November 19, 2003

Sapir/Whorf: sex (pro) and space (anti)

John McWhorter's perspicuous post on false exoticism in lexical semantics made me think.

In the first half of the 20th century, most linguists were friendly to the idea that different languages divide the world up in fundamentally different ways. In the second half of the 20th century, most linguists became deeply hostile to that same notion. The primary motivation in both cases was the same: respect for "the other."

For anthropologically-minded linguists after Boas, who saw language as a cultural artifact, this respect meant examining other languages and cultures carefully, on their own terms, without European preconceptions. Being open to finding out that things might be very different, in content as well as in form. Even things that look the same may be deeply different, as Whorf argued about Hopi.

For generative linguists after Chomsky, who saw language as an instinct with a universal biological substrate, this same respect led to the view that all people and all languages are basically the same. Even things that look deeply different must turn out to be the same, if you analyze them the right way. At least, anything important about language (and language use) must be that way.

Linguists are passionate about ideas, but they tend to get *really* worked up about this one. I myself can swing either way on it, but as a dispassionate (bi-passionate?) observer, I have to say that I find that most efforts of both kinds unsatisfying.

However, there are a few recent pieces of (pro- and anti-) Whorfian work that I can wholeheartedly recommend. On the pro side, Lera Boroditsky has been doing some neat stuff. Try her paper on Sex, Syntax and Semantics, for example. On the anti side, Peggy Li and Lila Gleitman have a great paper Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning, debunking the theory (due to the MPI Language and Cognition group) that Mayan speakers have different customary spatial-coordinate systems from Dutch or English speakers. (If you don't have access to a 'Science Direct' subscription -- there's a rant for another time -- you can read a summary of the Li/Gleitman work in some commentary by Randy Gallistel here, as pointed out by Tim May in a comment over at Language Hat's place.)

Read the whole things :-)...

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 19, 2003 10:58 AM