One of the things that got a lot of linguistic anthropologists upset about the Deutscher piece on language and thought in the NY Times was his misrepresentation of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s ideas. This is not a new problem. I wrote the following back in 2004:
Whorf never said that language determines thought… It would be interesting to examine why people feel the need to recast Whorf’s argument in such essentialist terms.
Now with the Deutscher piece SLA President Kathryn Woolard has taken up the torch with an excellent piece on the SLA blog, loaded with a very useful bibliography:
Whorf’s own statements of his theory look little like the caricature that opens the NYT article and much more like the position that Deutscher himself offers as reasonable and compelling. Far from holding that “the inventory of ready-made words” in a language “forbids” speakers to think specific thoughts, Whorf argued that patterns of grammatical structures, often the most covert ones at that, give rise not to a language prison but to a “provisional analysis of reality” and habits of mind, very much as Deutscher concludes. This is a view that many in linguistic anthropology continue to find compelling, in varying ways…Below are just a few references to the extensive linguistic anthropological background to the NYT article.
The one thing that turns me off to Duetscher’s writings is his pretty harsh bashing of Benjamin Whorf, who, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting anthropological linguists.
And while I’m at it, I should also include this interview with Arika Okrent on her new book “In the Land of Invented Languages” which Leila recommends as “including a good description of the Whorf Hypothesis.”
Previously: My problem with journalism.