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Linguistic Relativity, Whorf, Linguistic Anthropology

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. 

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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.

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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):

10 thoughts on “Linguistic Relativity, Whorf, Linguistic Anthropology”

  1. I think you should also mention the following early publications by Levinson:

    Levinson, Stephen C. & Penelope Brown. 1994. Immanuel Kant among the Tenejapans: Anthropology as empirical philosophy. Ethos 22(1). 3-41.

    (Based on a 1992 working paper; winner of the Stirling Prize, see Anthropology Newsletter March 1993).

    Levinson, Stephen C. 1996. Relativity in spatial conception and description. In John J. Gumperz & Stephen C. Levinson (eds.), Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, 177-202. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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  4. 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”

  5. I find it interesting that even in his gracious note to linguistic anthropologists, Deutscher still manages to misconstrue Whorf’s characterization of Hopi notions of time, in precisely the way in which you critique him for in your excellent comment, Kit. As a linguistic anthropologist who has researched Hopi discourse for over 15 years, I have had occasion to pore over Whorf’s published analyses of Hopi, as well as those that appear in some of his posthumously published papers(see the appendix in Lee 1994). Nowhere do I see Whorf making the kind of claims to linguistic determinism in reference to Hopi notions of time, or their “inability to understand the concept of time as we know it,” that Deutscher describes in the letter above.

    Now, I admit I haven’t read the book from which Dr. Deutscher NYT piece derives, or which he references above, so I look forward to seeing the evidence he puts forth for this. That being said, Deutscher would not be the first critic of Whorf’s Hopi analyses to make this kind of overstatement. Indeed, as Penny Lee, John Lucy, Leanne Hinton, and others (notably Michael Silverstein) have already pointed out, Whorf is often set up as a straw man in a debate that is more often about the broader claims of linguistic relativity more generally, than they are about Whorf’s particular formulation of the theory, or the capacity of Hopi people, past or present, to “understand” time. This is certainly the case in the most elaborate analysis of Hopi temporal linguistics (indeed, much more elaborate than Whorf’s), Ekkehart Malotki’s “Hopi Time”, (The Hague: Mouton, 1983), an enormous 677 page volume, which seems to have the debunking of Whorf’s claim to the “timelessness” of Hopi language as its prime impetus.

    As Lucy and Hinton both point out, however, Whorf’s point was never that Hopis were unable to conceptualize “time” as it is conceptualized by speakers of Standard Average European (to use Whorf’s term) languages, but rather that the Hopi language doesn’t grammaticalize time in the way it is grammaticalized in SAE languages, and that this would shape habits of thought in those who only spoke Hopi language, habits of thought that are echoed in many of the norms, structures and practices that inform traditional Hopi ceremonial and social life. Whorf is clear that this doesn’t mean that Hopi are thus “unable” to relate events to each other in the ways that English speakers would refer to by the temporal adverbs “later” or “earlier”. Indeed, as Malotki’s careful presentation of his Hopi data show, Hopis are describing such relationships all the time. But as Hinton points out, when we read the Hopi, a literal translation has these relations figured in spatial rather than temporal, terms. When Malotki glosses a Hopi phrase in English as “There is not enough time,” the interlineral lexeme by lexeme translation he offers of the same phrase is actually closer to “There is not enough space.” It is thus Malotki who supplies the metaphorical reading of space as time here. It remains unclear whether Hopi need the metaphor, or if their concept of “space” does the trick all on its own.

    Does this mean that Hopi cannot “understand” what we in English understand when we say “There is not enough time?” I don’t think so. Nor do I think Whorf was making that claim, though it is so often attributed to him. At the same time (!), I do think Whorf is right when he finds it “gratuitous” to assume that the habits of thought regarding “time” of English speakers should be presumed to be shared by someone who “only knows the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of his own society” (Carroll 1956, 56). When read in this way, as Lee, Lucy, and others do, Whorf’s claims seem much more within the realm of what most contemporary linguistic anthropologists would agree, that languages and their particular structures and practices shape the beliefs about, perceptions of, and actions in the world of those who speak them. I grant that this is a much less controversial claim today, but it seems to me that it hews more closely to what Whorf was after.

    I just find it so interesting, and not a little ironic, that someone who has been accused by so many for misunderstanding and misrepresenting the force of language has his own language misunderstood and misrepresented so often as well. Here is my small contribution to perhaps moving the conversation beyond this hurdle.

    Finally, In addition to the Lucy (1992) and Silverstein (2000) already provided by Kit above, here are some further readings specifically on the Hopi material that I have found helpful:

    Hinton, Leanne (1988) “Book Review of Ekkehart Malotki’s Hopi Time.” American Indian Quarterly 12 (4) 361-364.

    Lee, Penny (1996) “The Whorf Theory Complex: A critical reconstruction.” (Johns Benjamins, Amsterdam).

    Malotki, Ekkehart (1983) “Hopi Time: A linguistic analysis of the temporal concepts in the Hopi language.” (Mouton, The Hague).

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  7. One of the great unexplored or insufficiently addressed ironies and fascinations for time immemorial is why the inescapable compulsion to define Whorf has always been the conundrum of such rigid terms (while he was clearly speaking relativistically regarding the organic matrix of cultural-linguistic habits/patterns. The bars of either camp have always been stuck in the mire of their own resplendent and naive blindness. Is not such rigid defining of the “strong or the weak case” made for the last seventy five years brilliantly and unconsciously symptomatic of an embedded language/cultural matrix dualism that cannot escape the gravity of its distorted lens and therefore, ironically and amusingly proves Whorf’s thesis?

  8. You actually make it seem so easy along with your presentation however I find this topic to be actually one
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  9. How can I contact Penny Lee. She assisted some Yolngu people in Nhulunbuy with her work and I need to contact her please as the work has gone missing. Can she contact me Sharon Yunupingu please you k ow how to contact her please

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