The Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis
Confusing the strong and weak views

Comment by Jim Walker

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (the 'Korzybski' annexation came later) claims that the structure of a language defines the way a person behaves and thinks, must surely have it wrong according to many cognitive scientists, including Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, and others. Although the basic hypothesis of linguistic determinism surely has flaws, one should not overly criticize the first people who began thinking about this interesting subject. After all the subject refers to a hypothesis, not a theory, and certainly not fact (yet).

Linguists today generally support either a 'strong' or a 'weak' interpretation of the hypothesis, and the leaning seems to fall against the strong interpretation. Needless to say, the subject gets hotly debated and I think many of the arguers confuse the ideas between the strong and weak interpretation. I don't claim to know the correct answer and I'll let the scientists do their thing. Stephen Pinker seems to have a solid argument against the strong interpretation (The Language Instinct). Unfortunately, he believes that Korzybski touted the strong view. I see no evidence for this at all. However, the weak interpretation (Korzybski's view) does have, and I think you will agree, an obvious effect on the way we express, or fail to express thoughts.

Regardless of how intractable our language instinct holds us to the way we think, the words and ideas of our language can't help but influence how we perform in the world. Yes, thoughts don't depend on words, but words depend on thoughts (how else do new words get into the lexicon?) If you don't have the words or symbols to describe your thoughts (regardless of how instinctive), you will simply have no way to convey them to your fellow humans. To give an obvious example, if you've never had exposure to the words and symbols of mathematics, then you can never communicate your calculations or make workable predictions about the orbits of planets, the dynamics of inertial objects, or the statistical properties of sub-atomic particles. There simply exists no way to understand the multitude of scientific problems unless you have a basic understanding of the language of mathematics. This in no way implies that a person, regardless of what language he or she speaks, does not have the instinct or the neurological means to understand mathematics.

The same goes in the opposite direction. If your parents, teachers, or clergymen taught you wrongful ideas about the world, you may end up believing in falsehoods that could affect the way you make decisions about other people. Think of all the unfounded prejudice, intolerance, and venom against fellow human beings that came out of a direct result of believed falsehoods. Consider the power of beliefs that drive us to protect these false ideas that exist nowhere except within the brain and expressed and spread through language.

To take an extreme example, imagine a person who believes that you should reject reason and live by faith (as Martin Luther did). Such a person could not perform well as a scientist, much less explain the intricacies of nature. Such intransigent software would guarantee the production of falsehoods.

In the case of Robert Wilson's article on E-prime, perhaps he could have avoided the confusion by not mentioning the Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis at all (of course Wilson wrote this long before Pinker et al, so lets not blame him for lack of prophetic powers). After all, the weak interpretation doesn't require it, and I think the reader will surely understand that if you don't have the words to describe your ideas, then you simply can't convey your ideas to others (at least not through language). Moreover, if you use words that convey false ideas, then you can't help but create errors in communication. Wilson's take on the Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis and his analogy of GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT refers to the software (the words and beliefs), and not the firmware (the language instinct). He implies a weak view of the hypothesis. In the case of E-prime, the user attempts to get rid of unnecessary and misleading words. This has nothing at all to do with changing the basic underlying structure of language. If you use the wrong words to convey your ideas, you will almost certainly guarantee wrong answers, which could lead others into believing falsehoods.

For those critics who label Korzybski insignificant, unoriginal, or accuse him with endless feckless charges, I find it amusing that the very flavor of their criticism puts them in a nakedly ill-informed position about his work. The very nature of Korzybski's non-aristotelian system puts emphasis on time-binding self-correction. Unlike religions with their circular intransigence, Korzybski's general semantics wants to gain awareness of abstractions, including its own and any errors it may produce. Korzybski more than anyone insisted that modifications, major as well a minor, must occur as newly acquired information arrives, including his own work (has Chomsky or Pinker ever made that claim?). Ironically Korzybski thought that most abstract thoughts derive from non-verbal processes. He did, after all, coin the term neuro-semantic. This very much sounds like Pinker's view to me. Surely even Pinker and Chomsky would agree that if your neurological maps (the brain's language) become damaged that mental disease can result. I would hardly find it surprising that modifying one's verbal language will not cure the problem. But can modifying one's thoughts still improve our mental lives even with the mentally handicapped? It seems that John Nash (depicted in the movie "A Beautiful Mind") did this very thing when he learned the ability to control (but did not cure) his schizophrenia. And he did this with his conscious mind alone.

For those who criticize Sapir and Whorf, please realize that the article in question refers to the Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski hypothesis. And as far as I can tell, the Korzybski addendum version refers to the weak interpretation.


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