Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

A Perceptual Model of the Whorfian Thesis

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

A Perceptual Model of the Whorfian Thesis

Article excerpt

For several decades, proponents of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity have identified themselves with Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as their separate relativity theses are called, has found many supporters from a variety of disciplines; in spite of the interest displayed in the hypothesis, however, it has remained a vague and ambiguously articulated collection of knowledge, and a "higher reality" reflected by language patterns. Both the verbal and experimental support of the hypothesis have shared in its general vagueness.

It may well be the case that Sapir's inclusion in the "Whorfian" context is erroneous. It is not simply that Sapir was more cautious in his speculation than Whorf: Sapir was vigorously speculative but at the same time far more circumspect than Whorf in his estimate of the rule of language in the formation of ideas.

For Sapir the relation between perception, thought, language, and speech appears to be as follows: upon reaching the mental level where the collation is possible, the data of sensation are classified into categories which are implicit in the language system. The process of classification is also the process of conceptualization; these conceptualizations are set into mutual relations at least in part by the structure of the language system. The single significant elements of speech are symbolic of the concepts; the flow of speech represents a record of the established mutual relations of the concepts. From this process, man moves to the formation of a worldview.

Sapir considered concepts to be abstractions from the world of experience: our real world is constructed from these concepts. If language classes either correspond to or symbolize concepts, then articulations within a language system are vocal descriptions of the real world. If our collection of concepts depends upon language for its existence, then we might conclude that for Sapir the real world is an abstraction from the experiential world, made possible by language; further, since languages differ, a corresponding difference is to be found in the real worlds of the participants of the various languages.

Whorf, on the other hand, hypothesized a radical, illogical, and ultimately untestable version of linguistic relativity. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the Whorfian thesis as it exists apart from the work of Sapir.

For Whorf, the existence of a mind before the existence of language is a simple and self-evident truth. However, he seems to look upon the products of the mind as of little value without language. The mind thus seems to be some sort of producer of a malleable substance (speaking metaphorically), which is shaped into the various elements of our world-view. Whorf seems to conceive of linguistic symbolism as the prime cause of the arrangement of sensory data. In 1936, he wrote:

   ... It is possible to have descriptions of the universe, all
   equally valid, that do not contain our familiar contrasts of time
   and space. The relativity viewpoint of modern physics is one such
   view, conceived in mathematical terms, and the Hopi Weltanschauung
   is another and quite different one, nonmathematical and linguistic.

   Thus, the Hopi language and culture conceals a METAPHYSICS [upper
   case letters are Whorfs], such as our so-called naive view of space
   and time does; yet it is a different metaphysics from either. (1)

Whorf appears to be saying: (1) any world-view conceals a metaphysics (perhaps is a product of a concealed metaphysics would be an accurate interpretation). (2) Both the metaphysics and the resultant world-view are linguistic in origin: they are a product of the classificatory action of language on the stream of sensory experience. Thus for Whorf an individual's metaphysics is made up of the basic conceptions which he possesses about the world of experience, and which he uses to build his world-view. …

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