Kathryn Woolard, SLA President
The question of linguistic relativity is the topic of an August 29, 2010 New York Times magazine article, “You Are What You Speak”
Many linguistic anthropologists were surprised by the article’s representation of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s ideas and by the scant reference to the longstanding tradition of research in linguistic anthropology. Most often known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or the theory of linguistic relativity, the notion that the diversity of linguistic structures affects how people perceive and think about the world has been a canonical topic of American linguistic anthropology. This discipline’s exploration of the relation of linguistic diversity to perception and cognition has never ceased nor been relegated to the “loony fringes of disrepute,” as the article’s author Guy Deutscher puts it (assuming that he did not mean that as a characterization of our entire field). Across the decades, the pendulum has swung from more relativist to more universalist and back to nuanced relativist readings of the evidence, and anthropologists’ methods of investigation usually differ markedly from psychologists’. Nonetheless, various framings of the question of linguistic relativity have long remained on the anthropological agenda, from the days of Boas, Sapir and Whorf to the present.
Whorf’s own statements of his theory look little like the caricature that opens the NYT article and much more like the position that Deutscher himself offers as reasonable and compelling. Far from holding that “the inventory of ready-made words” in a language “forbids” speakers to think specific thoughts, Whorf argued that patterns of grammatical structures, often the most covert ones at that, give rise not to a language prison but to a “provisional analysis of reality” and habits of mind, very much as Deutscher concludes. This is a view that many in linguistic anthropology continue to find compelling, in varying ways.
Below are just a few references to the extensive linguistic anthropological background to the NYT article. For starters, it’s useful – and fun! – to read Whorf himself, with classic pieces available in:
1956 Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. John B. Carroll (ed.). MIT Press.
In many publications across a career focused on this area of investigation, John Lucy (Psychology and Human Development, U. Chicago) has offered historical overviews of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and detailed study of specific proposals about linguistic relativity, informed by both linguistic anthropology and psychology:
Lucy, John A. (2004). Language, culture, and mind in comparative perspective. In M. Achard and S. Kemmer (Eds.), Language, Culture, and Mind. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information Publications [distributed by the University of Chicago Press], pp. 1-21.
Lucy, John A. 1997 Linguistic Relativity. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 291-312. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews Inc.
Lucy, John A. 1996 The scope of linguistic relativity: an analysis and review of empirical research. In John J. Gumperz and Stephen Levinson (Eds.), Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge, Cambridge Univeristy Press, pp. 37-69.
Lucy, John A. (1985). Whorf’s view of the linguistic mediation of thought. In E. Mertz and R. J. Parmentier (Eds.), Semiotic Mediation: Sociocultural and Psychological Perspectives. New York: Academic Press, pp. 73-97. Reprinted in B. Blount (Ed.), Language Culture, and Society: A Book of Readings (2nd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1995, pp. 415-438.
Lucy, John A. 1992 Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge University Press.
Lucy, John A. 1992 Grammatical Categories and Cognition: a Case Study of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge University Press.
For newcomers to the field, a good overview of linguistic relativity and its place in linguistic anthropology is offered by Sandro Duranti (Anthropology, UCLA) in a forthcoming article:
Duranti, A. in press. Linguistic anthropology: Language as a non-neutral medium. Raj Mesthrie (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Cambridge University Press.
For the late-20th century renewal of the question of relativity from a variety of perspectives, including chapters by authors mentioned in this blog entry, see:
John J. Gumperz and Stephen Levinson, 1996. Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge University Press.
Over an extensive set of publications not designed for the casual reader, Michael Silverstein (Anthropology, Linguistics, and Psychology, University of Chicago) has brought Whorf to bear in formulating one of the key research paradigms of contemporary linguistic anthropology, the investigation of the linguistic and social concomitants of linguistic ideologies. The first half of the following chapter offers a good approach to Silverstein’s interpretation:
Silverstein, M. 2000. Whorfianism and the Linguistic Imagination of Nationality. In Paul Kroskrity (ed.), Regimes of Language. SAR Press.
Those intrigued by the controversially different readings of Whorf’s ideas may want to look at Emily Schultz’s (Anthropology, St. Cloud State University) original analysis of Whorf’s rhetoric and her politico-cultural account of its ambiguities. The book’s title is all too apt for the NYT’s representation:
Schultz, E. 1990. Dialogue at the Margins: Whorf, Bakhtin, and Linguistic Relativity. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1990.
The NYT article makes only brief mention of linguistic anthropologist John Haviland (Anthropology Dept. and Director of the Linguistic Anthropology Laboratory, UCSD), but it builds much of its central story around his seminal research on cardinal directions in the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr and indigenous languages of Mexico. Here are references for some of Haviland’s work, as well as fellow linguistic anthropologist Stephen Levinson’s (Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen) studies building on that, as also mentioned in the NYT:
Haviland, John B. “Anchoring, iconicity, and orientation in Guugu Yimidhirr pointing gestures.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Vol. III(1), pp. 3-45. (1993)
Haviland, John B. and Stephen C. Levinson (eds.) Special issue: spatial conceptualization in Mayan languages. Linguistics vol. 32-4/5. (1994)
Haviland, John B. “Guugu Yimithirr Cardinal Directions.” Ethos 26(1) (March 1998), pp. 25-47. (1998)
Haviland, John B. “Pointing, gesture spaces, and mental maps.” In Language and Gesture: Window into Thought and Action, David McNeill, editor. Pp. 13-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2000)
Levinson, S. 2003 Space in Language and Cognition. Cambridge University Press.
The series that Levinson edits on “Language, Culture and Cognition” from Cambridge University Press has published a number of advanced studies in this area, including recent books by linguistic anthropologists that address two of the key topics raised in the NYT’s article, the discursive formulation of spatial relations (Bennardo) and evidential constructions (Kockelman):
Bennardo, Giovanni 2009. Language, Space, and Social Relationships; A Foundational Cultural Model in Polynesia. Cambridge University Press.
Kockelman, Paul 2010. Language, Culture and Mind; Natural Constructions and Social Kinds. Cambridge University Press.
This list is far from an exhaustive inventory of the very extensive anthropological literature on the issues and data discussed the NYT piece, and captures only a few of the perspectives anthropologists have brought to the question. We welcome additions to these suggested readings.
For more on Deutscher’s article and on other journalistic representations of Whorf’s hypothesis from linguistic anthropology, check these links to comments by the former SLA webmaster, Kerim Friedman (Department of Indigenous Culture, National Dong Hwa University):