Human ecology

Observations on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
Q sentences...

"Knowledge is not a function of the known but, rather, the knower or, better still, the semantic categories which the knower brings to the known." (Wasserman, 1989, p. 207)

"That language, i.e. semantic categories, directs thoughts, is today commonly known as the "Sapir/Whorf Theory". Eugene Vance, although not citing the theory explicitly, notes that "poetic language does not express, by its conventions, the consciousness of the desiring individual, but determines the operations of that consciousness" ("Mervelous Signals," p.306). In short, our linguistic boundaries may become the boundaries of our actions, shaping rather than reflecting our actions, and this, in effect, is exactly what happens to the characters in both poems." (ibid, note to the above, p.220)

"Indeed, Lady Philosophy notes in the "Boece":

For al that evere is iknowe, it is rather/
comprehended and knowen, nat aftir his/
strength and his nature, but aftir the/
faculty (that is to seyn, the power and the nature/)
of hem that knowen.
(V, prose IV, 140-44)
Thus Palamon views Emelye with an eye toward "hoolynesse" and sees a "goddesse" while Arcite views her with an eye toward the "creature" and sees a "womman." Yet assuredly, the word "love" can mean both otherworldly and fleshly affection, and Emelye is both woman and goddess." (ibid, p.207)

"And you: my tongue that makes my mouth a mint,
And stamps my thoughts to coin them words by art,"
("Unquiet thoughts", Dowland, 1597)

"In much of our social and political discourse, people simply assume that words determine thoughts." (Pinker, 1994, p.56)

"And there is a scientific basis for these assumptions: the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism, stating that people's thoughts are determined by the categories made available to them by their language, and its weaker versions, linguistic relativity, stating that differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers." (ibid., p.57)

"But it is wrong, all wrong. The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity... We have all had the experience of uttering or writing a sentence, then stopping and realizing that it wasn't exactly what we meant to say. To have that feeling, there has to be a "what we meant to say" that is different from what we said." (ibid., pp.57-58)

"And if thoughts depended on words, how could a new word ever be coined? How could a child learn a word to be with?" (ibid., p.58)

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughtout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees." (Whorf, quoted, Pinker, 1994, pp.59-60)

"The position I am adopting here is that socially situated conversation between persons plays a crucial role in the formation of mind." (Ernest, 1998, p.211)

"In addition, this social view of mind rejects Cartesian dualism because mental functioning is both individual and collective, it is both private and public, and, above all, it is always materially embodied." (ibid., p.212)

"One criticism can be immediately anticipated, namely, that the newborn baby develops an awareness of its environment throught its senses prior to acquiring speech. Therefore the origins of mind are not conversational or social. In fact babies engage in preverbal dialogical interaction with persons around them and genetically adapted to attend to humans, especially the human face, long before they acquire speech. The social knowledge acquired in this way becomes interwoven with babies' models of the world based on perception. Nevertheless, babies undoubtedly do develop a sensory based awareness before acquiring speech and developing a social mind." (ibid., p.212)

"It could also be argued that the preverbal exchanges that a baby enters into with its primary caregiver is proto-conversation and the resulting development and formation of mind and self is therefore social from the onset." (ibid., note to the above, p.245)

"This is a necessary prerequisite for awareness of other persons (as well as the environment). However once they acquire language and speech their thought is transformed and reasturctured. Thus a new type of thinking - and even a new type of mind - is formed through conversation. So it is correct to say that consciousness precedes verbal communication. But once they have become users of language the thoughts and minds of children are shaped in an irrevocably transformed and different way and become socialized mind (Sapir 1949; Whorf 1956)." (ibid., p.212)

"Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We see and here and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation." (Sapir, 1949, p.162, quoted in Hawkes, 1977, p.31)

"The assumption fundamental to this conception is that the world of space and time is in fact a continuum, without firm and irrevocable boundaries or divisions, which each languages divides up and encodes in accordance with its own particular structure." (Hawkes, 1977, pp.31-32)

"In short, a culture comes to terms with nature by means of 'encoding', through language. And it requires only a slight extension of this view to produce the implication that perhaps the entire field of social behaviour which constitutes the culture might in fact also represent an act of 'encoding' on the model of language. In fact, it might itself be a language." (ibid., p.32)

"[Levi-Strauss is distinguished from Vico and Marx] by his very American notion (directly derived, as he recognizes, from the work of Whorf, Sapir and others) that since language is man's overwhelmingly distinctive features, it constitutes 'at once the prototype of the cultural phenomenon (distinguishing man from the animals) and the phenomenon whereby all the forms of social life are established and perpetuated' (Levi-Strauss, 1958:1972, pp. 358-359)." (Hawkes, 1977, p.33)

"In short, where Whorf, Sapir and other argued that the 'shape' of a culture's language imprinted itself firmly and radically on that culture's experience of the world, Todorov argues for a common human basis of experience which goes beyond the limits of a particular language, and which ultimately informs, not only all languages, but all signifying systems: (Hawkes, 1977, p.96)

"Not only all languages, but also all signifying systems conform to the same grammar. It is universal not only because it informs all the languages of the universe, but because it coincides with the structure of the universe itself." (Todorov, 1969, p.15, in Hawkes, 1977, p.96)

Of course, language is the primary signifying system among human beings, and its 'grammar' is the determining one, the 'model' for all other systems. So, since art constitutes another signifying system, then 'we can be certain of discovering it in the imprint of the abstract forms of language' (Todorov, 1970) It follows that, as literature is the form of art which derives most closely from language, the study of literature will enjoy a privileged for homo loquens, enabling us to cast new light on the properties of language. Todorov tests this notion by attempting to describe the 'grammar' of Boccaccio's "The Decameron"." (Hawkes, 1977, p.96)

"Just as Whorf and Sapir argue that the so-called objective world does not exist 'out there', but is manufactured by us within and through our total pattern of behaviour, so Barthes insists that literature has no single 'natural' or 'objective' standing beyond our own culture." (Hawkes, 1977, p.112)

"[Psychologists differ greatly on the relationship between thought and language] their views fall into three main categories: (a) Bruner, Sapir, Whorf, Watson, and Bernstein see thought as being dependent on, or caused by language... (b) A second view, as represented by Piaget, takes the opposite view that language is dependent on, and reflects, the level of cognitive development... (c) The third view regards thought and language as originally quite separate activities which come together and interact at a certain point of development (about two years old) and is associated mainly with Vygotsky, the eminent Russian psychologist." (Gross, 1992, pp. 360-361)

"For the sake of simplicity, we shall distinguish between: (i) the strong version, which claims that language determines thought; and (ii) the weak version... which claims only that language affects perception and memory." (Gross, 1992, p. 362)

"We have considered different theories about the relationship between language and thought but there are points of overlap between them. If we superimpose them on top of each other we may have a more comprehensive and accurate picture of the nature of that relationship than any one on its own can provide." (Gross, 1992, p. 373)

Links to other sites...
Created 1/11/99