August 20, 2017

Grammatical realism

Language does not merely determine how we formulate out thoughts – it underlies our entire worldview. People whose mind-set has been formed by different languages may have a profoundly different understanding of things.

From Towards a Unified Science, The Ecologist, Vol. 1 No. 14, August 1971.

The notion that thought is seriously influenced by grammar and that people who speak a different language will thereby tend to think in a different way, was first clearly formulated by Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose approach to language was highly original. He writes:

“We are inclined to think of language simply as a technique of expression, and not to realise that language, first of all, is a classification and arrangement of the stream of sensory experience which results in a certain word order, a certain segment of the world that is easily expressible by the type of symbolic means that language employs. In other words, language does, in a cruder but also in a broader and more versatile way, the same thing that science does.” [1]

It must therefore suffice to examine the structure of a language in order to understand the generalities of a culture’s world view, or general model, which it must thereby reflect. He writes, with reference to the language of the Hopi Indians:

“Hopi language and culture conceals a metaphysics, such as our so-called naive view of Space and time does, or as the relativity theory does; yet it is a different metaphysics from either. In order to describe the structure of the universe according to the Hopi, it is necessary to attempt – in so far as it is possible to make explicit this metaphysics, properly describable only in the Hopi language, by means of an approximation expressed in our own language, somewhat inadequately it is true, yet by availing ourselves of such concepts as we have worked up, into relative consonance, with the system underlying the Hopi view of the universe.” [2]

One can illustrate the basic difference between the European world view and that of the Hopi in this manner. In the European languages we have a rigid distinction between space and time. This, however, is not the case in Hopi, which rather distinguishes between words having different duration and gives rise to a notion of space/time much more closely akin to that of present-day science.

“Our language thus gives us a bipolar division of Nature. But Nature herself is not thus polarised. If it be said that ‘strike, run, turn’ are verbs, because they denote temporary or short-lasting events, i.e. actions, why then is ‘fists’ a noun? It is also a temporary event. Why are ‘lightning, spark, wave, eddy, pulsation, flame, storm, phase, cycle, spasm, noise, emotion’ nouns? They are temporary events. If ‘man’ and ‘house’ are nouns because they are long-lasting and stable events, i.e. things, what then are ‘keep, adhere, extend, project, continue, persist, grow, dwell’ and so on doing among the verbs? If it be objected that ‘possess, adhere’ are verbs because they are stable relationships rather than stable precepts, why then should ‘equilibrium, pressure, current, peace, group, nation, society, tribe, sister’ or any kinship term be among the nouns? It will be found that an event to us means ‘what our language classes as a verb’ or something analogised therefrom. And it will be found that it is not possible to define ‘event, thing, object, relationship’ and so on, from Nature, but that to define them always involves a circuitous return to the grammatical categories of the definer’s language.

“In Hopi language, ‘lightning, wave, flame, meteor, puff of smoke, pulsation’ are verbs – events of necessarily brief duration cannot be anything but verbs. ‘Cloud’ and ‘storm’ are the lower limit of duration for nouns. Hopi you see, actually has a classification of events (or linguistic isolates) by duration type, something strange to our modes of thought.” [3]

Another closely associated tendency among Europeans is to regard all processes as events involving particular objects or things. A noun must be involved referring to the latter and a verb is required to denote what in fact is happening to it. So entrenched in us is this notion of a process that when the thing involved is not apparent we tend to postulate it. Whorf writes:

“We are constantly reading into Nature fictional acting entities, simply because our verbs must have substantives in front of them. We have to say ‘It flashed’ or ‘A light flashed’, setting up an actor, ‘It’ or ‘light’ to perform what we call an action, to flash’. Yet the flashing and the light are one and the same! The Hopi language reports the flash with a simple verb, ‘ rehpi ‘ – ‘flash (occurred)’. There is no division into subject and predicate, not even a suffix like -t of Latin tona-t ‘it thunders’. Hopi can and does have verbs without subjects, a fact which may give that tongue potentialities, probably never to be developed, as a logical system for understanding some aspects of the universe.” [4]

Another difference between European languages and Hopi is that in the former we find things having nothing in common such as tables, chairs, telephones on the one hand, and summer, beauty, love, on the other, all enjoying the same grammatical status of nouns. This has undoubtedly contributed towards that muddled thinking associated with the treatment of universals and abstract ideas and other forms of nominal realism. This is not the case in the Hopi language, in which

“. . . all phase terms, like ‘summer, morning’ etc., are not nouns but a kind of adverb, to use the nearest SAE analogy. They are a formal part of speech by themselves, distinct from nouns, verbs, and even other Hopi ‘adverbs’. Such a word is not a case form or a locative pattern, like ‘des Abends‘ or ‘in the morning’. It contains no morpheme like one of ‘in the house’ or ‘while morning phase is occurring’. These ‘temporals’ are not used as subjects or objects, or at all like nouns. . . One does not say ‘It is a hot summer’ or ‘Summer is hot'; summer is not hot, summer is only when conditions are hot, when heat occurs. One does not say ‘this summer’ but ‘summer now’ or ‘summer recently’. There is no objectification, as a region, an extent, a quantity, of the subjective duration feeling. Nothing is suggested about time except the perpetual ‘getting later’ of it. And so there is no basis here for a formless item answering to our ‘time’.” [5]

On the other hand, Hopi language emphasises the dualism that we tend to establish between the perception of data and the formulation of a hypothesis to explain them: what, in fact, can be referred to as the empiricist fallacy. Whorf writes:

“Why do we not, like the Hopi, use a different way of expressing the relation of channel or sensation (seeing) to result in consciousness, as between ‘I see that it is red’ and ‘I see that it is new’? We fuse the two quite different types of relationship into a vague sort of connection expressed by ‘that’, whereas the Hopi indicates that in the first case seeing presents unspecified evidence from which is drawn the inference newness. If we change the form to ‘I hear that it is red’ or ‘I hear that it is new’, we European speakers still cling to our lame ‘that’, but the Hopi now uses still another relater and makes no distinction between ‘red’ and ‘new’, since in either case the significant presentation to consciousness is that of a verbal report and neither a sensation per se nor inferential evidence.” [6]

Finally, the basic variables of a general model which to many may appear a priori, will also vary with different languages. Thus Whorf writes:

“Concepts of ‘time’ and ‘matter’ are not given in substantially the same form by experience to all men but depend upon the nature of the language or languages through the use of which they have been developed. They do not depend so much upon any one system (e.g. tense, or nouns) within the grammar as upon the ways of analysing and reporting experience which have become fixed in the language as integrated ‘fashions of speaking’ and which cut across the typical grammatical classifications, so that such a ‘fashion’ may include lexical, morphological, syntactic, and otherwise systematically diverse means co-ordinated in a certain frame of consistency.” [7]

From these considerations it must follow that, in Whorf’s words:

“We are . . . introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.” [8]

The relevance of the Whorf thesis to the development of Western philosophy is infinitely greater than might at first be thought. Thus Ogden and Richards point to the influence of Greek grammar on the work of Aristotle:

“. . . the categories and similar distinctions, which play a large part in Aristotle’s system, cannot be studied apart from the peculiarities of the Greek language.”

In general, the Hellenes attached a great deal of importance to the study of grammar. They never attempted to study it cross-culturally, and thereby establish the relativity of grammatical systems. Consequently, as Potter writes:

“They were all too prone to assume that the structure of their own language embodied the universal shape of human thought on a background of cosmic order.” [9]

According to Stuart Chase:

“The Greeks took it for granted that back of language was universal, uncontaminated essence of reason, shared by all men, at least by all thinkers. Words, they believed, were but the medium in which this deeper effulgence found expression. It followed that a line of thought expressed in any language could be translated without loss of meaning into any other language.” [10]

The Romans appear to have inherited this concept and Latin grammars such as Priscian’s exerted a considerable influence on medieval scholars such as Antoine Arnaud, who compiled a ‘grammaire general et raisonné’.

“. . . in the assured belief that the Latin tongue embodied in itself canons of logic which were universally valid, and that Latin grammar was grammar ‘proper’. Such views prevailed well into the 19th century, and they are by no means without adherents even today.” [11]

This is particularly the case with language in cultures where there is a strong preoccupation with outward forms, such as syntax. Voltaire is supposed to have said that French is the most logical language. This expresses a deep rooted sentiment current in all lettered Frenchmen’s concentrated education to mastering the intricacies of French syntax that the laws found to apply to this closed system are implicitly assumed to apply to the very different world which is purports to represent.

The English have been particularly fortunate in that, for 400 years, the educated classes spoke mainly French and consequently the highly complex syntactical structure of Anglo-Saxon was slowly abandoned in favour of a much-simplified derivative. In recent times, the English language has been subjected to further simplification in America. As a result, preoccupation with form has yielded to a preoccupation with content, and the tendency to mistake the laws governing our language for those governing our biosphere has correspondingly diminished.

Nevertheless, it would be a gross illusion to suppose that this tendency did not influence the course of English and American thought, nor indeed that it is not continuing to do so at the present time.


1. Whorf, “The punctual and segmentative aspects of verbs in Hopi”, p.55. In Language, Thought and Reality. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1956.
2. Whorf, “An American Indian model of the Universe”, p.58. In op.cit.
3. Whorf, “Science and linguistics”, p.215. In op.cit.
4. Whorf, “Language and logic”, p.243. In op.cit.
5. Whorf, “The relation of habitual thought and behaviour to language”, p.43. In op.cit.
6. Whorf, “Thinking in comments”, p.85. Inop.cit.
7. Whorf, “The relation of habitual thought and behaviour to language”, p.158. In op.cit.
8. Whorf, “Language, Thought and Reality”. Foreword by Stuart Chase p.v.
9. Potter, S. Language in the Modern World. Penguin Books, London, 1960.
10. Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality. Foreword by Stuart Chase, p.vii.
11. Potter, op.cit., p.145.
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