Language, Thought, and Reality Critical Essays

Benjamin Lee Whorf


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 625 words.)