Benjamin Lee Whorf Resurrected?

In 1956, Benjamin Lee Whorf published Language, Thought, and Reality, which he concluded with the following.

“Actually, thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is shown by the study of language. This study shows that the forms of a person’s thought are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is conscious. These patterns are unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language–shown readily enough by a candid comparison and contrast with other languages, especially those of a different linguistic family. His thinking itself is in another language–in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese.”

A year later, Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures and launched the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics and, well, a bunch of fields, effectively destroying claims such as Whorf’s and inaugurating one of the most successful research projects in modern science.

But now comes this.

“[A]re there concepts in one culture that people of another culture simply cannot understand because their language has no words for it?

No one has ever definitively answered that question, but new findings by Dr. Peter Gordon, a bio-behavioral scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University, strongly support a “yes” answer. [Details of the study will appear in the Thursday, August 19, issue of the journal Science.] Gordon has spent the past several years studying the Pirahã, an isolated Amazon tribe of fewer than 200 people, whose language contains no words for numbers beyond “one,” “two” and “many.” Even the Piraha word for “one” appears to refer to “roughly one” or a small quantity, as opposed to the exact connotation of singleness in other languages.

What these experiments show, according to Gordon, is how having the right linguistic resources can carve out one’s reality. ‘Whorf says that language divides the world into different categories,’ Gordon said. ‘Whether one language chooses to distinguish one thing versus another affects how an individual perceives reality.’

When given numerical tasks by Gordon in which they were asked to match small sets of objects in varying configurations, adult members of the tribe responded accurately with up to two or three items, but their performance declined when challenged with eight to 10 items, and dropped to zero with larger sets of objects. The only exception to this performance was with tasks involving unevenly spaced objects. Here, the performance of participants deteriorated as the number of items increased to 6 items. Yet for sets of 7 to 10 objects, performance was near perfect. Though these tasks were designed to be more difficult, Gordon hypothesizes that the uneven spacing allowed subjects to perceive the items as smaller ‘chunks’ of 2 or 3 items that they could then match to corresponding groups.

According to the study, performance by the Piraha was poor for set sizes above 2 or 3, but it was not random. . .” (read on)