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Re: [ontolog-forum] language and thinking

To: ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Mon, 30 Aug 2010 12:12:29 -0400
Message-id: <4C7BD86D.40704@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Ferenc,    (01)

Thanks for the reference:    (02)

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html    (03)

The author makes some good points, but he's much too harsh
on Whorf in the opening paragraphs.  Whorf actually had quite
a strong background for his observations, and linguists and
psychologists drew much finer distinctions about the Whorfian
hypothesis, which they were analyzing for years.    (04)

Whorf himself never made the very strong claim that it's
impossible to learn new categories that go beyond what is
encoded in one's native language.  In fact, he explored
ways of teaching people to think in categories beyond
the ones encoded in their habitual verbal patterns.    (05)

At the end of this note are some excerpts -- the first two
are from the beginning of the article, and the last one is
from the conclusion.  The concluding paragraph is very close
to what Whorf actually said.    (06)

But I would also like to mention the following article
about the Pirahã language and culture:    (07)

http://ldc.upenn.edu/myl/llog/EverettPiraha.pdf    (08)

If the "strong Whorfian hypothesis" applies to anybody, the
Pirahã tribe would be prime candidates.  As far as anybody
has been able to determine, none of the adults of that tribe
have ever been able to break out of the mind set imposed by
their language (which is extremely difficult for foreigners
to master, even for Everett who spent years living with them).    (09)

In any case, Deutscher's article is interesting, but it would
have been better if he had presented a more balanced view of
Whorf in the opening paragraphs -- especially since he largely
agrees with Whorf in the conclusion.    (010)

John    (011)

_____________________________________________________________    (012)

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?    (013)


Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short 
article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 
20th century. At first glance, there seemed little about the article to 
augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and 
Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most 
people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked 
for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at 
Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international 
superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea 
about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a 
whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we 
are able to think....    (015)

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common 
sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any 
evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe 
that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother 
tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. 
But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. 
And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn 
our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought 
that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways...    (016)

The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy 
shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the 
objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what 
has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked 
impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how 
to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their 
contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first 
step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending 
we all think the same.    (017)

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