The Whorfian Hypothesis
Among recent developements in the anthropological sciences hardly any have found so much attention and led us to so much controversy as have the views advanced by the late Benjamin Whorf. The hypothesis offered by Whorf is: That the commonly held belief that the cognitive prosesses of all human beings possess a common logical structure which operates prior to and independently of comunication through language is erroneous. It is Whorf's view that the linguistic patterns themselves determine what the individual perceives in this world and how he thinks about it., Since these patterns vary widely, the modes of thinking and perceiving in groups utilizing different linguistic systems will result in basically different world views (Fearing, 1954) We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to ther same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar…We cut up and organize the spread and flow of events as we do largely necause, though our morther tongue, we are parites of an agreement to so so, not becuase nature itself is segmented in exactly what way for all to see. (Whorf, 1952, pg. 21)
For example, in the Indo-European languages substantives, adjectives and verbs appear as basic grammatic units, a sentence being essentially a combination of these parts. This scheme of a persisting entity separable from its properties and active or passive behavoir is fundamental for the catagories of occidental thinking, from Aristotles catagories of “substance,” “attibutes” and “action” to the antithesis of matter and force, mass and energy in physics.
Indian languages, such at Nootka or Hopi do not have parts of speech or separate subject and predicate. Rather they signify an event as a whole. When we say “a light flashed” or “it ( a dubios hypostatized entity) flashed.” Hopi uses a single term “flash (occured).
It would be important to apply the methods of mathematical logic to such languages. Can sttement in languages like Nootka or Hopi be rendered by the usual logistic notation, or is the latter a formalization of th structure of Indo-Europeanh language? It appears that this important subject has not been investigated.
Indo-European languages emphasize time. The “give and take” between language and culture leads, according to Whorf, to keeping of diaries, mathematics stimulated by accounting, to calendars, clocks, chroniology, time as used in physics; to the historical attitude, interest in the past, archeology, etc. It is interesting to compare this with Spengler's conception of the central role of time in the occidental world picture which from a different viewpoint, comes to the identical conclusion.
However, the – for us – self-evident distinction between past, present and future does not exist in the Hopi language. It makes no distinction between tenses, but indicates the validity a statement has: fact, memory, expectations or custom, There is no difference in Hopi between “he runs” “he is running,” “he ran,' all being rendered by wari “running occur.” An expectation is rendered by warinki (“running occur [I] daresay”), which covers “he will, shall, should, would run.” If, however, it is a statement of a general law, warikngwe (“running occur, characteristically”) is appied (La Barre, 1954, 1954, pp 197). The Hopi ” has no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a prsent, into a past.” (Whorf 1952, p 67) instead of our catagories of space and time. Hopi rather distinguishes the “manifest,” all that which is accessible to the senses with no distinction between present and past, and the unmanifest“ comprising the future as well as what we call mental. Navaho (cf. kluckhohn and Leighton, 1951) has little development of tenses; the emphasis is upon types of activity, and thus it distinguishes durative, perective, usitative, repetitive, iterative, optative, semifactive, momentaneous, progressive, transitional, conative, etc., aspects of action.
The difference can be defined that the first concern of English (and Indo-European language in general) is time, of Hopi – validity, and of Navaho – type of activity (personal communication of Professor Klockhohn) ….
The ingrained mechanistic way of thinking which comes into difficulties wirh modern scientific developments is a consequence of our specific linguistic catagories and habits, and Whorf hopes that insight into the diversity of linguistic systems may contribute to the reevaluation of scientific concepts.