From the 1950s to the 1990s, the transformational generative grammar of Noam Chomsky with its emphasis on language universal dominated linguistic theory in the United States and elsewhere. Because Whorf’s theory of linguistic relativity was antithetical to the generative grammarian’s theory of language universals, his work was disputed if not dismissed by leading generative linguists (Pinker: 1994). In fairness one could argue that Whorf was often read out of context and quoted in isolated statements. Nonetheless after Whorf’s death, most anthropological linguists as well as psycholinguists often referred to Whorf’s work as their starting point and either supported or rejected in part or in whole his principle of linguistic relativity (Lucy, 1992). With the current interest in consciousness studies and the focus on language in studying the nature and structure of consciousness, Whorf’s work has become of interest once again to many contemporary scholars (Gumperz and Levinson, 1996).
The tradition was taken up by the American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and his pupil Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), and resulted in a view about the relation between language and thought which was widely influential in the middle decades of this century....
In ‘A Linguistic Consideration of Thinking,’ Whorf (1956) clearly expressed his notion that human thinking, like other human capacities, was continuing to evolve. He noted that an evolution of thinking was necessary in order for the human species to preserve itself as well as its environment. He argued that a history of mental growth could be found in the history of each language because languages have their own systems for discerning, selecting, and thinking. Similar to Owen Barﬁeld (1898–1997) who in his History in English Words (1926) stated that an evolution of consciousness could be found in the history of the lexicon of a language (Subbiondo, 2003), Whorf vigorously defended the notion that language was the ultimate inroad to understanding an evolution of thinking, and he compared the status of research of mental growth in his day to that of pre-Linnaean botany.
In ‘Language and Logic,’ Whorf (1956) focused his attention on the nature and structure of alternative logical systems in various language and their role in shaping diverse worldviews. He argued that differences in languages were reﬂected in different interpretations of facts. Whorf believed that one understood facts according to the worldviews embedded in one’s language. Drawing on his knowledge of chemical engineering, Whorf compared languages to the two types of mixtures of material substances: mechanical and chemical. He pointed out that a mechanical mixture of a material consisted of adding any ingredient that did not change the appearance of the material. A chemical mixture, on the other hand, was made up of mutually suited materials that overtly changed the appearance of the material. After considerable discussion, Whorf classiﬁed English as a mechanical language and Shawnee as a chemical language. He pointed out that the logical system of English like its Indo-European relative, Greek was based on a mechanical mixture; and he facetiously added that its logical system would have been chemical if Aristotle were a Shawnee.
Whorf believed that linguists were primarily driven by their persistent search for meaning, and he believed that the discipline would eventually draw upon more scholarship from psychology and cultural studies. He emphasized that importing data from other disciplines into linguistics would add, not detract, from its scientiﬁc status. He was strongly convinced that linguistics would always retain its scientiﬁc precision in its analysis of language structure. He envisioned a day when linguists would eventually become aware of the many psychological undercurrents that have made an impact on individuals and groups throughout history. To support his thesis, Whorf presented a brief history of linguistics in which he emphasized the psycholinguistic patterning of language as an essential part of culture. He contended that the study of language from the ancients to the twentieth century could be characterized as developing merely formal and overt structures. He indicated that a debt of gratitude was owed Boas because in his Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911), he was the ﬁrst linguist to analyze a language on its own terms and not force a traditional and classical model on it.
In addition to the work of the anthropological linguists, Whorf recognized the research of those in the ﬁeld of psychology in general and the work of Carl Jung (1875–1961), in particular. Whorf claimed that psychologists contributed signiﬁcantly to advancing his theory of linguistic relativity. In particular, he was drawn to Jung who maintained that of the four psychic functions; two were rational (thinking and feeling) and two irrational (sensation and intuition). Throughout his writings, Whorf referred to Jung’s psychic functions to support his idea that the study of language was the most appropriate path leading to a thorough and reliable understanding of thinking.
Whorf noted that Hopi did not contain words, phrases constructions, or verbal expressions that directly referred to the concept of time as well as to the notions of past, present, or future. Rather than viewing Hopi speakers as trapped in ﬂawed metaphysics and speaking a deﬁcient language, Whorf argued that the Hopi had a consciousness of time and space that was simply different than that of a speaker of English. Based on this conclusion, Whorf claimed that the Hopi viewed the universe through a different lens than speakers of other languages. This observation supported Whorf’s thesis that there were ways of perceiving the universe other than those enshrined in traditional Western science. Because Whorf believed that worldviews were determined culturally and linguistically, he argued that one could understand the worldviews of others only by opening oneself to other cultures and languages. He asserted that the structure of English, like that of all languages, layered its distinct metaphysical systems on the world.
The bottomline is that real-world language research is important and complex, Grant says, and the underlying ideas are nuanced. “And although it doesn’t make for exciting entertainment, linguistic relativity is more about small advantages or biases than it is about gaining new senses or abilities,” Zinszer says. But research in this area can have huge impacts: For example, is working on therapies for aphasia that are informed by models of semantic memory developed by linguistics and psycholinguists.
In ‘An American Indian Model of the Universe,’ Whorf (1956) provided an example to explain the bond between language and thought in his theory of linguistic relativity: he pointed out that the Hopi language, unlike Western languages, did not have traditional verb tenses. He used this distinctive grammatical feature of the Hopi language to develop his case against the notion of linguistic and/or cultural universals. Whorf indicated that Hopi speakers who knew only the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of their society did not have the same concepts of time as those held by speakers of English. Speciﬁcally, Whorf stated that a Hopi speaker did not have an understanding of time as a smooth ﬂowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeded at an equal rate from past to present to future, or in reverse order. While his example of verb tenses has often been disputed, even ridiculed, by various linguists, it has not been disproven.
Whorf’s research focused on two general areas: the Hopi and Mayan cultures and languages, and the integration of language, thought, and culture. For the most part, he connected the two areas because he usually drew on his research on Hopi and Maya to exemplify aspects of his theory of linguistic relativity. As for the former area, the Hopi and Maya languages provided him with many illustrative examples of non-Western world views that supported his persistent critique of the assumptions of Western science. As for the later area, Whorf argued that the interplay of language, thought, and culture enabled the process of mental growth in the human development. He regarded mental growth as essential for the quality of cognitive development required to solve human problems, both present and future. Whorf insisted that the survival of the human species as well as that of the environment was totally dependent on the evolution of thinking and cognition.
Whorf met Sapir in 1928, and they became research collaborators in 1931 when Sapir left the University of Chicago to join the faculty at Yale University, which is located in Whorf’s hometown of Hartford, Connecticut. Whorf enrolled in the ﬁrst course in American Indian linguistics taught by Sapir at Yale, and he was inspired by Sapir to study Hopi, a language related to Aztec (Darnell, 1990). Although Whorf studied with Sapir, the two never collaborated on a presentation or a publication on linguistic relativity. Thus, the term Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis is a misnomer. In fact, while Sapir was interested in the relationship among language, thought, and culture as was his teacher Franz Boas (1858–1942), he was not nearly as committed to the notion of linguistic relativity as Whorf. For Whorf, his extensive research on linguistic relativity was clearly the core passion of his scholarly life.