PHL313: Some Observations about Whorf's "Relation"
Some Observations about Whorf's "Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language"
Whorf wrote this paper for a book on Sapir. The view espoused
(depending upon one's interpretation of how strongly we should read
Whorf's claim) has sometimes been called "linguistic constructivism."
This is something like the view that some significant portion of what
we take to be objective features of the "external" world is actually a
product of our language. A weaker reading of Whorf (more likely to be
accurate to his intent, I think) is that our language influences our
reasoning about, and presuppositions concerning, the world.
Whorf's paper has a straightforward structure:
- Review of some illustrative personal anecdotes
- Statement of primary hypotheses:
(1) Are our own concepts of "time," "space," and "matter"
given in substantially the same form by experience to all
men, or are they in part conditioned by the structure of
particular languages? (2) Are there traceable affinities
between (a) cultural and behavioral norms and (b)
large-scale linguistic patterns?
- Comparative cases as evidence for (some parts of)
Whorf reviews a number of personal anecdotes from his experience as an
inspector for an insurance company. They are so straight-forward we
do no need to review them here. However, the key and challenging
question is: do these examples tell us about people's theories of the
world, or about their language? Whorf is raising the possibility that
the theories (by which I mean in these cases the collection of
relevant -- and partly false -- beliefs) that these individuals had
were shaped by their language. The degree to which this is the case
is the degree to which we should accept something like a robust form
of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Whorf raises the possibility that he can use Hopi, and compare it to "SAE"
(standard average European) to test the idea that:
(1) Are our own concepts of "time," "space," and "matter" given
in substantially the same form by experience to all men, or are
they in part conditioned by the structure of particular
languages? (2) Are there traceable affinities between (a)
cultural and behavioral norms and (b) large-scale linguistic
Please note that there are in fact there are at least five hypotheses
here (after all, maybe language shapes our view of matter but not
time, or etc.).
The Cases: Hopi vs SAE
Whorf considers and compares features of Hopi with SAE. The idea is
that Hopi is very different from the relatively similar European
languages. He hopes to show systematic patterns of difference. We
are at the disadvantage that we don't know Hopi, and so must assume
his account is accurate. So, since I cannot evaluate his claims about
Hopi. I will here just state them.
In terms of "habitual thought," then, Whorf suggest SAE native speakers
build their vocabulary foremost on terms for things, and we objectify time.
Hopi native speakers see time mostly as growth, cyclicity, and creativity.
This is shown in social relations and relations to the natural world; as
would be, he claims, our conception of time shown in our relations.
- Plurality. SAE applies number to real and
imaginary things. We say, for example, "Ten days" when of
course there are never present at once as a group ten days.
In Hopi, plurals are reserved for things that can form a
present group. For example, regarding time, you have to
say, "On the tenth day." Whorf suggest this means that
Hopi have a different sense of time: they see time primarily
as "becoming later," instead of like SAE native speakers as
- Quantity. SAE has individual and mass nouns.
Hopi lacks vague mass nouns: things like water come always
in some form (a cup, etc.). This means they are not inclined
like SAE speakers to imagine a difference between matter
- Phases and Cycles. We treat cycles just like other
objects, with undistinguished nouns. Hopi treats phases with
constructions like adverbs. We say, "in the morning," as if
morning were like a space; he claims Hopi say something like
"while the morning phase is occuring." The result is that,
Whorf claims, the Hopi have no reason to think of time as a
- Temporal forms of Verbs. Our three tenses in SAE
leads us to see time "in a row." He claims Hopi lacks tense
but has in place a complex set of relations to the speaker
(she reports the present or past, she expects the future).
Again, Whorf says this leads us to seem time as an object,
and not so the Hopi.
- Duration. We express duration with metaphors,
most of them sptaial. This encourages our objectification
of time. Hopi lacks these spatial metaphors for time; again,
suggesting they see time as a flow, a getting later, but not
as a kind of space-like stuff.
Language and Society: Historical Relation
It is natural to ask whether culture shapes language, or langauge
shapes culture. Of course, the answer could be that both are true.
But, in either case, it seems that for an individual person
her language shapes her world view, and that language is of course
mostly just acquired from her culture.
In sum, Whorf thinks that he has shown that our concepts of time and
matter are shaped by language: "Concepts of 'time' and 'matter' are
not given in substantially the same form by experience to all men but
depend upon the nature of the language or languages through the use of
which they have been developed."
About space, he cannot say, but only because Hopi and SAE mostly agree
on space (so lack of contrast could mean either that we all perceive
space the same, or just that by chance Hopi and SAE are similar in
terms of their constructions regarding space).
Whorf has mustered some evidence for linguistic constructivism or for
a related thesis. His hypotheses remain controversial, however. Much
more work would be required to establish that SAE native speakers
really systematically show differences from Hopi speakers of the
relevant kind. Also very challenging is the question of
interpretation: we hardly agree in one language how to understand
time and space; it is not easy to say, "Hopi think x and y about time
and space" and not be open to significant challenges and controversy.