Friday, December 31, 2010

Another classic

Whorf, B. L. (1956). Science and linguistics. In J. B. Carroll (Ed.). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (pp. 207-219). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Natural logic says that talking is merely an incidental process concerned strictly with communication, not with formulation of ideas. Talking or the use of language, is supposed only to “express” what is essentially already formulated nonlinguistically. Formulation is an independent process, called thought or thinking, and is supposed to be largely indifferent to the nature of particular languages (p. 207)
Natural logic contains two fallacies: First, it does not see that the phenomena of a language are to its own speakers largely of a background character and so are outside the critical consciousness and control of the speaker who is expounding natural logic….Second, natural logic confuses agreement about subject matter, attained through use of language, with knowledge of the linguistic process by which agreement is attained. (p. 211)
It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. (p. 212)
Kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds (p. 213)
Such a nice and romantic way to put it!
We are thus introduced 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. (p. 214)
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 (p. 216)
Whorf's ideas are definitely stimulating but how is translation and second language learning is possible then, right? After all, despite our differences we somehow manage to understand each other to some degree so it might be a better idea to follow the weak version of linguistic relativity. I believe considering Sapir-Whorf hypothesis might be a good idea to balance the universalistic claims concerning language.

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