Apr 242014


Today is the birthday (1897) of Benjamin Lee Whorf, a U.S. linguist and fire prevention engineer. Whorf is widely known as an advocate for the idea that because of linguistic differences in grammar and usage, speakers of different languages conceptualize and experience the world differently. This principle has frequently been mistakenly called the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” after him and his mentor Edward Sapir, but Whorf called it the “principle of linguistic relativity,” because he saw the idea as having implications similar to Einstein’s principle of physical relativity. Sapir actually had very little to do with this aspect of linguistics and never collaborated with Whorf on it.

Throughout his life Whorf was a chemical engineer by profession, but as a young man he took up an interest in linguistics. At first this interest drew him to the study of Biblical Hebrew, but he quickly went on to study the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica on his own. Professional scholars were impressed by his work and in 1930 he received a grant to study the Nahuatl language in Mexico. On his return home he presented several papers on the language at linguistic conferences. This led him to begin studying linguistics with Edward Sapir at Yale University while still maintaining his day job at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. During his time at Yale he worked on the description of the Hopi language, and the historical linguistics of the Uto-Aztecan languages, publishing many influential papers in professional journals. He was chosen as the substitute for Sapir during his medical leave in 1938. Whorf taught his seminar on “Problems of American Indian Linguistics.” In addition to his well known work on linguistic relativity, he wrote a grammar sketch of Hopi and studies of Nahuatl dialects, proposed a deciphering of Maya hieroglyphic writing, and published the first attempt towards a reconstruction of Uto-Aztecan.

We can divide Whorf’s work in linguistics into three categories:

  1. Descriptive studies of the grammar and vocabulary of Mesoamerican and Native American languages. These formed the basis for his analysis of linguistic relativity. His most famous work concerns the Hopi language. These descriptive studies are still recognized as pioneering.
  2. Theories of linguistic relativity. This is the most controversial part of Whorf’s work.
  3. Phonology: the study of the sounds of languages.

Let us start with phonology because we can have a bit of fun. Sorry that I have to get a bit technical. The sounds of any language can be divided into phonemes, that is, different sounds that make a difference. So, for example, in English /b/ and /p/ are different phonemes because they make a difference. The words “bin” and “pin” have different meanings because their initial sounds are different, that is, they start with different phonemes. Do not confuse phonemes with spelling, however. Some letters such as “c” can have different sounds, as in “cat” and “center.” We are interested here only in the sounds. The curious part is that in English we pronounce certain phonemes differently depending on where they come in a word, but we do not notice the difference. Let’s take the phoneme /p/. Place your hand close to your mouth and say the word “paper.” Do it as naturally as you can. You should note a little puff of air on your hand when you pronounce the first “p” but not the second. The first “p” is said to be aspirated and the second unaspirated. Chances are that before I pointed this out you never noticed the difference. Whorf coined the term, still in use, “allophone” for this difference – different sounds that do not make a difference in meaning.

If you are a play baby like me you can try out different words and sounds. Here’s another classic example. If you hear these two – “nitrate” and “night rate” – they may sound the same to you. But if you hold your hand to your mouth and say them you will see that you actually pronounce them differently. I’ll leave you to discover which /t/ is which.

The thing is that in some languages, such as Khmer, it makes a difference whether you aspirate /p/ or not. Aspirated and unaspirated /p/ are phonemes in Khmer and not allophones. Conversely, to a Hindi speaker the /v/ and /w/ sounds, which we differentiate, sound the same (not to mention the classic inability of Japanese speakers to distinguish /r/ and /l/ in English).

You can see, therefore, that the language you speak can influence perception of sensory information. The huge question that has philosophers, linguists, and psychologists fighting to this day concerns the nature and power of this influence, with no end of the arguments in sight. I can’t get into this in detail here, but I can give a few simplified examples to illustrate the problem.

As a fire inspector Whorf noticed that in one factory there was a storage facility for full gasoline barrels and a separate one for empty barrels. He noticed that workers would not smoke near the full barrels, but would smoke near the empty ones. He hypothesized that it was the words “full” and “empty” that influenced this behavior. “Full” in the workers’ perception implied “dangerous,” whereas “empty” implied “safe.” In fact the opposite is true. Empty barrels (those devoid of petrol) can, nonetheless, contain petroleum fumes which are much more flammable than liquid petroleum. The words, he believed, were affecting perception. Critics have argued that in this case the workers were simply stupid or ill informed, and, unfortunately, Whorf never set up experiments to test the hypothesis.

When it comes to color words, however, there has been a great deal of research. Some languages have only two color words (roughly, “black” and “white”) whereas others have many. The question, simplified, is whether people who have only two color terms see the world in black and white, or do they see it in exactly the same way as people who use more color terms, but simply describe it differently. Some scholars, universalists, argue that the basic physiological and psychological processes are the same for all people, so the words have no influence on perception. Others, relativists (including Whorf), argue that words influence perception. Very complex experiments have been devised to test these hypotheses, but the two sides are still going at it hot and heavy.

On a more general level, if you have tried to become fluent in a foreign language you will come to a point where you realize that you cannot simply translate word for word in your head and come out with a correct sentence in the foreign language. You have to start thinking differently in the foreign language. In Spanish, for example, there are two simple past tenses, the preterite and the imperfect. Often these are used to distinguish completed actions from continuous actions, as in “I went to the store yesterday” versus “I used to go to the store all the time,” where the first is the preterite and the second is the imperfect. But . . . in Spanish, using the same verb in different tenses can also change meaning. The verb “conocer” can mean either “to know” or “to meet” depending on tense. Conocí al president (preterite) means “I met the president” and conocía al president (imperfect) means “I knew the president.” When learning languages such as Malay or Korean, which have virtually no points in common with English, such problems are compounded enormously.

So, does the structure of the language you speak influence the way you perceive the world? Whorf believed that it did, but there is also debate over precisely what Whorf thought. People used to regard Whorf as a strong determinist, that is, that language determined perception and, therefore action (as in the gasoline barrels example). In consequence his work in this area was ignored for many years because this strong position can be challenged easily. But in recent years scholars have been reviewing the totality of Whorf’s work, and many have reached the conclusion that he held a weaker position, namely, that language influences perception, but does not completely control it. In consequence there is renewed interest in his work.

The classic case in Whorf’s research concerns the Hopi use of words and grammatical structures for time. Simplistically, in English we divide time into past, present, and future, and we have words for units of time such as “day,” “month,” and “year.” The Hopi do not. Whorf wrote, “… the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time,’ or to past, present, or future.” This raises the gigantic question, which I am not even going to begin to answer – is time a “thing” or not? Do the Hopi perceive time but simply don’t describe it? Or do they not perceive time at all? Or do they perceive it differently from speakers of other languages? (I won’t even try to scramble your brain more by having you imagine what the world looks like to bilingual Hopi who are fluent in English as well as Hopi). While you ponder those questions I’ll give you a Hopi recipe.

Piki is a traditional Hopi blue corn flat bread. I could not remotely tell you how to make piki. You simply cannot make it if you are not Hopi. Instead here is a wonderful video. In line with Whorf, note that at the end the narrator says that piki has no beginning and no end: it is eternal. Also note that the very concept of what cooking IS to a Hopi is totally different from Western concepts.