Fishman's "A Systemization of the Whorfian Hypothesis" (Abstract)


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

English: Linguistics

Dr. Bethany Dumas

Fall 1975 (December 3, 1975)


A. Purpose


To systematize recent work (prior to 1960) with the Whorfian hypothesis is the purpose of Fishman's article. He discusses and dismisses a body of psychological research not "subsumable" under the hypothesis, gives "a brief historical introduction" to the hypothesis, and proceeds with his systemization through a double dichotomy into four levels at which the hypothesis has been applied.


B. Summary of article


The Whorfian hypothesis states, "that the characteristics of language have determining influences on cognitive processes" (323). Recent work includes much psychological study concerning "the impact of verbal habits on other kinds of behavior" (323), though research dealing strictly with the Whorfian Hypothesis differs from most of this study in one or two ways:

i. Whorfian hypothesis work deals with verbal habits deriving from characteristics (or "unique aspects") of a given language or languages.

ii. Most of this work concerns relating data drawn from contrasts between the unique characteristics of the given language(s) to "some non-linguistic behaviors of the individual speakers of these languages" (324).

Historically, Whorf formulated his linguistic relativity principle more or less under the aegis of Edward Sapir, who in turn studied under Franz Boas. Roots o f the principle or hypothesis are to be found in the writings of Sapir, Boas, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Humboldtian ethnolinguistics has roots of its own in the folklores of Western and Near Eastern civilizations, including the Greeks, since ancient times.

Work on the Whorfian hypothesis can be separated into four distinct areas or levels. The two main factors with which the hypothesis deals are linguistic characteristics of a given language(s) and the (cognitive) behavior of the speakers of the given language(s). The linguistic factor can be divided to distinguish lexical or semantic structure from grammatical structure. The behavior factor can be divided to distinguish verbal behavior (especially in terms of worldviews on the cultural level) from nonverbal behavior on the individual level. The double dichotomy can be schematized as below.





A term used in the lexical or semantic structural aspects of language characteristics (analysis levels 1 and 2) is codifiability. Codifiability is the case with which our language, in contract with another, refers "to certain phenomena or to certain nuances of meaning" (326). At level 1, this ease of reference or accurate description is related to culture and Weltanschauung (e.g., Eskimo culture attaches important to snow, for environmental reasons, and consequently the language differentiates form forty-odd varieties of snow depending on density, texture, status falling, blowing, in a drift, etc. and so on). At level 2, non-linguistic cognitive) behavioral concomitants, such as learning shades of colors, are dealt with. The ability to codify labels (numbers or nonsense syllables) attached to shades of a color (for instance, by relating these labels to know words or syllables ) played a large role in the ability of one being tested to learn the shades. Other tests elicit categorizing responses in sorting or picture-classifying behavior (330). At levels 3 and 4, linguistic (grammatical) structure is introduced. Level 3, like Level 1, is a language-language level and now relates language structure rather than lexical particulars to culture and worldview. Data at this level must verify or deny an interrelation between language structure and "language-behavior-as-indication-of-world-view" (333). At level 4, the hypothesis has its greatest test. That linguistic structure has influence on linguistic cognitive behavior (e.g., reading, studying, or memorization) is not too surprising or meaningful; but if linguistic structure also structures non-linguistic cognitive behavior (e.g., perception), then Whorf's hypothesis becomes a working theory. As some evidence for this structuring influence was produced by Whorf himself (though he worked mainly at Level 1), and has been produced by others since, the degree of linguistic relativity need be established. It appears that the difficulty in realizing all the ways in which linguistic structure influences or controls cognition, perception, thought, etc, prevents a more complete estimate as to the degree of linguistic relativity. More work need be done at all levels, especially at level 4, before greater understanding of the problem of this relativity is possible.


C. Conclusion


Data from all four levels of the hypothesis are "quite consistent" with Whorf's idea that language structure i not only 'interactively reflective of 'cultural thought'" but also "directly formative of 'individual thought'" (337). Though each level offers evidence supporting the hypothesis, linguistic relativity is only "moderately powerful" in affecting our cognitive behavior and is "counteractable" (337). Nevertheless, Whorf was instrumental in drawing our attention to background phenomena in our everyday life which we neglect because of linguistically patterned organization of perception (through direction of attention).


D. Critical Comment


I question Fishman's conclusion. Because we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving (as borne out in psychological work in perception see Dr. Kathy Emmett's forthcoming bibliography), and even then only one percent of available stimuli on the visual level (and note that we trust our eyes above other sense organs), we cannot say what we are missing, what we do not perceive, and the nature of those phenomena. Only by this knowledge could we determine the degree of linguistic relativity, though the problem of this knowledge has not been solved (if considered at all) by modern science. The only solution that I have read about is that offered by mystics (e.g., Jacob Boehme) some religions (Zen, yoga, Buddhism) and certain philosophies (especially that of don Juan Matus as recorded by Carlos Castaneda).


Fishman, J. A. "A Systemization of the Whorfian Hypothesis." Behavioral Science 4 (1960): 323-339.



Professor's Comments: Good comment. [Dr. Bethany Dumas]


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