Logos Multilingual Portal

9 - The world created by words

"I am becoming convinced that the world wants
to tell me something, send me messages, signals." 1.

Benjamin Lee Whorf has studied many languages that are not part of the Indo-European group, nor are among the few non-Indo-European languages with which Western civilization is in touch very often, like Turkish or Finnish or Estonian or Hungarian. This research gave him the opportunity to understand that both linguistic expression and content of thought are highly influenced by the language in which they are expressed, that there is no universally unique psychic thought a priori, that it can find different means of expressions in different languages and different subjects.
  One of the languages studied by Whorf is Hopi, an American Indian language spoken by natives in Arizona.
  As we are become accustomed to seeing in this course, the contact with a different culture (or language) is especially important to be able to recognize the characteristics of one's own. Characteristics that, because they are self evident and have always existed in out lives, we tend to take for granted, seriously hampering our ability to understand the world.
  We have the impression that the subdivision of the world into concepts and the attribution of words to concepts is 'natural', or more often still we don't wonder whether it is natural or not.

We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way-an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATORY2.

The point is that we subscribe to this agreement without any awareness of it until we must face a different linguistic and/or cultural reality, but we are not able to say anything if we do not adhere to the cataloguing of reality data provided by the agreement itself.
  Consequently, we have the illusion of being free to describe nature with the utmost impartiality, while the way in which we interpret it is strongly biased by the language in which we customarily express our view of the world. Maybe the only moments of free interpretation of reality go back to our early experiences with preverbal thought.
  Whorf also holds that the same stimulation from the outer world does not lead to identical representations by two observers. The two representations can only be similar, provided that their linguistic education is similar or can be in some way calibrated.
  One of the reasons why this principle of perceptual relativity is not immediately self evident is to be found in the fact that almost all languages we encounter are Indo-European 'dialects' and often, particularly as far as scientific terminology is concerned, have a solid common base in the Latin and Greek languages. As we will soon see, a comparison with some languages that have a totally different origin is all we need to realize how much we take for granted without realizing it.
  Let us begin with the main grammatical categories: nouns and verbs. From the first years of school we are brought to understand the existence of nouns and verbs and the differences between them and, even if one never takes a deeper look into linguistics, this fundamental distinction remains a given, taken for granted, all the rest of his days. But nature itself is not so demanding to obligate the use of classes like "noun" or "verb" in order to be described.
  In the Hopi language, for example, events are classified according to their duration, and all short events can only be expressed in verbs: lightning, wave, flame, meteor, smoke puff, pulsation. Longer events are, on the other hand, considered nouns.
  Whorf writes then about the Vancouver Island language, Nootka, where they have just one 'grammatical category', one word class to describe all types of events.
  Even from the point of view of the semantic spectrum the differences are great. In Hopi a single word is used to mean insect, airplane and aviator, and this fact does not pose a problem for the Pueblo people speaking it. In our view this semantic spectrum is too wide, but the same observation about our languages are made by the Eskimo referring to the word "snow". We are forced, in their view, to express so many phenomena with this word, falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow:

To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different t things to contend with3.

However, Aztecs go farther in the opposite direction, because they have one word to mean "ice", "cold", and "snow". These and other different linguistic classifications of the world phenomena have, in Whorf's opinion, a direct influence on the way in which we seek and notice subtleties in nature itself. To us, to Eskimos and to Aztecs the same natural phenomenon can have three different meanings, we look at the world and its phenomena through different distorting lenses.
  In Hopi for example, where grammatical tenses as we know them do not exist, they have a notion of psychic tense; they can express expectation, generalization, reported event. We see that from this figure, taken from Whorf's book:

  As you can see, many English utterances match one Hopi utterance and vice versa. When thinking about such diversity, we realize that the world that we take for granted in our everyday life is really just one of the possible interpretations of the same world. Culture (and language as an instrument of culture) molds our way of viewing the world and it is important, especially for a translator, to reckon with such differences between cultures and never take anything for granted, doing her utmost to offer the reader, through her translated texts, as wide a window as possible onto the other cultures of the universe.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vin-tage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

WHORF B. L. Language, Thought, and Reality. Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge (Massachusetts), The M.I.T. Press, 1967 (1956).

1 Calvino 1979, p. 53.
2 Whorf 1967, p. 213-214.
3 Whorf 1967, p. 216.