Whorf’s gift for choosing telling examples from unfamiliar languages and explaining them in relation to common English examples is his greatest tool, enabling the reader to share his understanding of languages whose worldviews are completely different from that of spoken American English. The chapter “The Punctual and Segmentative Aspects of Verbs in Hopi” uses an interesting chart showing the stems of some Hopi verbs which reveals an organizational pattern. Unlike English verbs, these verbs are not divided by repetition of occurrence in time, but in space. These verbs become “manifested as a series of repeated interconnected segments of one large phenomenon of a stretched-out segmental character, its extension usually being predominantly in one dimension, indifferently of space or time or both.” For example, ho’ci means “it forms a sharp acute angle,” and hoci’cita means “it is zigzag.”
Whorf continues to discuss similar verbs and stems. He notes that in certain languages verbs and their stems relate to liquids and gases as opposed to solid objects, clearly justifying a later statement in “Science and Language” that people of other cultures may find discussing certain phenomena in the field of modern physics easier than Western Europeans.
In “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,” Whorf restates a concept introduced in an earlier essay, “Some Verbal Categories of Hopi,” and effectively generalizes from it to make some important comparisons between that...
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Benjamin Lee Whorf, both as student and colleague, has been closely identified with Edward Sapir. This identification has been so strong that their jointly held belief that an individual’s picture of external reality is largely determined by the way his language has structured that reality is known to linguists as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Unhappily for both scholars, their hypothesis has been considerably attacked by other linguists. Words such as “naive,” “far-fetched,” and “simplistic” are often applied to Whorf’s detailed analytic work with North and South American Indian languages.
To be sure, some of the conclusions Whorf drew from his close analysis of particular languages may merit skepticism. It would be difficult to claim, however, that the underlying hypothesis set forth by Sapir and Whorf is false. Language does serve as a philosophical screen, controlling and limiting the speaker’s view of external reality.