[Laura Mills] Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897 – 1941)

Background in chemical engineering, valued for technical skill in this work.

Student of Edward Sapir – first formal training in linguistics
Major importance to anthropology is his work on the relationship between language and thought. His deep impact on linguistics and anthropology came from the ideas that “meaning is essential…to the study of linguistics, and the categories of meaning change from one cultural tradition to another.”
Claims that language reflects and constrains thought through the categories of a particular culture.

Whorf’s thesis has been called “linguistic relativism”, which should not be interpreted as “linguistic determinism”.
Language has a strong influence every day activities, both cultural and personal. Not only physical conditions are hazardous – the meaning of a situation, as determined by the language used, is also a factor in the production of hazardous behavior.

The “formula for the linguistic conditioning of behavior into hazardous forms”:
Ex. “empty gasoline drums”

The situation is named in one sense of the word (“empty” as physical disregard for vapor, liquid vestiges or stray rubbish) and acted upon in another sense of the word (“empty” as “null and void, negative, inert”). This leads to careless behavior around a realistically hazardous situation.
Comparisons between Hopi and SAE (“Standard Average European” language), regarding:
§ Plurality and Numeration
o SAE: Real plurals and imaginary plurals – “ten men”, “ten days”. Objectification of abstract ideas/terms, such as time.
o Hopi: No imaginary plurals. Ordinals used with singulars. “they stayed ten days” becomes “they stayed until the eleventh day” or “they left after the tenth day”.
§ Nouns of Physical Quantity
o SAE: Individual nouns (a tree, a stick, a man) and mass nouns (water, milk, wood, sand, flour). Container formulas. Binomial – formless item plus a form.
o Hopi: No mass nouns, all individual – both singular and plural forms (a water, a meat).
SAE: Past, present, future. (Three tenses)
Hopi: Two verbs in relation of later to earlier or of simultaneity.
§ SAE constant resort to physical metaphors – I “grasped” the idea; absence of such metaphors in Hopi.
§ Habitual Thought and Behavior
SAE: Reality in terms of “things”, “substances”, “matter”.
Hopi: Reality in terms of events.
In both people act towards situations in the ways they talk about them. Hopi focus on preparation; thought can affect matter.

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