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.


Bruce I. Kodish said...

I have studied Whorf's writings and nowhere have I found anyplace where he said that "language determines how we think." This would imply that there is something called 'language' that constitutes the sole determinant of something called 'thought'. Can you give me a direct quote where Whorf actually said what you call "Whorf's strong position." To me, the quote you've given doesn't imply that at all. From all that I've read, Whorf had too nuanced a view of things to have accepted this. Unfortanately an academic caricature of his actual views, promulgated by people like Steven Pinker and others has been accepted by well-intentioned people like you.

See where I go into Whorf's actual views in much more detail.

deletedprofile said...

That is fascinating! I love this blog. Keep it up.

corasmama said...

Actually, english is my first language (I became fluent in spanish when I was 8 and 9), and I've always thought of time as very circular. And so does my daughter, who is 10 and speaks only english (well, we sign, but that's not actually spoken!)

Maggi said...

Hmm, pretty interesting! I've always, I think, seen time in some ways as circular, the seasons following one another.

I was glad to see you posting again!

Maggirayne(from MDC)

La Bibliotecaria Laura said...

"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"

Is this not phenomenology? If you look to philosophy, there are all kkinds of folks who are determining what how/what they think by language and knowing that they are doing so...

That would sound better in German, and it would probably be a single word...

Enjoying the blog. Have a happy summer.

Tess said...

Interesting post. But it seems to me that what your daughter did is completely consistent with the linguistic data she was paying attention to at the time. The notion of a seven-day cycle IS circular and repeating -- she noticed that property of her language. Even if the language we speak affects the way we think (at least when we're speaking), the same language might perfectly well include multiple different conceptions of time in its different grammatical and lexical subsystems. Even though our "dominant" conceptualization of time might be linear, there are plenty of cyclical encoded in our language: seasons, times of day, days of the week, months of the year.

patrice said...

Ugh. I just typed a long comment and then lost it. I'll try to reconstruct.

This was a really interesting post - don't you just wish you could get right inside your daughter's head?

I think it's interesting when I come across a word or concept in one language that doesn't seem possible to express in another. My most fluent 2nd language is Turkish. I learned it in my mid-20s. I lived here for 7+ years (back in the US for 6+, now). I'm currently spending the summer here in Istanbul.

As far as I know, there is no word for "privacy" in Turkish. I noted this a long time ago, but it came up the other day when my daughter told her grandmother she wanted her "private seat" in the bathroom. Not that my MIL didn't get what she was talking about - I'm sure wanting to be alone in the bathroom is one of the more universal desires. But as I attempted to translate, I thought about the implications. The nature of social relationships - the expectations and norms - are certainly different with respect to privacy here than in my native US.

Is there no word for "privacy" in Turkish because the nature of relationships in the culture didn't require one in the language? Or did the fact that the language contained no such word influence the cultural expectations and the nature of relationships?

Well, I suppose the former would have to be at least part of the explanation...a word would certainly not be created if there was no concept for it to describe. But to the extent that both language and culture are always evolving, how much would not having a base word impact the WAY a culture would evolve, or the possibilities?

Kristinha said...

I love this post, and I love your blog. I am not an academic, but I have an affinity for language and am delighting in seeing my young son acquire language. Your postings add another layer of insight to this already rich experience. Thank you.

Amy @ Experience Imagination said...

I always heard the one about the many words for snow, but no word just for snow.

Fascinating post. Have you come to any conclusions about your daughter's interpretation of time words since you wrote this?

Mama Mercer said...

Hmmm... well, when I think "time", I think of clock - the old fashioned kind - a circle. And I definately have a picture in my head of a clock when I think it. Language is a big part of thinking, but I feel pretty confident that we can think without language. Consider all those times my mommy brain is thinking a concept I want to communicate, but cannot draw out the word that cooresponds!