Which came first, the chicken or the egg?: Relativistic and Universalistic approaches to world view and reality perception.

by synapticdisunion

I wrote this short essay for a Linguistic Anthropology class in the fall of 2013.  It is the highest viewed essay on my Academia.edu page by far.  I’m not sure why.  I thought I’d share it here under the Anthropology tag here.


Topic Sentence: Relativistic and Universalistic approaches to world view and reality perception.

Topic: Using examples from the Hopi language and lecture notes from our class, I intend to dissect and explain the two major ways of approaching Linguistic Anthropology, relativism and universalism, their advantages and their pitfalls.


“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

One of the many questions that linguists, both Universalist and Relativist, are trying to answer with regard to language is, to put it quite simply, whether thought affects language and perceptions of reality (Universalist view), or whether language affects thought and perceptions of reality (relativist view).  In this short essay, I intend to dissect  these two approaches, give examples of both using the Hopi language, and draw from lecture notes, articles mentioned in class, and my personal thoughts and ideas regarding possible pitfalls and advantages in both ideologies.

A friend who is a neurobiologist mentioned to me recently, on the similar subject of cognition, thought, and language that his personal view, from a biological perspective, was “the egg came first.” (His phrase)  By this he seemed to be indicating that the mechanics and biology needed for thought and language as an abstraction of thought had to be in place before either could evolve.  I find this to be a solid argument.  Once we move beyond the initial spark of thought and language, however, into that vague world of perception, it seems to me that things become more clouded and deserve closer inspection.  What happens when we think?  What does thinking entail, outside of the obvious biological nature of neurons firing and giving the perception of internal dialog?  Does thought lay outside the venue of language, relying on language to articulate and simulate in whatever way it can, the thoughts occurring within the human mind, or is it the opposite?  Does language somehow manipulate thoughts by internalizing words and phrases that have meanings, giving us pictures and ideas in the form of thought?

The relativistic approach, first hinted at by Wilhelm von Humbolt, who proposed that language was the very fabric of thought itself.  Meaning, thoughts are the internal dialog of the human mind, and therefore reflect the grammar and syntax of the native speaker.  This internal speaking then in turn greatly influences the world view (Weltanschauung) of the person thinking (speaking to oneself internally).  Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, then took up this idea while studying the language of the Hopi people in the American southwest.  The now famous and much debated “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” as it is known, is the basis behind most Relativistic thinking and study.  This relativistic theory came about after Whorf studied the Hopi people, who he asserted had in their language “no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time’ or to past, present or future …”.  So how does Whorf come to this conclusion?  Let’s look at an example directly from Whorf’s article we read for class entitled “Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language.”  In this article, Whorf writes that in the Hopi language, “all phrase terms, like summer, morning, etc., are not nouns, but a kind of adverb, to use the nearest SAE (Standard Average European) analogy.  They are a formal part of speech by themselves, distinct from nouns, verbs, and even other Hopi ‘adverbs.’  Further on, he continues that when speaking in Hopi, “One does not say ‘this summer,’ but ‘summer now’ or ‘summer recently.’  There is no objectification, as a region, an extend, a quantity…,.”  This “objectification” he’s speaking of is, as I understand it, the tendency of our language, and other SAE languages to objectify time, slice it up, as it were.  To segment it as “a summer” or “last summer” or “a minute” or “tomorrow.”  This, he says, does not happen in Hopi.  He explains that “Nothing is suggested about time except the perpetual ‘getting later’ of it.”  Later, as Whorf is attempting to tie this notion of timelessness to the conceptual perceptions of the world through Hopi eyes, he says “Everything is in consciousness, and everything in consciousness is…”  That is to say, with regard to time, that what happened is still happening, and what will happen, is already starting.  For example, one might say in SAE, “I’m going to Texas for Christmas,” whereas in Hopi, one would say something similar, but the meaning would be “we are and have always been preparing to go to Texas and be there for when it is Christmas.”  To Whorf, this seemed to indicate a different view of the world, and of perceptions of time.  Whorf clarifies this idea, in Language, Thought and Reality, when he says:  “We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significance 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… 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.”  What I take it he is saying here, especially when he says “all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe” that he believes thought itself, and perceptions of the surrounding world, are different depending on what (as he calls it above) “speech community” to which they belong.  Therefore, their language affects their thoughts, and how they view the world around them.

Universalism, as you would guess, comes at this from a different angle altogether.  Universalism asserts that language does not construct reality, as is the case in relativism, but that reality constructs language and thought.  Though differences in language do occur, it is clear to the Universalist that those differences are still descriptions of the same objective reality.  Scholars like Anna Wierzbicka and Noam Chomsky see language as a human universal, comprising of structure and semantics across all human populations.  That is to say, language is something uniquely human, and all humans use it in the same way.  This isn’t to say that ideas and concepts are diverse across human populations, but the methods used to describe those concepts are all done through the device of language.  Using the same example as I have for the Relativist position, I will describe how a Universalist would understand the problems presented by the Hopi idea of time, but focusing on intervals of time.  For example, in Hopi, the interval between days is rarely mentioned.  One might say, “we left on the fourth day after we arrived.”  The word would literally be something akin to “fourtimesday.”  As I understand it, Whorf asserts that intervals of time are not counted; however, Helmut Gipper’s article Is there a Linguistic Relativity Principle? he states the following:

                “And is it correct to conclude, as Whorf does, that the intervals, strictly speaking, are not counted at all?

                Yes and no.  In fact, the meaning of the two translations of ‘fourtimesday’ and ‘the fourth day’ may be nearly identical in many cases.  Nevertheless it is hypothetical to interpret, as Whorf does, that time intervals are not counted: It is the same daylight which returns, only a little older.”

So the Universalist, though they would acknowledge that the Hopi do not normally count the intervening days in individual numbers, would disagree that the Hopi do not acknowledge them in their world view, or that they do not exist as objective entities within their world view.  Ekkehart Malotki, a student of Gipper, confirmed these findings during a study of the remaining Hopi speakers in the early 1980s.  Malotki says in Hopi Time: A Linguistic Analysis of the Temporal Concepts in the Hopi Language:

“As it turns out from among the numerous suffixes that the Hopi verb can select to mark the grammatical categories of aspect, mode and tense, one is specifically reserved to refer to time, or rather the sequential ordering of events or states. This temporal marker is -ni whose referential force is futurity. Its temporal function is primary; however, in many contexts i-ni also takes on a number of secondary, atemporal functions which essentially belong to the modal category (imperative, hortative, desiderative, etc.). Since no markers exist to point out present or past time, Hopi, like many other languages, can be said to be endowed with a future-nonfuture tense system.”

In other words, a Universalist sees that the Hopi do have a tense system, albeit different from ours in many ways.  Malotki hints that our perceptions of time might be clouded by our own technology, by the timepiece and the introduction of the Roman calendar.  I can see this as a valid point, because we interpret the perceptions of others through the filter of our own experiences, however, this doesn’t mean that the experiences of others are non-transferable to our own.  Because the Hopi have their own calendaring system and method of time reckoning, doesn’t mean that they do not reckon time in a way that we cannot comprehend, or that we reckon time in a way that they cannot comprehend.  It may be that our methods are so different that the translation and reasons we reckon time in our respective ways is foreign and meaning less, but time is still present, and tense is still a factor in both languages.

As is normal, it seems that there may be some pitfalls within both approaches to language and thought.  It is at this time in the essay when I will draw from what I’ve learned and read and thought about during the discussions and lectures for this class, to attempt to discover what those pitfalls might be.  In Relativism, the advantage is that the great diversity of language, thought, and ideas is brought to the fore.  There are definite ways in which humans think differently, and objectify the world around them in unique ways.  However, it seems to me that were this relativistic approach to be taken to its logical conclusion, then humans shouldn’t be able to share experiences in any meaningful way at all.  Let me explain: In the relativistic view taken to the extreme, my experience is unique to everyone else.  Therefore, the language I use is my own and is tied together with my own thoughts and perceptions.  Nothing I say would have the same meaning to another human being, even if we were using the same system of letters, codes, and words.  The meanings and symbolism would be something completely different for everyone else but me.  This is the biggest pitfall I can see within the relativistic approach.

Within and extreme version of Universalism it seems to me that the biggest pitfall would be that we are all homogenized into one system of thinking and perceiving and all understand each other’s meanings implicitly without problem.  In this hyper-universalist model, all languages would be structured the same, all meanings would line up, and all thoughts and perceptions would line up together across all human species without fail.  Though I do believe there to be many linguistic (among other) universals, I believe this extreme view to be lacking in nuance.

For my own part, I will take what I can from both approaches and apply them to my study of linguistics.  To say one approach is “better” than another, is a value judgment that I’m not willing to make at the moment, but I am very willing to be careful of the pitfalls within both that I’ve mentioned above.  For me, cognition, thought, perception, and language, all seem to dovetail together to form an emergent system of complex communication within our species.  I think it logically follows that the egg had to come first, that the biological components for this system of communication to emerge from had to be present within our species, even if in a rudimentary form.  Along with this, the environment had to present the need for this communication, for as we’ve discussed in class, “evolution doesn’t do any more than it has to do” to continue the species.  Perhaps it’s serendipitous that this survival mechanism we call “language” has provided us with so much more than was initially intended from its simple beginnings.  With language we can conceive the world around us, put words to our experiences and thoughts, and create stories and mythologies, which shape cultures and peoples in colorful ways.