September 19, 2010 3 Comments Leila In the news, Linguistic Relativity, Uncategorized

Kathryn Woolard, SLA President

In response to my original posting on this website, I received the following email message a few days ago from the author of the NYT article, Guy Deutscher, who was concerned that he inadvertently offended linguistic anthropologists. Because Dr. Deutscher asked me to share his message with anyone who might have been offended, I’m posting it here:

Dear Prof. Woolard,
Yesterday I was sent a link to your blog on the Linguistic Anthropology list, and I was saddened to see that my NYT article has caused offence to linguistic anthropologists. I had no intention whatsoever of characterising linguistic anthropology as the loony fringe of disrepute. I very much value the work done in this field. Indeed, much of the book from which this article was excerpted deals with central questions of linguistic anthropology, such as colour. What I meant was completely different, namely that for most linguists who consider themselves in the mainstream, and certainly for cognitive scientists, the influence of language on thought is nowadays almost a taboo subject, and any attempts to explore it are rejected out of hand. And my point was that this state of affairs is unsatisfactory.

A few words about my criticism of Whorf. The article is an excerpt – highly condensed – from a book. In the book I make even stronger criticisms of Whorf’s argumentation and his representation of linguistic facts. But as opposed to the article, these criticisms are made in context, and are discussed with relation to particular examples that Whorf used and quotation from Whorf’s work, e.g. his claims about the alleged timelessness of the Hopi language and its alleged influence on the Hopi’s inability to understand the concept of time as we know it. I don’t think I caricaturized his position – I’m afraid he doesn’t need much caricaturizing there.

I certainly agree that Whorf was inspiring, and that one can inspire good work even if one’s actual claims are untenable. But I hope that readers of the book will not think that the criticism of Whorf’s own argumentation and factual claims was unfair.

In any case, let me just repeat that nothing was further from my purpose than to belittle the insights and achievements of linguistic anthropology.

Please feel free to share this with anyone who was offended.

With best wishes,
Guy Deutscher