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.

I went on to try to set the record straight as to what Whorf asctually said. And Mark Liberman chimed in that people are always forgetting about Edward Sapir.

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.

And Greg Downey made some very similar points over at the always interesting Neuroanthropology blog (congrats on their 1000th post!):

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.

2 thoughts on “Whorforama

  1. Couldn’t it be said that this is true of most big names, especially the ones that get bad press? It’s sad that we learn about people’s ideas and theories before we actually read their source work in school. Too often we are taught these essentialized versions, because without the context of reading all of their work, and how it fits into the work of others, we probably aren’t going to get much but the essentialized.
    I’ve found that many of the arguments against Whorf, Steward, White, Rappaport, Harris and the like usually can’t be attributed to their actual work. There is a really good unpublished article from an SfAA session that talked about this phenomenon. The speaker traced the fall of one security anthropologist, who had a negative review given to her that was based on nothing more than a persons reaction to the title of her work, because nothing he said was reflected in anything she wrote in her book. Then there were comments in reaction to this review, and then from there fiction became fact.

  2. I recommend Penny Lee’s “When is ‘linguistic relativity’ Whorf’s linguistic relativity?” (Explorations in linguistic relativity, edited by Martin Pütz and Marjolyn Verspoor, 45–68. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science, Series 4—Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, vol. 199. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 2000) for anyone who wants to know what Whorf was actually up to.

    Couldn’t it be said that this is true of most big names, especially the ones that get bad press?

    I do think some people seem to suffer from it more than others. “Oft quoted, rarely read, even more rarely understood” is what comes to my mind.

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