Thursday, May 15, 2008

Take That Benjamin Lee Whorf!

As we were driving in the car on day this winter, Maria began naming the days of the week: "Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday." She paused, and then she said "It's a pattern! It's like a big circle!"

I had to laugh. In languages such as English, "time" is often viewed as linear, finite and discrete. And here was my daughter, noticing the circularity of time. Given her linguistic and cultural background, how could she do that?

Just that morning, I had been talking with my students about the relationship between language and thought. As part of that discussion, we'd talked about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which claims that the different patterns of a language strongly influence/result in different patterns of thought. This hypothesis began to be explored by the anthropologists Franz Boas and and his student Edwin Sapir, and then was later fully articulated by Sapir's student, Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf wrote:
"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 [...] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated." (Carroll, 1964).
One of Whorf's most famous examples involves a comparison of concepts time between the Native American language Hopi and the Indo-European language English. In English, words for time are countable, "one day", "three weeks", "seven years". Whorf thus argued that in English speakers view time as linear (as a "path" with one direction) and finite. Speakers of Hopi, on the other hand, were argued to view language as a process which could recur in a circular fashion because their language structured information about time differently.

It's hard to find a linguist or an anthropologist who will agree with the strongest version of this hypothesis: namely that language determines how we think. Furthermore, many will argue that thought is certainly possible without language. At the same time, however, most linguists acknowledge that there is an interrelationship between language and thought. Psycholinguistic experiments suggested that concepts that have a readily accessible name (e.g., colors) can be named faster than those that lack a name. And certainly our language abounds in metaphors that reveal our interpretation of the world - we "spend" time, "waste" time or "give" time for example. These metaphors suggest that time is both precious and limited. The question is which came first: our concepts of time or how our language talks about them?

What does Maria's "circle of time" say about how she views time? Does she view time more circularly, despite the structure of her language? Or is this merely a developmental stage, before she acquires the adult English speaker's concept of time?

Carroll, John B., Ed. (1964). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.