure corresponds to patterns of thought in its culture. “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do,” Sapir suggested, “because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”5

Whorf took this idea, which became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, to new heights of rhetoric. The grammar of our language, he claimed, affects how we pattern meaning into the natural world. “We cut up and organize the spread and flow of events as we do,” he wrote, “largely because, through our mother tongue, we are parties to an agreement to do so, not because nature itself is segmented in exactly that way for all to see.”6 […]

Whorf was brilliant but highly controversial. He had a tendency to use sweeping generalizations and dramatic statements to drive home his point. “As goes our segmentation of the face of nature,” he wrote, “so goes our physics of the Cosmos.” Sometimes he went beyond the idea that language affects how we think to a more strident assertion that language literally forces us to think in a certain way. “The forms of a person’s person’s thoughts,” he proclaimed, “are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious.” This rhetoric led people to interpret the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a theory of linguistic determinism, claiming that people’s thoughts are inevitably determined by the structure of their language.8

A theory of rigid linguistic determinism is easy to discredit. All you need to do is show a Hopi Indian capable of thinking in terms of past, present, and future, and you’ve proven that her language didn’t ordain how she was able to think. The more popular the Sapir-Whorf theory became, the more status could be gained by any researcher who poked holes in it. In time, attacking Sapir-Whorf became a favorite path to academic tenure, until the entire theory became completely discredited.9

In place of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis arose what is known as the nativist view, which argues that the grammar of language is innate to humankind. As discussed earlier, the theory of universal grammar, proposed by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and popularized more recently by Steven Pinker, posits that humans have a “language instinct” with grammatical rules coded into our DNA. This theory has dominated the field of linguistics for decades. “There is no scientific evidence,” writes Pinker, “that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking.” Pinker and other adherents to this theory, however, are increasingly having to turn a blind eye—not just to the Guugu Yimithirr but to the accumulating evidence of a number of studies showing the actual effects of language on people’s patterns of thought.10 […]

Psychologist Peter Gordon saw an opportunity to test the most extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with the Pirahã. If language predetermined patterns of thought, then the Pirahã should be unable to count, in spite of the fact that they show rich intelligence in other forms of their daily life. He performed a number of tests with the Pirahã over a two-year period, and his results were convincing: as soon as the Pirahã had to deal with a set of objects beyond three, their counting performance disintegrated. His study, he concludes, “represents a rare and perhaps unique case for strong linguistic determinism.”12

The Guugu Yimithirr, at one end of the spectrum, show the extraordinary skills a language can give its speakers; the Pirahã, at the other end, show how necessary language is for basic skills we take for granted. In between these two extremes, an increasing number of researchers are demonstrating a wide variety of more subtle ways the language we speak can influence how we think.

One set of researchers illustrated how language affects perception. They used the fact that the Greek language has two color terms—ghalazio and ble—that distinguish light and dark blue. They tested the speed with which Greek speakers and English speakers could distinguish between these two different colors, even when they weren’t being asked to name them, and discovered the Greeks were significantly faster.13

Another study demonstrates how language helps structure memory. When bilingual Mandarin-English speakers were asked in English to name a statue of someone with a raised arm looking into the distance, they were more likely to name the Statue of Liberty. When they were asked the same question in Mandarin, they named an equally famous Chinese statue of Mao with his arm raised.14

One intriguing study shows English and Spanish speakers remembering accidental events differently. In English, an accident is usually described in the standard subject-verb-object format of “I broke the bottle.” In Spanish, a reflexive verb is often used without an agent, such as “La botella se rompió”—“the bottle broke.” The researchers took advantage of this difference, asking English and Spanish speakers to watch videos of different intentional and accidental events and later having them remember what happened. Both groups had similar recall for the agents involved in intentional events. However, when remembering the accidental events, English speakers recalled the agents better than the Spanish speakers did.15

Language can also have a significant effect in channeling emotions. One researcher read the same story to Greek-English bilinguals in one language and, then, months later, in the other. Each time, he interviewed them about their feelings in response to the story. The subjects responded differently to the story depending on its language, and many of these differences could be attributed to specific emotion words available in one language but not the other. The English story elicited a sense of frustration in readers, but there is no Greek word for frustration, and this emotion was absent in responses to the Greek story. The Greek version, however, inspired a sense of stenahoria in several readers, an emotion loosely translated as “sadness/discomfort/suffocation.” When one subject was asked why he hadn’t mentioned stenahoria after his English reading of the story, he answered that he cannot feel stenahoria in English, “not just because the word doesn’t exist but because that kind of situation would never arise.”16 […]

Marketing professor David Luna has performed tests on people who are not just bilingual but bicultural—those who have internalized two different cultures—which lend support to this model of cultural frames. Working with people immersed equally in both American and Hispanic cultures, he examined their responses to various advertisements and newspaper articles in both languages and compared them to those of bilinguals who were only immersed in one culture. He reports that biculturals, more than monoculturals, would feel “like a different person” when they spoke different languages, and they accessed different mental frames depending on the cultural context, resulting in shifts in their sense of self.25

In particular, the use of root metaphors, embedded so deeply in our consciousness that we don’t even notice them, influences how we define our sense of self and apply meaning to the world around us. “Metaphor plays a very significant role in determining what is real for us,” writes cognitive linguist George Lakoff. “Metaphorical concepts…structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.”26

These metaphors enter our minds as infants, as soon as we begin to talk. They establish neural pathways that are continually reinforced until, just like the cardinal directions of the Guugu Yimithirr, we use our metaphorical constructs without even recognizing them as metaphors. When a parent, for example, tells a child to “put that out of your mind,” she is implicitly communicating a metaphor of the MIND AS A CONTAINER that should hold some things and not others.27

When these metaphors are used to make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos, they become the root metaphors that structure a culture’s approach to meaning. Hunter-gatherers, as we’ve seen, viewed the natural world through the root metaphor of GIVING PARENT, which gave way to the agrarian metaphor of ANCESTOR TO BE PROPITIATED. Both the Vedic and Greek traditions used the root metaphor of HIGH IS GOOD to characterize the source of ultimate meaning as transcendent, while the Chinese used the metaphor of PATH in their conceptualization of the Tao. These metaphors become hidden in plain sight, since they are used so extensively that people begin to accept them as fundamental structures of reality. This, ultimately, is how culture and language reinforce each other, leading to a deep persistence of underlying structures of thought from one generation to the next.28

Linguistic Relativities
by John Leavitt
pp. 138-142

Probably the most famous statement of Sapir’s supposed linguistic determinism comes from “The Status of Linguistics as a Science,” a talk published in 1929:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of a particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. 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 of 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 different worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir 1949: 162)

This is the passage that is most commonly quoted to demonstrate the putative linguistic determinism of Sapir and of his student Whorf, who cites some of it (1956: 134) at the beginning of “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,” a paper published in a Sapir Festschrift in 1941. But is this linguistic determinism? Or is it the statement of an observed reality that must be dealt with? Note that the passage does not say that it is impossible to translate between different languages, nor to convey the same referential content in both. Note also that there is a piece missing here, between “labels attached” and “We see and hear.” In fact, the way I have presented it, with the three dots, is how this passage is almost always presented (e.g., Lucy 1992a: 22); otherwise, the quote usually ends at “labels attached.” If we look at what has been elided, we find two examples, coming in a new paragraph immediately after “attached.” In a typically Sapirian way, one is poetic, the other perceptual. He begins:

The understanding of a simple poem, for instance, involves not merely an understanding of the single words in their average significance, but a full comprehension of the whole life of the community as it is mirrored in the words, or as it is suggested by the overtones.

So the apparent claim of linguistic determinism is to be illustrated by – a poem (Friedrich 1979: 479–80), and a simple one at that! In light of this missing piece of the passage, what Sapir seems to be saying is not that language determines thought, but that language is part of social reality, and so is thought, and to understand either a thought or “a green thought in a green shade” you need to consider the whole.

The second example is one of the relationship of terminology to classification:

Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose. If one draws some dozen lines, for instance, of different shapes, one peceives them as divisible into such categories as “straight,” “crooked,” “curved,” “zigzag” because of the classificatory suggestiveness of the linguistic terms themselves. We see and hear …

Again, is Sapir here arguing for a determination of thought by language or simply observing that in cases of sorting out complex data, one will tend to use the categories that are available? In the latter case, he would be suggesting to his audience of professionals (the source is a talk given to a joint meeting of the Linguistic Society of America and the American Anthropological Association) that such phenomena may extend beyond simple classification tasks.

Here it is important to distinguish between claims of linguistic determinism and the observation of the utility of available categories, an observation that in itself in no way questions the likely importance of the non-linguistic salience of input or the physiological component of perception. Taken in the context of the overall Boasian approach to language and thought, this is clearly the thrust of Sapir’s comments here. Remember that this was the same man who did the famous “Study on Phonetic Symbolism,” which showed that there are what appear to be universal psychological reactions to certain speech sounds (his term is “symbolic feeling-significance”), regardless of the language or the meaning of the word in which these sounds are found (in Sapir 1949). This evidence against linguistic determinism, as it happens, was published the same year as “The Status of Linguistics as a Science,” but in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.3

The metaphor Sapir uses most regularly for the relation of language patterning to thought is not that of a constraint, but of a road or groove that is relatively easy or hard to follow. In Language, he proposed that languages are “invisible garments” for our spirits; but at the beginning of the book he had already questioned this analogy: “But what if language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove?” (p. 15); grammatical patterning provides “grooves of expression, (which) have come to be felt as inevitable” (p. 89; cf. Erickson et al. 1997: 298). One important thing about a road is that you can get off it; of a groove, that you can get out of it. We will see that this kind of wording permeates Whorf’s formulations as well. […]

Since the early 1950s, Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941) has most often been presented as the very epitome of extreme cognitive relativism and linguistic determinism. Indeed, as the name attached to the “linguistic determinism hypothesis,” a hypothesis almost never evoked but to be denied, Whorf has become both the best-known ethnolinguist outside the field itself and one of the great straw men of the century. This fate is undeserved; he was not a self-made straw man, as Marshall Sahlins once called another well-known anthropologist. While Whorf certainly maintained what he called a principle of linguistic relativity, it is clear from reading Language, Thought, and Reality, the only generally available source of his writings, published posthumously in 1956, and even clearer from still largely unpublished manuscripts, that he was also a strong universalist who accepted the general validity of modern science. With some re-evaluations since the early 1990s (Lucy 1992a; P. Lee 1996), we now have a clearer idea of what Whorf was about.

In spite of sometimes deterministic phraseology, Whorf presumed that much of human thinking and perception was non-linguistic and universal across languages. In particular, he admired Gestalt psychology (P. Lee 1996) as a science giving access to general characteristics of human perception across cultures and languages, including the lived experiences that lie behind the forms that we label time and space. He puts this most clearly in discussions of the presumably universal perception of visual space:

A discovery made by modern configurative or Gestalt psychology gives us a canon of reference, irrespective of their languages or scientific jargons, by which to break down and describe all visually observable situations, and many other situations, also. This is the discovery that visual perception is basically the same for all normal persons past infancy and conforms to definite laws. (Whorf 1956: 165)

Whorf clearly believed there was a real world out there, although, enchanted by quantum mechanics and relativity theory, he also believed that this was not the world as we conceive it, nor that every human being conceives it habitually in the same way.

Whorf also sought and proposed general descriptive principles for the analysis of languages of the most varied type. And along with Sapir, he worked on sound symbolism, proposing the universality of feeling-associations to certain speech sounds (1956: 267). Insofar as he was a good disciple of Sapir and Boas, Whorf believed, like them, in the universality of cognitive abilities and of some fundamental cognitive processes. And far from assuming that language determines thought and culture, Whorf wrote in the paper for the Sapir volume that

I should be the last to pretend that there is anything so definite as “a correlation” between culture and language, and especially between ethnological rubrics such as “agricultural, hunting,” etc., and linguistic ones like “inflected,” “synthetic,” or “isolating.” (pp. 138–9)

pp. 146

For Whorf, certain scientific disciplines – elsewhere he names “relativity, quantum theory, electronics, catalysis, colloid chemistry, theory of the gene, Gestalt psychology, psychoanalysis, unbiased cultural anthropology, and so on” (1956: 220), as well as non-Euclidean geometry and, of course, descriptive linguistics – were exemplary in that they revealed aspects of the world profoundly at variance with the world as modern Westerners habitually assume it to be, indeed as the members of any human language and social group habitually assume it to be.

Since Whorf was concerned with linguistic and/or conceptual patterns that people almost always follow in everyday life, he has often been read as a determinist. But as John Lucy pointed out (1992a), Whorf’s critiques clearly bore on habitual thinking, what it is easy to think; his ethical goal was to force us, through learning about other languages, other ways of foregrounding and linking aspects of experience, to think in ways that are not so easy, to follow paths that are not so familiar. Whorf’s argument is not fundamentally about constraint, but about the seductive force of habit, of what is “easily expressible by the type of symbolic means that language employs” (“Model,” 1956: 55) and so easy to think. It is not about the limits of a given language or the limits of thought, since Whorf presumes, Boasian that he is, that any language can convey any referential content.

Whorf’s favorite analogy for the relation of language to thought is the same as Sapir’s: that of tracks, paths, roads, ruts, or grooves. Even Whorf’s most determinist-sounding passages, which are also the ones most cited, sound very different if we take the implications of this analogy seriously: “Thinking … follows a network of tracks laid down in the given language, an organization which may concentrate systematically upon certain phases of reality … and may systematically discard others featured by other languages. The individual is utterly unaware of this organization and is constrained completely within its unbreakable bonds” (1956: 256); “we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages” (p. 213). But this is from the same essay in which Whorf asserted the universality of “ways of linking experiences … basically alike for all persons”; and this completely constrained individual is evidently the unreflective (utterly unaware) Mr. Everyman (Schultz 1990), and the very choice of the analogy of traced lines or tracks, assuming that they are not railway tracks – that they are not is suggested by all the other road and path metaphors – leaves open the possibility of getting off the path, if only we had the imagination and the gumption to do it. We can cut cross-country. In the study of an exotic language, he wrote, “we are at long last pushed willy-nilly out of our ruts. Then we find that the exotic language is a mirror held up to our own” (1956: 138). How can Whorf be a determinist, how can he see us as forever trapped in these ruts, if the study of another language is sufficient to push us, kicking and screaming perhaps, out of them?

The total picture, then, is not one of constraint or determinism. It is, on the other hand, a model of powerful seduction: the seduction of what is familiar and easy to think, of what is intellectually restful, of what makes common sense.7 The seduction of the habitual pathway, based largely on laziness and fear of the unknown, can, with work, be resisted and broken. Somewhere in the back of Whorf’s mind may have been the allegory of the broad, fair road to Hell and the narrow, difficult path to Heaven beloved of his Puritan forebears. It makes us think of another New England Protestant: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, / I took the one less travelled by, / and that has made all the difference.”

The recognition of the seduction of the familiar implies a real ethical program:

It is the “plainest” English which contains the greatest number of unconscious assumptions about nature … Western culture has made, through language, a provisional analysis of reality and, without correctives, holds resolutely to that analysis as final. The only correctives lie in all those other tongues which by aeons of independent evolution have arrived at different, but equally logical, provisional analyses. (1956: 244)

Learning non-Western languages offers a lesson in humility and awe in an enormous multilingual world:

We shall no longer be able to see a few recent dialects of the Indo-European family, and the rationalizing techniques elaborated from their patterns, as the apex of the evolution of the human mind, nor their present wide spread as due to any survival from fitness or to anything but a few events of history – events that could be called fortunate only from the parochial point of view of the favored parties. They, and our own thought processes with them, can no longer be envisioned as spanning the gamut of reason and knowledge but only as one constellation in a galactic expanse. (p. 218)

The breathtaking sense of sudden vaster possibility, of the sky opening up to reveal a bigger sky beyond, may be what provokes such strong reactions to Whorf. For some, he is simply enraging or ridiculous. For others, reading Whorf is a transformative experience, and there are many stories of students coming to anthropology or linguistics largely because of their reading of Whorf (personal communications; Alford 2002).

p. 167-168

[T]he rise of cognitive science was accompanied by a restating of what came to be called the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” in the most extreme terms. Three arguments came to the fore repeatedly:

Determinism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis says that the language you speak, and nothing else, determines how you think and perceive. We have already seen how false a characterization this is: the model the Boasians were working from was only deterministic in cases of no effort, of habitual thought or speaking. With enough effort, it is always possible to change your accent or your ideas.

Hermeticism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis maintains that each language is a sealed universe, expressing things that are inexpressible in another language. In such a view, translation would be impossible and Whorf’s attempt to render Hopi concepts in English an absurdity. In fact, the Boasians presumed, rather, that languages were not sealed worlds, but that they were to some degree comparable to worlds, and that passing between them required effort and alertness.

Both of these characterizations are used to set up a now classic article on linguistic relativity by the psychologist Eleanor Rosch (1974):

Are we “trapped” by our language into holding a particular “world view”? Can we never really understand or communicate with speakers of a language quite different from our own because each language has molded the thought of its people into mutually incomprehensible world views? Can we never get “beyond” language to experience the world “directly”? Such issues develop from an extreme form of a position sometimes known as “the Whorfian hypothesis” … and called, more generally, generally, the hypothesis of “linguistic relativity.” (Rosch 1974: 95)

Rosch begins the article noting how intuitively right the importance of language differences first seemed to her, then spends much of the rest of it attacking this initial intuition.

Infinite variability. A third common characterization is that Boasian linguistics holds that, in Martin Joos’s words, “languages can differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable ways” (Joos 1966: 96). This would mean that the identification of any language universal would disprove the approach. In fact, the Boasians worked with the universals that were available to them – these were mainly derived from psychology – but opposed what they saw as the unfounded imposition of false universals that in fact reflected only modern Western prejudices. Joos’s hostile formulation has been cited repeatedly as if it were official Boasian doctrine (see Hymes and Fought 1981: 57).

For over fifty years, these three assertions have largely defined the received understanding of linguistic relativity. Anyone who has participated in discussions and/or arguments about the “Whorfian hypothesis” has heard them over and over again.

p. 169-173

In the 1950s, anthropologists and psychologists were interested in experimentation and the testing of hypotheses on what was taken to be the model of the natural sciences. At a conference on language in culture, Harry Hoijer (1954) first named a Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language influences thought.

To call something a hypothesis is to propose to test it, presumably using experimental methods. This task was taken on primarily by psychologists. A number of attempts were made to prove or disprove experimentally that language influences thought (see Lucy 1992a: 127–78; P. Brown 2006). Both “language” and “thought” were narrowed down to make them more amenable to experiment: the aspect of language chosen was usually the lexicon, presumably the easiest aspect to control in an experimental setting; thought was interpreted to mean perceptual discrimination and cognitive processing, aspects of thinking that psychologists were comfortable testing for. Eric Lenneberg defined the problem posed by the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” as that of “the relationship that a particular language may have to its speakers’ cognitive processes … Does the structure of a given language affect the thoughts (or thought potential), the memory, the perception, the learning ability of those who speak that language?” (1953: 463). Need I recall that Boas, Sapir, and Whorf went out of their way to deny that different languages were likely to be correlated with strengths and weaknesses in cognitive processes, i.e., in what someone is capable of thinking, as opposed to the contents of habitual cognition? […]

Berlin and Kay started by rephrasing Sapir and Whorf as saying that the search for semantic universals was “fruitless in principle” because “each language is semantically arbitrary relative to every other language” (1969: 2; cf. Lucy 1992a: 177–81). If this is what we are calling linguistic relativity, then if any domain of experience, such as color, is identified in recognizably the same way in different languages, linguistic relativity must be wrong. As we have seen, this fits the arguments of Weisgerber and Bloomfield, but not of Sapir or Whorf. […]

A characteristic study was reported recently in my own university’s in-house newspaper under the title “Language and Perception Are Not Connected” (Baril 2004). The article starts by saying that according to the “Whorf–Sapir hypothesis … language determines perception,” and therefore that “we should not be able to distinguish differences among similar tastes if we do not possess words for expressing their nuances, since it is language that constructs the mode of thought and its concepts … According to this hypothesis, every language projects onto its speakers a system of categories through which they see and interpret the world.” The hypothesis, we are told, has been “disconfirmed since the 1970s” by research on color. The article reports on the research of Dominic Charbonneau, a graduate student in psychology. Intrigued by recent French tests in which professional sommeliers, with their elaborate vocabulary, did no better than regular ignoramuses in distinguishing among wines, Charbonneau carried out his own experiment on coffee – this is, after all, a French-speaking university, and we take coffee seriously. Francophone students were asked to distinguish among different coffees; like most of us, they had a minimal vocabulary for distinguishing them (words like “strong,” “smooth,” “dishwater”). The participants made quite fine distinctions among the eighteen coffees served, well above the possible results of chance, showing that taste discrimination does not depend on vocabulary. Conclusion: “Concepts must be independent of language, which once again disconfirms the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” (my italics). And this of course would be true if there were such a hypothesis, if it was primarily about vocabulary, and if it said that vocabulary determines perception.

We have seen that Bloomfield and his successors in linguistics maintained the unlimited arbitrariness of color classifications, and so could have served as easy straw men for the cognitivist return to universals. But what did Boas, Sapir, Whorf, or Lee actually have to say about color? Did they in fact claim that color perception or recognition or memory was determined by vocabulary? Sapir and Lee are easy: as far as I have been able to ascertain, neither one of them talked about color at all. Steven Pinker attributes a relativist and determinist view of color classifications to Whorf:

Among Whorf’s “kaleidoscopic flux of impressions,” color is surely the most eye-catching. He noted that we see objects in different hues, depending on the wavelengths of the light they reflect, but that the wavelength is a continuous dimension with nothing delineating red, yellow, green, blue, and so on. Languages differ in their inventory of color words … You can fill in the rest of the argument. It is language that puts the frets in the spectrum. (Pinker 1994: 61–2)

No he didn’t. Whorf never noted anything like this in any of his published work, and Pinker gives no indication of having gone through Whorf’s unpublished papers. As far as I can ascertain, Whorf talks about color in two places; in both he is saying the opposite of what Pinker says he is saying.

pp. 187-188

The 1950s through the 1980s saw the progressive triumph of universalist cognitive science. From the 1980s, one saw the concomitant rise of relativistic postmodernism. By the end of the 1980s there had been a massive return to the old split between universalizing natural sciences and their ancillary social sciences on the one hand, particularizing humanities and their ancillary cultural studies on the other. Some things, in the prevailing view, were universal, others so particular as to call for treatment as fiction or anecdote. Nothing in between was of very much interest, and North American anthropology, the discipline that had been founded upon and achieved a sort of identity in crossing the natural-science/humanities divide, faced an identity crisis. Symptomatically, one noticed many scholarly bookstores disappearing their linguistics sections into “cognitive science,” their anthropology sections into “cultural studies.”

In this climate, linguistic relativity was heresy, Whorf, in particular, a kind of incompetent Antichrist. The “Whorfian hypothesis” of linguistic relativism or determinism became a topos of any anthropology textbook, almost inevitably to be shown to be silly. Otherwise serious linguists and psychologists (e.g., Pinker 1994: 59–64) continued to dismiss the idea of linguistic relativity with an alacrity suggesting alarm and felt free to heap posthumous personal vilification on Whorf, the favorite target, for his lack of official credentials, in some really surprising displays of academic snobbery. Geoffrey Pullum, to take only one example, calls him a “Connecticut fire prevention inspector and weekend language-fancier” and “our man from the Hartford Fire Insurance Company” (Pullum 1989 [1991]: 163). This comes from a book with the subtitle Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. But how irreverent is it to make fun of somebody almost everybody has been attacking for thirty years?

The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct
by Vyvyan Evans
pp. 195-198

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Whorf?

Psychologist Daniel Casasanto has noted, in an article whose title gives this section its heading, that some researchers find Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity to be threatening. 6 But why is Whorf such a bogeyman for some? And what makes his notion of linguistic relativity such a dangerous idea?

The rationalists fear linguistic relativity – the very idea of it – and they hate it, with a passion: it directly contradicts everything they stand for – if relativism is anywhere near right, then the rationalist house burns down, or collapses, like a tower of cards without a foundation. And this fear and loathing in parts of the Academy can often, paradoxically, be highly irrational indeed. Relativity is often criticised without argumentative support, or ridiculed, just for the audacity of existing as an intellectual idea to begin with. Jerry Fodor, more candid than most about his irrational fear, just hates it. He says: “The thing is: I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate anything else, excepting, maybe, fiberglass powerboats.” 7 Fodor continues, illustrating further his irrational contempt: “surely, surely, no one but a relativist would drive a fiberglass powerboat”. 8

Fodor’s objection is that relativism overlooks what he deems to be “the fixed structure of human nature”. 9 Mentalese provides the fixed structure – as we saw in the previous chapter. If language could interfere with this innate set of concepts, then the fixed structure would no longer be fixed – anathema to a rationalist.

Others are more coy, but no less damning. Pinker’s strategy is to set up straw men, which he then eloquently – but mercilessly – ridicules. 10 But don’t be fooled, there is no serious argument presented – not on this occasion. Pinker takes an untenable and extreme version of what he claims Whorf said, and then pokes fun at it – a common modus operandi employed by those who are afraid. Pinker argues that Whorf was wrong because he equated language with thought: that Whorf assumes that language causes or determines thought in the first place. This is the “conventional absurdity” that Pinker refers to in the first of his quotations above. For Pinker, Whorf was either romantically naïve about the effects of language, or, worse, like the poorly read and ill-educated, credulous.

But this argument is a classic straw man: it is set up to fail, being made of straw. Whorf never claimed that language determined thought. As we shall see, the thesis of linguistic determinism, which nobody believes, and which Whorf explicitly rejected, was attributed to him long after his death. But Pinker has bought into the very myths peddled by the rationalist tradition for which he is cheerleader-in-chief, and which lives in fear of linguistic relativity. In the final analysis, the language-as-instinct crowd should be afraid, very afraid: linguistic relativity, once and for all, explodes the myth of the language-as-instinct thesis.

The rise of the Sapir − Whorf hypothesis

Benjamin Lee Whorf became interested in linguistics in 1924, and studied it, as a hobby, alongside his full-time job as an engineer. In 1931, Whorf began to attend university classes on a part-time basis, studying with one of the leading linguists of the time, Edward Sapir. 11 Amongst other things covered in his teaching, Sapir touched on what he referred to as “relativity of concepts … [and] the relativity of the form of thought which results from linguistic study”. 12 The notion of the relativistic effect of different languages on thought captured Whorf’s imagination; and so he became captivated by the idea that he was to develop and become famous for. Because Whorf’s claims have often been disputed and misrepresented since his death, let’s see exactly what his formulation of his principle of linguistic relativity was:

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. 13

Indeed, as pointed out by the Whorf scholar, Penny Lee, post-war research rarely ever took Whorf’s principle, or his statements, as their starting point. 14 Rather, his writings were, on the contrary, ignored, and his ideas largely distorted. 15

For one thing, the so-called ‘Sapir − Whorf hypothesis’ was not due to either Sapir or Whorf. Sapir – whose research was not primarily concerned with relativity – and Whorf were lumped together: the term ‘Sapir − Whorf hypothesis’ was coined in the 1950s, over ten years after both men had been dead – Sapir died in 1939, and Whorf in 1941.16 Moreover, Whorf’s principle emanated from an anthropological research tradition; it was not, strictly speaking, a hypothesis. But, in the 1950s, psychologists Eric Lenneberg and Roger Brown sought to test empirically the notion of linguistic relativity. And to do so, they reformulated it in such a way that it could be tested, producing two testable formulations. 17 One, the so-called ‘strong version’ of relativity, holds that language causes a cognitive restructuring: language causes or determines thought. This is otherwise known as linguistic determinism, Pinker’s “conventional absurdity”. The second hypothesis, which came to be known as the ‘weak version’, claims instead that language influences a cognitive restructuring, rather than causing it. But neither formulation of the so-called ‘Sapir − Whorf hypothesis’ was due to Whorf, or Sapir. Indeed, on the issue of linguistic determinism, Whorf was explicit in arguing against it, saying the following:

The tremendous importance of language cannot, in my opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called ‘mind’. My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signalling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur. 18

This demonstrates that, in point of fact, Whorf actually believed in something like the ‘fixed structure’ that Fodor claims is lacking in relativity. The delicious irony arising from it all is that Pinker derides Whorf on the basis of the ‘strong version’ of the Sapir − Whorf hypothesis: linguistic determinism – language causes thought. But this strong version was a hypothesis not created by Whorf, but imagined by rationalist psychologists who were dead set against Whorf and linguistic relativity anyway. Moreover, Whorf explicitly disagreed with the thesis that was posthumously attributed to him. The issue of linguistic determinism became, incorrectly and disingenuously, associated with Whorf, growing in the rationalist sub-conscious like a cancer – Whorf was clearly wrong, they reasoned.

In more general terms, defenders of the language-as-instinct thesis have taken a leaf out of the casebook of Noam Chomsky. If you thought that academics play nicely, and fight fair, think again. Successful ideas are the currency, and they guarantee tenure, promotion, influence and fame; and they allow the successful academic to attract Ph.D. students who go out and evangelise, and so help to build intellectual empires. The best defence against ideas that threaten is ridicule. And, since the 1950s, until the intervention of John Lucy in the 1990s – whom I discuss below – relativity was largely dismissed; the study of linguistic relativity was, in effect, off-limits to several generations of researchers.

The Bilingual Mind, And What it Tells Us about Language and Thought
by Aneta Pavlenko
PP. 27-32

1.1.2.4 The real authors of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the invisibility of scientific revolutions

The invisibility of bilingualism in the United States also accounts for the disappearance of multilingual awareness from discussions of Sapir’s and Whorf’s work, which occurred when the two scholars passed away – both at a relatively young age – and their ideas landed in the hands of others. The posthumous collections brought Sapir’s ( 1949 ) and Whorf’s ( 1956 ) insights to the attention of the wider public (including, inter alia , young Thomas Kuhn ) and inspired the emergence of the field of psycholinguistics. But the newly minted psycholinguists faced a major problem: it had never occurred to Sapir and Whorf to put forth testable hypotheses. Whorf showed how linguistic patterns could be systematically investigated through the use of overt categories marked systematically (e.g., number in English or gender in Russian) and covert categories marked only in certain contexts (e.g., gender in English), yet neither he nor Sapir ever elaborated the meaning of ‘different observations’ or ‘psychological correlates’.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, scholarly debates at conferences, summer seminars and in academic journals attempted to correct this ‘oversight’ and to ‘systematize’ their ideas (Black, 1959 ; Brown & Lenneberg , 1954 ; Fishman , 1960 ; Hoijer, 1954a; Lenneberg, 1953 ; Osgood & Sebeok , 1954 ; Trager , 1959 ). The term ‘the Sapir -Whorf hypothesis’ was first used by linguistic anthropologist Harry Hoijer ( 1954b ) to refer to the idea “that language functions, not simply as a device for reporting experience, but also, and more significantly, as a way of defining experience for its speakers” (p. 93). The study of SWH, in Hoijer’s view, was supposed to focus on structural and semantic patterns active in a given language. This version, probably closest to Whorf’s own interest in linguistic classification, was soon replaced by an alternative, developed by psychologists Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg, who translated Sapir’s and Whorf’s ideas into two ‘testable’ hypotheses (Brown & Lenneberg, 1954 ; Lenneberg, 1953 ). The definitive form of the dichotomy was articulated in Brown’s ( 1958 ) book Words and Things:

linguistic relativity holds that where there are differences of language there will also be differences of thought, that language and thought covary. Determinism goes beyond this to require that the prior existence of some language pattern is either necessary or sufficient to produce some thought pattern. (p. 260)

In what follows, I will draw on Kuhn’s ([1962] 2012 ) insights to discuss four aspects of this radical transformation of Sapir’s and Whorf’s ideas into the SWH: (a) it was a major change of paradigm , that is, of shared assumptions, research foci, and methods, (b) it erased multilingual awareness , (c) it created a false dichotomy, and (d) it proceeded unacknowledged.

The change of paradigm was necessitated by the desire to make complex notions, articulated by linguistic anthropologists, fit experimental paradigms in psychology. Yet ideas don’t travel easily across disciplines: Kuhn ([1962] 2012 ) compares a dialog between scientific communities to intercultural communication, which requires skillful translation if it is to avoid communication breakdowns. Brown and Lenneberg ’s translation was not skillful and while their ideas moved the study of language and cognition forward, they departed from the original arguments in several ways (for discussion, see also Levinson , 2012 ; Lucy , 1992a ; Lee , 1996 ).

First, they shifted the focus of the inquiry from the effects of obligatory grammatical categories, such as tense, to lexical domains, such as color, that had a rather tenuous relationship to linguistic thought (color differentiation was, in fact, discussed by Boas and Whorf as an ability not influenced by language). Secondly, they shifted from concepts as interpretive categories to cognitive processes, such as perception or memory, that were of little interest to Sapir and Whorf, and proposed to investigate them with artificial stimuli, such as Munsell chips, that hardly reflect habitual thought. Third, they privileged the idea of thought potential (and, by implication, what can be said) over Sapir’s and Whorf’s concerns with obligatory categories and habitual thought (and, by definition, with what is said). Fourth, they missed the insights about the illusory objectivity of one’s own language and replaced the interest in linguistic thought with independent ‘language’ and ‘cognition’. Last, they substituted Humboldt ’s, Sapir ’s and Whorf ’s interest in multilingual awareness with a hypothesis articulated in monolingual terms.

A closer look at Brown’s ( 1958 ) book shows that he was fully aware of the existence of bilingualism and of the claims made by bilingual speakers of Native American languages that “thinking is different in the Indian language” (p. 232). His recommendation in this case was to distrust those who have the “unusual” characteristic of being bilingual:

There are few bilinguals, after all, and the testimony of those few cannot be uncritically accepted. There is a familiar inclination on the part of those who possess unusual and arduously obtained experience to exaggerate its remoteness from anything the rest of us know. This must be taken into account when evaluating the impressions of students of Indian languages. In fact, it might be best to translate freely with the Indian languages, assimilating their minds to our own. (Brown, 1958 : 233)

The testimony of German–English bilinguals – akin to his own collaborator Eric Heinz Lenneberg – was apparently another matter: the existence of “numerous bilingual persons and countless translated documents” was, for Brown ( 1958 : 232), compelling evidence that the German mind is “very like our own”. Alas, Brown ’s ( 1958 ) contradictory treatment of bilingualism and the monolingual arrogance of the recommendations ‘to translate freely’ and ‘to assimilate Indian minds to our own’ went unnoticed by his colleagues. The result was the transformation of a fluid and dynamic account of language into a rigid, static false dichotomy.

When we look back, the attribution of the idea of linguistic determinism to multilinguals interested in language evolution and the evolution of the human mind makes little sense. Yet the replacement of the open-ended questions about implications of linguistic diversity with two ‘testable’ hypotheses had a major advantage – it was easier to argue about and to digest. And it was welcomed by scholars who, like Kay and Kempton ( 1984 ), applauded the translation of Sapir’s and Whorf’s convoluted passages into direct prose and felt that Brown and Lenneberg “really said all that was necessary” (p. 66) and that the question of what Sapir and Whorf actually thought was interesting but “after all less important than the issue of what is the case” (p. 77). In fact, by the 1980s, Kay and Kempton were among the few who could still trace the transformation to the two psychologists. Their colleagues were largely unaware of it because Brown and Lenneberg concealed the radical nature of their reformulation by giving Sapir and Whorf ‘credit’ for what should have been the Brown-Lenneberg hypothesis.

We might never know what prompted this unusual scholarly modesty – a sincere belief that they were simply ‘improving’ Sapir and Whorf or the desire to distance themselves from the hypothesis articulated only to be ‘disproved’. For Kuhn ([1962] 2012 ), this is science as usual: “it is just this sort of change in the formulation of questions and answers that accounts, far more than novel empirical discoveries, for the transition from Aristotelian to Galilean and from Galilean to Newtonian dynamics” (p. 139). He also points to the hidden nature of many scientific revolutions concealed by textbooks that provide the substitute for what they had eliminated and make scientific development look linear, truncating the scientists’ knowledge of the history of their discipline. This is precisely what happened with the SWH: the newly minted hypothesis took on a life of its own, multiplying and reproducing itself in myriads of textbooks, articles, lectures, and popular media, and moving the discussion further and further away from Sapir’s primary interest in ‘social reality’ and Whorf’s central concern with ‘habitual thought’.

The transformation was facilitated by four common academic practices that allow us to manage the ever-increasing amount of literature in the ever-decreasing amount of time: (a) simplification of complex arguments (which often results in misinterpretation); (b) reduction of original texts to standard quotes; (c) reliance on other people’s exegeses; and (d) uncritical reproduction of received knowledge. The very frequency of this reproduction made the SWH a ‘fact on the ground’, accepted as a valid substitution for the original ideas. The new terms of engagement became part of habitual thought in the Ivory Tower and to this day are considered obligatory by many academics who begin their disquisitions on linguistic relativity with a nod towards the sound-bite version of the ‘strong’ determinism and ‘weak’ relativity. In Kuhn ’s ([1962] 2012 ) view, this perpetuation of a new set of shared assumptions is a key marker of a successful paradigm change: “When the individual scientist can take a paradigm for granted, he need no longer, in his major works, attempt to build his field anew, starting from first principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced” (p. 20).

Yet the false dichotomy reified in the SWH – and the affective framing of one hypothesis as strong and the other as weak – moved the goalposts and reset the target and the standards needed to achieve it, giving scholars a clear indication of which hypothesis they should address. This preference, too, was perpetuated by countless researchers who, like Langacker ( 1976 : 308), dismissed the ‘weak’ version as obviously true but uninteresting and extolled ‘the strongest’ as “the most interesting version of the LRH” but also as “obviously false”. And indeed, the research conducted on Brown’s and Lenneberg’s terms failed to ‘prove’ linguistic determinism and instead revealed ‘minor’ language effects on cognition (e.g., Brown & Lenneberg, 1954 ; Lenneberg , 1953 ) or no effects at all (Heider , 1972 ). The studies by Gipper ( 1976 ) 4 and Malotki ( 1983 ) showed that even Whorf ’s core claims, about the concept of time in Hopi, may have been misguided. 5 This ‘failure’ too became part of the SWH lore, with textbooks firmly stating that “a strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis cannot be true” (Foss & Hakes , 1978 : 393).

By the 1980s, there emerged an implicit consensus in US academia that Whorfianism was “a bête noire, identified with scholarly irresponsibility, fuzzy thinking, lack of rigor, and even immorality” (Lakoff, 1987 : 304). This consensus was shaped by the political climate supportive of the notion of ‘free thought’ yet hostile to linguistic diversity, by educational policies that reinforced monolingualism, and by the rise of cognitive science and meaning-free linguistics that replaced the study of meaning with the focus on structures and universals. Yet the implications of Sapir ’s and Whorf’s ideas continued to be debated (e.g., Fishman , 1980 , 1982 ; Kay & Kempton , 1984 ; Lakoff, 1987 ; Lucy & Shweder , 1979 ; McCormack & Wurm , 1977 ; Pinxten , 1976 ) and in the early 1990s the inimitable Pinker decided to put the specter of the SWH to bed once and for all. Performing a feat reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty, Pinker ( 1994 ) made the SWH ‘mean’ what he wanted it to mean, namely “the idea that thought is the same thing as language” (p. 57). Leaving behind Brown ’s ( 1958 ) articulation with its modest co-variation, he replaced it in the minds of countless undergraduates with

the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism , stating that people’s thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language, and its weaker version, linguistic relativity , stating that differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers. (Pinker, 1994 : 57)

And lest they still thought that there is something to it, Pinker ( 1994 ) told them that it is “an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity” (p. 57) and “it is wrong, all wrong” (p. 57). Ironically, this ‘obituary’ for the SWH coincided with the neo-Whorfian revival, through the efforts of several linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists – most notably Gumperz and Levinson ( 1996 ), Lakoff ( 1987 ), Lee ( 1996 ), Lucy ( 1992a , b ), and Slobin ( 1991 , 1996a ) – who were willing to buck the tide, to engage with the original texts, and to devise new methods of inquiry. This work will form the core of the chapters to come but for now I want to emphasize that the received belief in the validity of the terms of engagement articulated by Brown and Lenneberg and their attribution to Sapir and Whorf is still pervasive in many academic circles and evident in the numerous books and articles that regurgitate the SWH as the strong/weak dichotomy. The vulgarization of Whorf ’s views bemoaned by Fishman ( 1982 ) also continues in popular accounts, and I fully agree with Pullum ( 1991 ) who, in his own critique of Whorf, noted:

Once the public has decided to accept something as an interesting fact, it becomes almost impossible to get the acceptance rescinded. The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality. (p. 159)

Popularizers of academic work continue to stigmatize Whorf through comments such as “anyone can estimate the time of day, even the Hopi Indians; these people were once attributed with a lack of any conception of time by a book-bound scholar, who had never met them” (Richards , 1998 : 44). Even respectable linguists perpetuate the strawman version of “extreme relativism – the idea that there are no facts common to all cultures and languages” (Everett, 2012 : 201) or make cheap shots at “the most notorious of the con men, Benjamin Lee Whorf, who seduced a whole generation into believing, without a shred of evidence, that American Indian languages lead their speakers to an entirely different conception of reality from ours” (Deutscher, 2010 : 21). This assertion is then followed by a statement that while the link between language, culture, and cognition “seems perfectly kosher in theory, in practice the mere whiff of the subject today makes most linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists recoil” because the topic “carries with it a baggage of intellectual history which is so disgraceful that the mere suspicion of association with it can immediately brand anyone a fraud” (Deutscher, 2010 : 21).

Such comments are not just an innocent rhetorical strategy aimed at selling more copies: the uses of hyperbole (most linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists ; mere suspicion of association), affect (disgraceful , fraud , recoil , embarrassment), misrepresentation (disgraceful baggage of intellectual history), strawman’s arguments and reduction ad absurdum as a means of persuasion have played a major role in manufacturing the false consent in the history of ideas that Deutscher (2010) finds so ‘disgraceful’ (readers interested in the dirty tricks used by scholars should read the expert description by Pinker , 2007 : 89–90). What is particularly interesting is that both Deutscher (2010) and Everett (2012) actually martial evidence in support of Whorf’s original arguments. Their attempt to do so while distancing themselves from Whorf would have fascinated Whorf, for it reveals two patterns of habitual thought common in English-language academia: the uncritical adoption of the received version of the SWH and the reliance on the metaphor of ‘argument as war’ (Tannen , 1998), i.e., an assumption that each argument has ‘two sides’ (not one or three), that these sides should be polarized in either/or terms, and that in order to present oneself as a ‘reasonable’ author, one should exaggerate the alternatives and then occupy the ‘rational’ position in between. Add to this the reductionism common for trade books and the knowledge that criticism sells better than praise, and you get Whorf as a ‘con man’.

Dark Matter of the Mind
by Daniel L. Everett
Kindle Locations 352-373

I am here particularly concerned with difference, however, rather than sameness among the members of our species— with variation rather than homeostasis. This is because the variability in dark matter from one society to another is fundamental to human survival, arising from and sustaining our species’ ecological diversity. The range of possibilities produces a variety of “human natures” (cf. Ehrlich 2001). Crucial to the perspective here is the concept-apperception continuum. Concepts can always be made explicit; apperceptions less so. The latter result from a culturally guided experiential memory (whether conscious or unconscious or bodily). Such memories can be not only difficult to talk about but often ineffable (see Majid and Levinson 2011; Levinson and Majid 2014). Yet both apperception and conceptual knowledge are uniquely determined by culture, personal history, and physiology, contributing vitally to the formation of the individual psyche and body.

Dark matter emerges from individuals living in cultures and thereby underscores the flexibility of the human brain. Instincts are incompatible with flexibility. Thus special care must be given to evaluating arguments in support of them (see Blumberg 2006 for cogent criticisms of many purported examples of instincts, as well as the abuse of the term in the literature). If we have an instinct to do something one way, this would impede learning to do it another way. For this reason it would surprise me if creatures higher on the mental and cerebral evolutionary scale— you and I, for example— did not have fewer rather than more instincts. Humans, unlike cockroaches and rats— two other highly successful members of the animal kingdom— adapt holistically to the world in which they live, in the sense that they can learn to solve problems across environmental niches, then teach their solutions and reflect on these solutions. Cultures turn out to be vital to this human adaptational flexibility— so much so that the most important cognitive question becomes not “What is in the brain?” but “What is the brain in?” (That is, in what individual, residing in what culture does this particular brain reside?)

The brain, by this view, was designed to be as close to a blank slate as was possible for survival. In other words, the views of Aristotle, Sapir, Locke, Hume, and others better fit what we know about the nature of the brain and human evolution than the views of Plato, Bastian, Freud, Chomsky, Tooby, Pinker, and others. Aristotle’s tabula rasa seems closer to being right than is currently fashionable to suppose, especially when we answer the pointed question, what is left in the mind/ brain when culture is removed?

Most of the lessons of this book derive from the idea that our brains (including our emotions) and our cultures are related symbiotically through the individual, and that neither supervenes on the other. In this framework, nativist ideas often are superfluous.

Kindle Locations 3117-3212

Science, we might say, ought to be exempt from dark matter. Yet that is much harder to claim than to demonstrate. […] To take a concrete example of a science, we focus on linguistics, because this discipline straddles the borders between the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. The basic idea to be explored is this: because counterexamples and exceptions are culturally determined in linguistics, as in all sciences, scientific progress is the output of cultural values. These values differ even within the same discipline (e.g., linguistics), however, and can lead to different notions of progress in science. To mitigate this problem, therefore, to return to linguistics research as our primary example, our inquiry should be informed by multiple theories, with a focus on languageS rather than Language. To generalize, this would mean a focus on the particular rather than the general in many cases. Such a focus (in spite of the contrast between this and many scientists’ view that generalizations are the goal of science) develops a robust empirical basis while helping to distinguish local theoretical culture from broader, transculturally agreed-upon desiderata of science— an issue that theories of language, in a way arguably more extreme than in other disciplines, struggle to tease apart.

The reason that a discussion of science and dark matter is important here is to probe the significance and meaning of dark matter, culture, and psychology in the more comfortable, familiar territory of the reader, to understand that what we are contemplating here is not limited to cultures unlike our own, but affects every person, every endeavor of Homo sapiens, even the hallowed enterprise of science. This is not to say that science is merely a cultural illusion. This chapter has nothing to do with postmodernist epistemological relativity. But it does aim to show that science is not “pure rationality,” autonomous from its cultural matrix. […]

Whether we classify an anomaly as counterexample or exception depends on our dark matter— our personal history plus cultural values, roles, and knowledge structures. And the consequences of our classification are also determined by culture and dark matter. Thus, by social consensus, exceptions fall outside the scope of the statements of a theory or are explicitly acknowledged by the theory to be “problems” or “mysteries.” They are not immediate problems for the theory. Counterexamples, on the other hand, by social consensus render a statement false. They are immediately acknowledged as (at least potential) problems for any theory. Once again, counterexamples and exceptions are the same etically, though they are nearly polar opposites emically. Each is defined relative to a specific theoretical tradition, a specific set of values, knowledge structures, and roles— that is, a particular culture.

One bias that operates in theories, the confirmation bias, is the cultural value that a theory is true and therefore that experiments are going to strengthen it, confirm it, but not falsify it. Anomalies appearing in experiments conducted by adherents of a particular theory are much more likely to be interpreted as exceptions that might require some adjustments of the instruments, but nothing serious in terms of the foundational assumptions of the theory. On the other hand, when anomalies turn up in experiments by opponents of a theory, there will be a natural bias to interpret these as counterexamples that should lead to the abandonment of the theory. Other values that can come into play for the cultural/ theoretical classification of an anomaly as a counterexample or an exception include “tolerance for cognitive dissonance,” a value of the theory that says “maintain that the theory is right and, at least temporarily, set aside problematic facts,” assuming that they will find a solution after the passage of a bit of time. Some theoreticians call this tolerance “Galilean science”— the willingness to set aside all problematic data because a theory seems right. Fair enough. But when, why, and for how long a theory seems right in the face of counterexamples is a cultural decision, not one that is based on facts alone. We have seen that the facts of a counterexample and an exception can be exactly the same. Part of the issue of course is that data, like their interpretations, are subject to emicization. We decide to see data with a meaning, ignoring the particular variations that some other theory might seize on as crucial. In linguistics, for example, if a theory (e.g., Chomskyan theory) says that all relevant grammatical facts stop at the boundary of the sentence, then related facts at the level of paragraphs, stories, and so on, are overlooked.

The cultural and dark matter forces determining the interpretation of anomalies in the data that lead one to abandon a theory and another to maintain it themselves create new social situations that confound the intellect and the sense of morality that often is associated with the practice of a particular theory. William James (1907, 198) summed up some of the reactions to his own work, as evidence of these reactions to the larger field of intellectual endeavors: “I fully expect to see the pragmatist view of truth run through the classic stages of a theory’s career. First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.”

In recent years, due to my research and claims regarding the grammar of the Amazonian Pirahã— that this language lacks recursion— I have been called a charlatan and a dull wit who has misunderstood. It has been (somewhat inconsistently) further claimed that my results are predicted (Chomsky 2010, 2014); it has been claimed that an alternative notion of recursion, Merge, was what the authors had in mind is saying that recursion is the foundation of human languages; and so on. And my results have been claimed to be irrelevant.

* * *

Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Useful Fictions Becoming Less Useful
Essentialism On the Decline
Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?
Blue on Blue
The Chomsky Problem
Dark Matter of the Mind
What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?
Cultural Body-Mind
How Universal Is The Mind?
The Psychology and Anthropology of Consciousness
On Truth and Bullshit

15 thoughts on “Straw Men in the Linguistic Imaginary

  1. Outstanding! I haven’t read all of it but half way through I had to pass on a book I’m reading called: How the French Think, by Sudhir Hazareesingh. It’s an examination of how language is culture and culture is language both of which then inform a world view or “thought” and how the world view reflects the a priori belief in the various coordinates of the preexisting templates of language/culture. To say language effects thinking is to run foul of assorted PC and other groups but anyone who has traveled widely can attest to the fact language is a map of meanings that condition how “reality” is defined. Case in point I recall when Saddam Hussein said the looming gulf War would be “The mother of all battles” a turn of phrase that sounded hopelessly “alien” and melodramatic to Western ears (with “ears” here being a coordinate from which one reaches assorted networks of meaning). In other linguistic realities the phrase resonated precisely because of its apocalyptic sensibility and clearly there are divergent narratives derived from language as a system of establishing coordinate points of meaning. Another example being that across the Eastern Med when confronted by a question deemed to be too stupid for wards, one makes a clicking sound by flicking the tip[ of the tongue back from one’s front teeth. The sound encompasses a system of thinking as much as it reflects a specific response in a specific moment or social interaction.

    • This post was an indirect response to someone else’s post. Stan Carey reviewed Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side.
      https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2018/09/21/book-review-talk-on-the-wild-side-by-lane-greene/

      I asked if the author discussed linguistic relativity. Then I looked at a sample from Google books. And I could see for myself that the author didn’t take the topic overly seriously and I was disappointed, as I’d like to see the level of debate to be improved. But he is a journalist and so maybe the superficial analysis is to be expected.

      I hope you do a review of that book on the French. I’m sure it’s a more worthwhile book than Greene’s book. The whole topic is fascinating and that is why inferior discussion can cause frustration. I don’t mind disagreement, but I wish we could get past the standard bullshit. There is too much of interest to discuss to be wasting our time on conflicts of zombie paradigms.

  2. Pullum ( 1991 ) who, in his own critique of Whorf, noted:

    Once the public has decided to accept something as an interesting fact, it becomes almost impossible to get the acceptance rescinded. The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality. (p. 159)

    It seems to be recursive. Maybe recursive thought did evolve like cursive writing and fades away slowly? I guess.

    • I don’t know. I can’t claim to be an expert on recursive thought. But I suppose there are aspects of our modern thought that we think of as necessary that might not be so.

      Certainly, cursive will be obsolete before long. There is something to learning cursive. Even though I never write in cursive, knowing cursive was useful in doing genealogy research as almost all old documents are written in cursive. And cursive from past centuries takes some talent in deciphering.

      Then again, future generations will probably rely on computer programs to decipher cursive for them. And even signatures might become uncommon.

  3. We already rely on machines that can read cursive addresses to sort mail.

    Certainly, we are not experts on though, being so wrapped up in it.

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