When we compare modern English with some of those Indian languages which are most concrete in their formative expression, the contrast is striking. When we say "The eye is the organ of sight, the Indian may not be able to form the expression the eye, but may have to define that the eye of a person or of an animal is meant. Neither may the Indian be able to generalize readily the abstract idea of an eye as the representative of the whole class of objects... (p. 64).
It does not seem to occur to Boas anywhere in the Handbook that such a way of talking about the world might not arise because the mind of the American Indians that he is writing about is "primitive" but rather because he or she is seeing the world in a very different way.
Boas would no doubt have argued that this is only a single truth, one that can be measured and experienced and agreed upon by reasonable men. (And, perhaps, some women.) But the idea that culture, and specifically language, actively shapes what we see in the world does not enter into his model. Indians speak differently from you and me, he argues, because they are primitive, simple people who do not have to bother themselves overly with abstract thoughts. That their world might be more complex than his own is not an idea that Boas considers. Moreover, even as he has rejected the idea that language is based in the biology of race, he teeters on the edge of believing that there is a connection between the degree of "primitiveness" and race as defined as biological.
The Ordinary Everyday Analysis of Phenomena
Benjamin Lee Whorf along with his colleague Edward Sapir has been generally discredited. His argument that language is a powerful force in shaping our reality is generally considered to have been dethroned by modern theories about universal grammars promulgated by Noam Chomsky and his followers. Although the topic of universal grammar is certainly not central to this paper, it is worth touching on briefly, because Chomsky's model of language has brought scholars back (although it is quite possible that they would not themselves admit it) to a view that contains many Boasian elements. By looking very briefly at the work of Chomsky, it is thus possible to come to a clearer understanding of the ways in which Whorf himself understands how language and reality are connected.
Chomsky argues that all humans come into the world with a universal grammar embedded in our neurological circuits (Chomsky, 1965). The wiring, interchangeable with every other person, is tweaked by the language(s) that each one of us speaks. But language is as universal to humans as is DNA, and its basis in genetics ensures that no matter whether we are speaking Ainu or Zulu, we are speaking about the same reality.
Whorf believed in a profoundly different relationship between language and reality. He opens the 1939 essay "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language" with a clear statement of his basic belief that language shapes our world:
There will probably be general assent to the proposition that an accepted pattern of using words is often prior to certain lines of thinking who assents often sees in such a statement nothing more than a platitudinous recognition of the hypnotic terminology on the one hand or of power of philosophical and learned catchwords, slogans, and rallying cries on the other. To see only thus far is to miss the point of one of the important interconnections which Sapir saw between language, culture, and psychology, and succinctly expressed in the introductory quotation. It is not so much in these special uses of language as in its constant ways of arranging data and its most ordinary everyday analysis of phenomena that we need to recognize the influence it has on other activities, cultural and personal. (p. 75).
To appreciate the strength of his belief in the guiding influence of language in terms of our experiences in the world, it is necessary to include the Sapir quote to which he is referring and with which he opens the essay:
Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation (p. 75).
In other words, Whorf is arguing that reality is defined and experienced not by what we all share as humans such as the biophysics of our eyes and ears and nerve-endings but by the specific categories of our language. Neither species (as Boas would argue) nor race (as many nineteenth-century scholars of language would argue) are the greatest influences in determining our reality. Rather, our language is. And so five people from five different races all speaking the same language -- whether Navajo or Etruscan or anything else -- will share a reality.
This is a peculiar thought the first time that one comes upon it, and it is easy to see why it fell by the wayside. It is also possible that Whorf overstated his case, and it probably has not helped his cause that his own writing style tends towards the arcane. But his argument that language is a mold for reality seems to me to be a highly compelling one. His own examples in this essay, in which he contrasts Standard American English (or SAE) and Hopi are themselves quite convincing.
At the end of the essay he summarizes the basic differences between the two languages:
The SAE microcosm has analyzed reality largely in terms of what it calls "things" (bodies and quasibodies) plus modes of extensional but formless existence that it calls "substances" or "matter." It tends to see existence through a binomial formula that expresses any existent as a spatial form plus a spatial formless continuum related to the form, as contents is related to the outlines of its container. Nonspatial existents are imaginatively spatialized and charged with similar implications of form and continuum.
The Hopi microcosm seems to have analyzed reality largely in terms Of EVENTS (or better "eventing"), referred to in two ways, objective and subjective. Objectively, and only if perceptible physical experience, events are expressed mainly as outlines, colors, movements, and other perceptive reports. Subjectively, for both the physical and nonphysical, events are considered the expression of invisible intensity factors, on which depend their stability and persistence, or their fugitiveness and proclivities. It implies that existents do not "become later and later" all in the same way; but some do so by growing like plants, some by diffusing and vanishing, some by a procession of metamorphoses, some by enduring in one shape till affected by violent forces. In the nature of each existent able to manifest as a definite whole is the power of its own mode of duration: its growth, decline, stability, cyclicity, or creativeness. Everything is thus already "prepared" for the way it now manifests by earlier phases, and what it will be later, partly has been, and partly is in act of being so "prepared." An emphasis and importance rests on this preparing or being prepared aspect of the world that may to the Hopi correspond to that "quality of reality" that "matter" or "stuff" has for us.
This explanation of the differences between the native speaker of Hopi and the native speaker of English seems quite compelling. It is important to emphasize here that the differences that Whorf is talking about are not superficial ones, not a question of vocabulary, for example.
When non-linguists talk about differences between languages, they often talk about how the Inuits or other far-northern peoples have many words for snow and ice while we as speakers of English have a bare handful. This (so far as I know) is true; however, it is also trivial. Anyone who lived in a place where being able to provide a precise description of ice conditions is a matter of life and…