Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language

Article excerpt

[EDITOR'S FOREWORD: Few people have been as well qualified as Benjamin Lee Whorf to explain, from personal knowledge and study, what is meant by the expression, 'the structure of language.' An outstanding authority on the Mayan and Aztec civilizations and on American Indian languages, he was intimately acquainted with languages whose basic structures were totally unlike those of the Indo-European languages. What is even more to the point, Mr. Whorf was extraordinarily sensitive to the non-linguistic consequences of linguistic behavior. It is obvious from bis writings that, all the time he was investigating languages, whether among the Pueblo villages of Central Mexico or among the Hopi in Arizona, he must have been watching what was going on--what actions, what attitudes, what events accompanied or resulted from the utterances be was so carefully recording.

Among Mr. Whorf s many contributions to language study, the highest place must be accorded--at least in the eyes of those interested in general semantics--to his demonstration through comparative linguistics that our day-to-day orientations in life, to say nothing of our 'reasoning' processes and our 'philosophies' rest upon the structure of the language which we happen to have inherited. Our 'common sense,' our most basic 'intuitions' into the 'nature of things,' our dichotomy of 'form' and 'substance,' our notions of 'time,' 'space,' and 'matter,' and even our life-habits and our social institutions are shaped to a degree hitherto unsuspected, Mr. Whorf believed, by the structuralizations which our languages impose upon the flux of experience.

The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language combines Mr. Whorf s experiences as anthropologist, linguist, grammarian, and fire insurance executive. Born in 1897 in Winthrop, Mass., he was a graduate of M.I.T., and served as a private in the engineering corps during World War I. In 1919 he joined the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, and was assistant secretary of the company at the time of bis death, July 26, 1941. He began his study of Aztec and Mayan cultures, as a hobby, in 1925. Within a few years he had become one of the nation's leading Americanists. Many of his articles, the results of field work in Mexico and the Southwest as well as of private study, were published in Technology Review. Two of his articles, 'Languages and Logic,' published in Papers from the Second American Congress of General Semantics, and 'Science and Linguistics,' reprinted as an appendix to Hayakawa's Languages in Action, are already familiar to students of general semantics. A more complete biography with bibliography will be found in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography. The present article is reprinted by permission from Language, Culture, and Personality: Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir (Menasha, Wisconsin, 1941).]

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 rejection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real
world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language
habits of the group. We see and hear and otherwise experience very
largely as we do because the language habits of our community
predispose certain choices of interpretation.--EDWARD SAPIR, "The
Status of Linguistics as a Science," Language, Vol. V, pp. 209-210
(1929).

There will probably be general assent to the proposition that an accepted pattern of using words is often prior to certain lines of thinking and forms of behavior, but he who assents often sees in such a statement nothing more than a platitudinous recognition of the hypnotic power of philosophical and learned terminology on the one hand or of catchwords, slogans, and rallying-cries on the other. …

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