Updating Whorf

Does Your Language Shape How You Think? - NYTimes.com: "Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany?"

I remember being tremendously impressed by Benjamin Whorf's arguments back when I was in graduate school: the language you speak shapes the way you think. This was obvious to me as somebody who was learning other languages, even languages as closely related to my native English as French or Spanish. Then when I poked into Russian, Hebrew and Arabic, the effects of language on thought seemed even more obvious: for example, in Russian you have to have to be conscious of a verb's "mood" (subjunctive or imperative), and you lose the distinction that other European languages provide by the definite versus indefinite article ("a" vs. "the", "ein/eine" vs. "die/das/der", etc.).

But as Guy Deutscher points out in this article, there were some things in Whorf that just didn't make sense — like, that certain peoples can have no sense of time if they had no way to express past tense. In short, it now appears that Whorf, "a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University," was on to something important even if he misinterpreted his data. His hunch was right even though his facts were wrong. And that's something; the hunch has inspired some important further research.

Much to think about.  Deutscher has already done much of the updating of Whorf, though there's still a lot more to learn about language and thought. This line of inquiry should help us in our tense international relations. The sequence of ideas and the relative importance of aspects of reality must be very different if one is speaking English, or Farsi, or Korean, or Pashto or Dari.

Also, check out my earlier blog note on Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain.

No comments: