November 20, 2003

Edward Sapir and the "formal completeness of language"

Camille Paglia recently slammed the blogosphere for "dreary meta-commentary," a "blizzard of fussy, detached sections nattering on obscurely about other bloggers," lacking the relevance to "major issues and personalities" of Paglia's own writing. So I warn you that we're about to go meta for a few lines. But when we re-emerge into normal space, the nattering blizzard safely behind us, we'll be within sensor range of some "major issues and personalities." Major issue: the formal completeness of language. Major personality: Edward Sapir.

Language Hat pointed to John McWhorter's piece on Mohawk Philosophy Lessons and my follow-up on Sapir/Whorf. In a comment on Language Hat's post, Jonathan Mayhew wrote:

Doesn't the fact that we can discuss certain differences between languages in a single language indicate that the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is flawed? That is, I can use English to describe Hopi thought patterns. Thus language would be more malleable, not determining thought, but elastically adapting to changes in thought.

In response, being lazy pressed for time, I'll cut and paste question 2.2 from the final exam for my intro linguistics course in the fall term of 2000:

The American linguist Edward Sapir wrote in 1924:

The outstanding fact about any language is its formal completeness ... To put this ... in somewhat different words, we may say that a language is so constructed that no matter what any speaker of it may desire to communicate ... the language is prepared to do his work ... The world of linguistic forms, held within the framework of a given language, is a complete system of reference ...

What would it mean for this to be false? What does it mean if it is true? How can you square this quote with
the fact that Sapir is also associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, crudely expressed as the slogan "language
determines thought," or more precisely expressed by Sapir as:

We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation ...

If you choose to answer this question, be sure that you can cite specific facts from at least two languages to
exemplify your analysis.

As a mathematical analogy to illustrate how Sapir's two beliefs are not at all incompatible, consider the Fourier transform and similar information-preserving coordinate transformations. The time- and frequency-domain representations of a function (or a sequence, in the discrete case) express identical information and have the same representational potential, but very different aspects of the entity are salient in the two different representations.

Sapir might have been wrong -- maybe all languages aren't always expressively equivalent, and maybe language habits don't usually predispose our interpretive choices -- but he wasn't stupid.

Though I sometimes think that it takes a really smart person to hold a really stupid position. This has nothing to do with any of the participants in the present discussion, of course :-). I could say more, but I'll restrain myself, for now.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 20, 2003 12:05 AM