February 25, 2008

Poor, arid, and, in appearance, deformed

Were the basic characteristics of Newtonian physics determined by the way that Indo-European languages treat space and time? That was the thesis of an article published in MIT's alumni magazine in April of 1940 (Benjamin Lee Whorf, "Science and Linguistics", Technology Review, 42(6): 229-231, 247-248).

This is surely the most influential article ever to appear in a publication of that type.

I haven't read this work since I was an undergraduate, but an opportunity to read it again came up last weekend. I was staying with Barbara Scholz and Geoff Pullum in Edinburgh, and Barbara is working on some philosophical aspects of the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis. As a result of re-reading this article and talking about it with Barbara, I had a small insight about one aspect of Whorf's idea. I expect that this same observation has been made before, perhaps often, in the vast literature on the topic. But it was new to me, and so I'll share it with you.

Whorf's article starts like this:

Every normal person in the world, past infancy in years, can and does talk. By virtue of that fact, every person — civilized or uncivilized — carries through life certain naive but deeply rooted ideas about talking and its relation to thinking. Because of their firm connection with speech habits that have become unconscious and automatic, these notions tend to be rather intolerant of opposition. They are by no means entirely personal and haphazard; their basis is definitely systematic, so that we are justified in calling them a system of natural logic — a term that seems to me preferable to the term common sense, often used for the same thing.

This idea of "natural logic" as determined by "speech habits" leads Whorf to "a new principle of relativity",

which holds that 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. This rather startling conclusion is not so apparent if we compare only our modern European languages, with perhaps Latin and Greek thrown in for good measure. Among these tongues there is a unanimity of major pattern which at first seems to bear out natural logic. But this unanimity exists only because these tongues are all Indo-European dialects cut to the same basic plan, being historically transmitted from what was long ago one speech community.

This is not just a matter of "Eskimo words for snow" and the like:

What surprises most is to find that various grand generalizations of the Western world, such as time, velocity, and matter, are not essential to the construction of a consistent picture of the universe. The psychic experiences that we class under these headings are, of course, not destroyed; rather, categories derived from other kinds of experiences take over the rulership of the cosmology and seem to function just as well.

His most extensive example contrasts the common-sense physics of the Indo-European speech community with that created by Hopi, which he says "may be called a timeless language". He adds:

Hopi grammar, by means of its forms called aspects and modes, also makes it easy to distinguish among momentary, continued, and repeated occurrences, and to indicate the actual sequence of reported events. Thus the universe can be described without recourse to a concept of dimensional time. How would a physics constructed along these lines work, with no T (time) in its equations? Perfectly, as far as I can see, though of course it would require different ideology and perhaps different mathematics. Of course V (velocity) would have to go too. The Hopi language has no word really equivalent to our 'speed' or 'rapid.' What translates these terms is usually a word meaning intense or very, accompanying any verb of motion. Here is a clue to the nature of our new physics. We may have to introduce a new term I, intensity. Every thing and event will have an I, whether we regard the thing or event as moving or as just enduring or being. Perhaps the I of an electric charge will turn out to be its voltage, or potential. We shall use clocks to measure some intensities, or, rather, some RELATIVE intensities, for the absolute intensity of anything will be meaningless. Our old friend acceleration will still be there but doubtless under a new name. We shall perhaps call it V, meaning not velocity but variation. Perhaps all growths and accumulations will be regarded as V's.

An enormous amount has been written to support or challenge various aspects of this argument. Is Hopi really timeless, in any sense in which English is not? Are the metaphorical connections between time and space really fundamentally different in Hopi and in English? And how much do the differences that exist really matter to "natural logic" and to the development of science? If you're interested in these things, Ekkehart Malotki's Hopi Time is a good account of the Hopi side of the comparison.

The thing that struck me about this passage was the reference to Hopi's lack of words for 'speed' or 'rapid'. Whorf's examples on the English side are unwisely chosen -- until the 16th century and later, English speed meant something like "success, prosperity, power"; and rapid was borrowed in the 17th century from Latin rapidus, an adjective based on the verb rapere "to snatch". So if English had any time-specific words for 'speed' or 'rapid' before Newton's time, they weren't, specifically, 'speed' or 'rapid'.

Malotki takes Whorf to task for the Hopi side of the speed/rapid assertion:

Whorf contended that "the Hopi language has not word really equivalent to our 'speed' or 'rapid.' What translates these terms is usually a word meaning intense of very, accompanying any verb of motion." This statment is true in so far as no nominal lexeme exists in the Hopi language that conveys the value 'speed/velocity.' It is also true that the notion of 'fast' in conjunction with 'running' is frequently captured by the quantifying intensifiers a'ni in the case of a male speaker and hin'ur in the case of a female speaker. Their basic force maybe rendered 'a great/a lot.' The semantic range of a'ni and hin'ur extends metaphorically to such values as 'fast/loud/excellent,' etc., depending on the given contextual circumstances.


It is not true, however, that no word is found that might be considered an equivalent of English 'rapid.' Halayvi is an adjective that translates 'quick/fast,' occasionally also 'active' or 'lively'.

More generally, I wondered about the English words for quantities like velocity, distance and time. It seems likely to me that most of them -- maybe all of them - originally meant things having nothing to do with their meanings in Newtonian (or for that matter Aristotelian) physics, or were borrowed recently, or both. In many cases, the physics-related senses are originally extended or metaphorical ones, which were developed during the Enlightenment, when intellectuals focused their attention on such abstract concepts, and began to think and to write about them in the vulgar tongues of Europe.

Barbara and I spent a few minutes probing the OED and other dictionaries, and found many examples confirming this hypothesis in the case of English.

According to the OED, speed comes from OE spówan "to prosper, succeed", and the early uses are given the glosses "Abundance; Power, might; Success, prosperity, good fortune; profit, advancement, furtherance". The sense of "Quickness in moving or making progress from one place to another, usually as the result of special exertion; celerity, swiftness; also, power or rate of progress" was originally a figurative extension of the "prosper/power" meaning. The abstract modern sense of "rate of motion" doesn't seem to emerge at all until the 16th century, and doesn't dominate for a long time after that.

Thus in Whorfian terms, it seems that roughly through Shakespeare's time, English speakers had a common-sense physics in which "velocity" was just a particular instance of a more general characteristic that we might describe as "prosperity" or "power".

The word rapid comes from Latin rapidus, an adjectival form of rapere "to seize, carry off", and was borrowed into English in the 17th century. So "rapidly" was originally "snatchingly". Does this reinforce the idea of velocity as prosperity?

It's not just these two words. The earliest citation in the OED for velocity is 1550, borrowed from French vélocité, in turn from Latin velox. And velox did mean "rapid" in Latin, but the AHD tells us that its indo-european root was weg-, meaning "to be strong, be lively".

The word quick, of course, originally just meant "living". It was used figuratively in extended senses like "lively, witty; busy, full of activity; vivid in color, or loud and clear in voice, or pungent in smell; keenly felt". The extensions to motion began in cases where inanimate things moved almost as if alive, like quicksand or flowing water.

The OE word swift originally meant "to move in a sweeping manner".

Fast originally meant "firmly fixed" or "strong".

The words for other physics concepts have undergone a similar evolution. One that particularly struck me was the history of distance. The OED's etymological note explains:

[a. OF. destance, distance (13th c. in Littré), ad. L. distantia 'standing apart', hence 'separation, opening (between); distance, remoteness; difference, diversity', f. distant-em pr. pple., DISTANT. By a further development, OF. destance had the sense 'discord, quarrel', which was also the earliest in Eng. ... ]

Thus the earliest English sense of distance was "the condition of being at variance; discord, disagreement, dissension; dispute, debate". According to the OED, the meaning "fact or condition of being apart or far off in space; remoteness" does not emerge until the late 16th century.

How about time? Well, OED's etymological notes says:

[OE. tíma = ON. tími, wk. masc., time, fit or proper time, (first, etc.) time, good time, prosperity (Da. time, Sw. timme an hour),:—OTeut. *tî-mon-, app. f. a root tî- to stretch, extend (see TIDE n.) + abstr. suffix -mon, -man ...]

There's that prosperity stuff again. And according to the AHD, the IE root involved is "to divide", which (like stretching) also applies to space, substances and groups (as in demos-derived words like "democracy" and "epidemic", where the divisions are social).

At least in lexicographic terms, the Indo-European languages do not, contrary to what Whorf says, share a linguistic history that predisposes their speakers unconsciously to a particular physics of time, distance, velocity and so on. In particular, the English words for those abstract physical concepts developed rather late, mostly as part of a conscious effort to import or develop explicit physical theories. And the terms used were figurative or metaphorical extensions of much juicier and more concrete words for things like "strength" and "discord" and "being alive".

I fancy that you can see this process at work in Thomas Hobbes' ponderous discussion of the meaning of velocity, in Chap. VIII of Elementa Philosophica (1656), which supplies the OED's earliest citation for the "rate of motion" sense of that word. Here Hobbes seems to be struggling to force the English language to convey something that it was not historically prepared to express easily:

15. Motion, in as much as a certain length may in a certain time be transmitted by it, is called VELOCITY or swiftness; &c. For though swift be very often understood with relation to slower or less swift, as great is in respect of less, yet nevertheless, as magnitude is by philosophers taken absolutely for extension, so also velocity or swiftness may be put absolutely for motion according to length.

(If you're suprised, as I was, by the idea of length being transmitted by motion, try the hypothesis that Hobbes intended "transmitted" to mean something like "traversed". The alternative would yield a very non-Newtonian physics indeed!)

In the opening chapter of the same work, Hobbes offers an excuse in advance for the need to write in this way:

I am not ignorant how hard a thing it is to weed out of men's minds such inveterate opinions as have taken root there, and been confirmed in them by the authority of most eloquent writers; especially seeing true (that is, accurate) Philosophy professedly rejects not only the paint and false colours of language, but even the very ornaments and graces of the same; and the first grounds of all science are not only not beautiful, but poor, arid, and, in appearance, deformed.

This is not, I think, just a rejection of sophistry. Hobbes is telling us that philosophical truth is likely to be linguistically unnatural, at least when first expressed. Far from taking for granted the metaphysics implicit in his native language, he is willing to try to start over, deriving new basic concepts and somehow finding ways to express them.

This was the method of enlightenment science in general, it seems to me. When it worked, as in Newton's physics, the results were stunning. And paradoxically, it's the residual prestige of this willingness to see all things new, reinforced by Einstein's example, that Whorf evokes in arguing that the "various grand generalizations of the Western world, such as time, velocity, and matter" are merely "the rationalizing techniques elaborated from [the] patterns" of "a few recent dialects of the Indo-European family".

[A list of several dozen other LL posts that mention Whorf can be found here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 25, 2008 08:21 AM