Academic journal article et Cetera

Of Hopis and Heptapods: The Return of Sapir–whorf

Academic journal article et Cetera

Of Hopis and Heptapods: The Return of Sapir–whorf

Article excerpt

Exploring the complexity of language and communication, and how they influence human thinking and perception, has long been a staple of science fiction writers. From Robert Heinlein to A.E. van Vogt, subjects such as general semantics and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have been given life, even as mainstream linguistics has turned away from them. Yet, despite being fodder for short stories and the occasional novel, these are subjects that rarely find purchase on the big screen. A film dedicated to deep contemplation of how the human mind processes ideas, like the perception oftime, through language does not sound like something with much blockbuster potential. Yet, Arrival, a film released in November, is proving that supposition false.

Arrival is the story of a linguist, Louise Banks, who is tasked with establishing communication with an alien race that arrived without warning on Earth. These visitors are very much alien; with radially symmetric bodies, they look a bit like squids. As they have seven legs/appendages, they are referred to by their human interlocutors as heptapods.

What Louise learns, as she dissects the heptapod written language, is that understanding it is to understand a wholly different perception of time itself. Arrival is thus, at its core, a feature-length exploration of the implications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It is a hypothesis that is out of vogue with many linguists, but Arrival, which has already garnered extremely favorable reviews and audience interest, shows why it is a concept that still matters and that deserves a serious reevaluation by linguists and philosophers of language.

Whorf and Linguistic Relativism

The Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativity hypothesis argues that the structure of a language affects the cognitive function and world view of its speakers. In other words, language shapes reality. The hypothesis was first fully articulated and defended by Benjamin Lee Whorf, as an extension of the work of his mentor, Edward Sapir. Whorf argued that language fundamentally shapes the categories and structures of how we perceive the world, and thus, our world is colored, or even determined, by the linguistic structure in which we think and speak:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. 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 kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds-and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way-an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language (Whorf, 1956, p. 212).

One of the most famous examples of this sort of linguistic relativity Whorf put forward is the case of the Hopi language. According to Whorf, the Hopi language does not have any fixed linguistic concept of "time" in the way it is understood as a category and grammatical function in English, and indeed virtually every language. According to Whorf, the Hopi have "no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at equal rate, out of a future, through the present, into a past" (Ibid., 57). Whorf portrays Hopi grammar as not encoding the passage of time. Thus, instead of, for example, counting the number of days until an event will take place, the Hopi would state the day that it will occur. So, while an English speaker might say, "In two days, we will go golfing," the Hopi equivalent would be closer to, "On the second, we will go golfing." The language and grammar encodes an ordinal value, rather than a passage of time. Whorfs contention is that this grammatical and vocabulary variation meaningfully affects the way Hopi think and process reality. …

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