Sapir-Whorf

by havoc

Luis linked to this Joel article which says:

No matter how debunked Whorf is, I’m still convinced that Israelis are more likely to do things דווקא, simply because they have a word for it.

Lots of people say Whorf was debunked because they read The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. A professor of mine in college pointed out that while Pinker debunks a strawman hypothesis that language determines thought, Whorf never said that.

At the start of his essay,
“The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,” Whorf quotes Sapir as saying:

We see and hear and experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our
community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

Note the word habitual in the title of Whorf’s essay, and the word predispose
in the Sapir quote. The rest of the essay is consistent with those words.

Read the chapter on “Mentalese” in the Pinker book where he goes on a big rant about Whorf. It’s an attack on “linguistic determinism.” He quotes this passage:

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.

This is from the Whorf essay “Science and Linguistics” which is about the process of reaching scientific agreement through discussion. A conversation has to use language, and some things are easier and more natural to express than others. That’s why jargon exists. As new concepts are invented, whether in science or business, people invent words suitable to discuss the concepts. Sometimes they skip words entirely and use pictures, mathematics, or even computer code.

To me the Pinker way of thinking is sort of like what Alan Cooper calls “Homo Logicus”; someone who ignores the difference between what is possible and what is likely.

The Wikipedia entry on Sapir-Whorf is interesting.

I recently read the book On Intelligence,
essentially a description of how the brain works. I’m not qualified to say whether this is an accurate book, but if so it would certainly debunk Pinker’s “mentalese” claim that everyone thinks
in a universal language of thought. Pinker argues that the brain works like the Common Language Runtime, compiling your language to intermediate language. On Intelligence sounds a lot more plausible than that, at least.

(This post was originally found at http://log.ometer.com/2005-01.html#7)

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