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Sapir, Whorf, and the hypothesis that wasn’t

by Aneta Pavlenko, Temple University
author of the upcoming book The Bilingual Mind
and what it tells us about language and thought

One of the linchpins of human information-processing are the frames of expectation we apply to the constant flow of information. These frames allow us to impose meaning on the things we see, hear, or read and to position ourselves with regard to ideas and arguments. In the case of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (SWH), these frames require us to adopt one of the three recognizable positions: for (which may brand us as radicals), against (a marker of a skeptic or a rational thinker), or in-between (a sign of a temperate scholar willing to consider the pros and cons of everything). The adoption of conventional frames of expectation saves us a lot of valuable time – once we know (or think we know) what each position means and where each party stands, we can jump right in the middle of any argument and hammer in our own point of view. I have experienced the power of this conventionality firsthand when I gave an interview about my book, The Bilingual Mind, to François Grosjean at Psychology Today: some readers immediately branded it as defense of the relativist cause (at best) or ‘nonsensical relativism’ (at worst). Yet there is a downside to unquestioning adoption of conventional frames of expectation – it leaves us vulnerable and unprepared for changes in the terms of engagement. The Bilingual Mind is a case in point: I do not argue for or against the SWH because I do not see it as a legitimate scientific phenomenon. The purpose of the book is to show that the SWH ‘as we know it’ is a phantom, if not a fraud, and has little to do with questions that preoccupied Sapir and Whorf.

The manufacturing of consent on the SWH began when Sapir and Whorf passed away and their ideas landed in the hands of others. Driven by the desire to make complex notions, articulated by linguistic anthropologists, fit experimental paradigms in psychology, Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg transformed them into two ‘testable’ hypotheses. These hypotheses – one ‘weak’, one ‘strong’ – appeared in their definitive form in Brown’s (1958) book Words and things:

linguistic relativity holds that where there are differences of language there will also be
differences of thought, that language and thought covary. Determinism goes beyond this
to require that the prior existence of some language pattern is either necessary or sufficient to produce some thought pattern. (p. 260)

Soon the newly-minted SWH took on a life of its own, multiplying and reproducing itself in a myriad of textbooks, articles, lectures, and popular media. Yet ideas don’t travel easily across disciplines and Brown’s and Lenneberg’s reformulations departed from Sapir’s and Whorf’s original arguments in several ways. To begin with, they articulated the hypothesis in monolingual terms (while Sapir and Whorf were interested in the power of multilingual awareness). Secondly, they shifted the inquiry from obligatory grammatical categories, such as tense, to lexical domains, such as color, that had a rather tenuous relationship to linguistic thought (color differentiation was, in fact, discussed by Boas and Whorf as an ability not influenced by language). Third, they shifted from concepts as interpretive categories to cognitive processes, such as perception or memory, that were of little interest to Sapir and Whorf, and proposed to investigate them with artificial stimuli, such as Munsell chips. In doing so, they moved the discussion further and further away from Sapir’s primary interest in ‘social reality’ and Whorf’s central concern with ‘habitual thought’.

When we look back, the attribution of the idea of linguistic determinism to multilingual scholars interested in second language learning and language change makes little sense. Yet the replacement of open-ended questions about linguistic diversity with two ‘testable’ hypotheses had a major advantage – it was easier to argue about and to digest. The transformation was further facilitated by four academic practices that allow us to manage the ever-increasing amount of literature in the ever-decreasing amount of time: (a) simplification of complex arguments (which often results in misinterpretation); (b) reduction of original texts to standard quotes; (c) reliance on other people’s exegeses; and (d) uncritical reproduction of received knowledge. Eventually, the very frequency of its reproduction made the SWH a ‘fact on the ground’.

Today, the received belief in the validity of the terms of engagement articulated by Brown and Lenneberg still reigns unopposed. Yet the focus on ‘non-linguistic cognition’ of ‘monolingual’ speakers in the experimental lab gave rise to a self-defeating line of inquiry that has little ecological validity and little in common with Whorf’s interest in thought insofar as it is linguistic. The purpose of The Bilingual Mind is to consider what is meant by linguistic thought and what non-trivial effects languages have on such thought in monolingual and multilingual speakers. Far be it from me, however, to claim that the book aims to move the inquiry on language and cognition ‘forward’. It does not – if only because I agree with Kuhn ([1962] 2012) that the metaphor of science as ongoing march forward is utterly misleading. My goal is to convince at least a few readers to move ‘away’ from the deeply familiar – yet inherently flawed – terms of engagement articulated for us by Brown and Lenneberg, to ‘backtrack’ towards the questions posited by Sapir and Whorf and to adopt more realistic terms of engagement with the relationship between language(s) and thought that take into consideration language change and the undeniable bi- and multilingualism of the majority of the world’s population.


The Bilingual Mind is due to publish February 2014.

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