Language, Thought, and Reality

by Benjamin Lee Whorf
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

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 American Indian language and standard American English. One of the important verbal categories of Hopi is that aspect of the verb known as tense, or time. In some superficial ways, the Hopi language resembles English, but what is known in English as tense is characterized very differently in Hopi: not by time, but by assertion, by the relation of the speaker. Thus, the Hopi word for “he is going to run” can be translated by employing the English future progressive tense, but its structural meaning for speakers of Hopi is very different from that of the English translation. The suffix added to the Hopi stem indicates the idea of the speaker’s expectation that such a thing will happen.

In the later essay, Whorf amplifies the concept of assertion to relate it to the significance of the speaker’s viewpoint, far more important for Hopi than for English. In “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,” Whorf states that European civilization is a culture of movement in time. Europeans emphasize the nonspatial senses of hearing and body movement rather than spatial orientation, “the realm of light, color, sight, and touch” emphasized by Hopis.

Whorf’s analysis frequently refutes Western civilization’s self-centered theory that because it is more technically advanced, it is also more intellectually mature. In “Thinking in Primitive Communities,” Whorf uses Jungian categories, especially those of thinking and sensation, to analyze words related to size, shape, and gender and to show the sophistication of so-called primitive languages. For example, English uses one word to express the perceptive act involved in the two sentences “I see that it is red” and “I see that is new.” Hopi uses two different words; seeing as a sensual act is distinguished from seeing as an act performed by the internal consciousness. Thus, Hopi is far more sophisticated in the way in which it acknowledges the subtleties of the human psyche.

Whorf’s analysis of linguistic acts in both standard American English and non-European Indian languages is organized carefully in every section of Language, Thought, and Reality. His goal is the difficult one of enabling his reader, structured and blindered by his native language, to step out of his own mind and enter a language totally different from his own. Clearly, Whorf’s lifework helped to expand the possibilities of thought and consciousness.

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