Whorf redivivus

by Terence MacNamee

We need to reexamine the issue of “linguistic relativity”. Up till now, this has meant the theory that languages vary unpredictably in their organisation and the way they view the world. So said Whorf. His is the name mainly associated with the idea, although others thought of it too; he just expressed it very forcibly and vividly. Working with the Hopi Indians, he found their language to be structured in a way that indicated a different mental organization of physical reality, including space, time and causation. But Whorf never looked at linguistics itself. Would a Hopi linguistics be different from a white guy’s linguistics? You bet it would.

Not only would a Hopi create a different physics to account for the world, but he would create a different linguistics to account for his language instead of taking over the apparatus of phonetics, phonology, grammar and syntax as worked out by Western linguists. For if these latter live in a world based on what Whorf called SAE (“Standard Average European”) languages, then they must also have an SAE linguistics. Why should the categories of SAE languages be universal, applying to and accounting for what goes on in completely unrelated languages like Hopi or Chinese? In short: if different languages mean different world views, they also mean different sciences of language.

In fact, this is the whole point the English linguist Firth was making around the same time. He had been to India and done fieldwork on Tamil, and later he worked at the British School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He was mainly involved with “exotic” languages, and also, importantly enough, with their writing systems. He therefore began to question the universal applicability of Western phonetics and phonology. Did it not depend on notions assumed for writing Western languages? What was universal in the theory? Could a linguist even be sure that “consonant” and “vowel” could be universally distinguished? Firth talked disparagingly about the “hypostatization of the letter-phoneme”, by which he meant the elevation of the linguist’s theoretical notion “phoneme” into objective reality, when it was really just based on the letters of the Roman alphabet.

When Firth met Trubetzkoy, the founder of European phonology, at a conference, they agreed that if Greek had been used as the main learned language of Europe instead of Latin – and had thus become the basis of all writing of European vernacular languages – then phonology and phonetics would have had a very different basis. For written Classical Greek has prosodies, indicating pitch, and it thus contrasts with Latin, which has only letters.

Yet still today, linguistic theory and practice is based on Western languages, and it is very much a Western science. In giving Whorf his belated due, we need to consider not only the relativity of languages, but of linguistics itself.