Thursday, September 16, 2010

Edward Sapir was not an "armchair linguist"!

This is a blog response to an article that was posted here last week: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?, published September 8, 2010. The article was published in the New York Times on August 26, 2010 by Guy Deutscher.

A couple of weeks ago, I promised to say something about Guy Deutscher's 8/26/2010 NYT magazine article, "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?". I was reminded of this still-unfulfilled obligation by Ange Mlinko's 9/7/2010 piece in The Nation, "Bluer Rather Than Pinker", which is a review of the new book (Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages) that Deutscher's NYT article was promoting. I'm still putting off Deutscher, but I'm going to take Mlinko to task for two howlers about the history of linguistics, one major and one minor.

Mlinko is a poet who occasionally writes on linguistic topics for The Nation. But poetic license applies at best only to poems, not to book reviews. Even poets should be responsible for basic historical truth.

In the fourth paragraph of her review, Mlinko gives us this extraordinary sentence:

Edward Sapir, Whorf's teacher, was an armchair linguist influenced by Bertrand Russell and Ludvig Wittgenstein's work on the limits of language.

Let's ignore the eccentric spelling of Wittgenstein's first name, and the curious notion that Bertrand Russell was a partner in Wittgenstein's later work, and focus on the description of Edward Sapir as an "armchair linguist".

What does "armchair linguist" mean? The OED tells us that armchair is used attributively to mean "in the home; hence domesticated, comfortable; often applied to persons who confine themselves or are addicted to home-made views or criticism of matters in which they take no active part, or of which they have no first-hand knowledge, as armchair critic, politician, travel(ler)".

In Directions in Corpus Linguistics (Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 82, 1991), Charles Fillmore wrote:

Armchair linguistics does not have a good name in some linguistics circles. A caricature of the armchair linguist is something like this. He sits in a deep soft comfortable armchair, with his eyes closed and his hands clasped behind his head. Once in a while he opens his eyes, sits up abruptly shouting, "Wow, what a neat fact!", grabs his pencil, and writes something down. Then he paces around for a few hours in the excitement of having come still closer to knowing what language is really like. (There isn't anybody exactly like this, but there are some approximations.)

There are thus two relevant aspects of stereotypical armchair-hood in linguistics: armchair linguists sit at home and think rather than going out in the world to learn how things are; and they focus on isolated "neat facts" and related insights to the exclusion of creating new systematic descriptions.

On both counts, Edward Sapir was obviously innocent. Nor is it difficult to discover this truth. You could read the Wikipedia article about him, for example, or Ruth Benedict's obituary "Edward Sapir”, American Anthropologist 41(3): 465-477, 1939.

You'd learn that in 1905, when Sapir was 21 years old and fresh from his B.A. at Columbia, he went to the Pacific Northwest, where he spent a year studying Wishram and then a year studying Takelma. Some of the results were published in 1907 as "Preliminary Report on the Language and Mythology of the Upper Chinook", American Anthropologist 9(3): 533-544, 1907, which began:

In the summer of 1905 I was commissioned by the Bureau of American Ethnology to continue the study of Chinookan linguistics and, incidentally, mythology, which has been begun some ten years ago by Professor Boas, and the result of which, so far as published, have appeared in "Chinook Texts" and "Kathlamet texts", both bulletins of the Bureau, and in Dr Swanton's "Morphology of the Chinook Verb" and Professor Boas' "Notes on the Chinook Vocabulary," both of which articles appear in the American Anthropologist. This published material deals with the dialects of the Chinookan family spoken at or near the mouth of Columbia river. It was therefore desirable, in order to gain a somewhat more comprehensive idea of the peculiarity of Chinookan grammar, to devote study to the extreme eastern dialects.

Other results of this field work included his Wishram texts, published in 1909, and the grammar of Takelma that he submitted as his 1909 PhD dissertation. Meanwhile, in 1907-08, he had a temporary position at Berkeley, during which time worked on Yana — some of the fruits of this work were published as Yana Texts in 1910.

He then moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he spent the years 1909-1910. During this period, according to Benedict's obituary,

His work on the Southern Paiute was done in Philadephia, the first thorough study of a Shoshonean language, and a piece of work he often referred to as his "best." Neither grammar nor texts appeared until 1930, a delay which was grievous to him, but the historical implications of his investigations he discussed carefully in the 1913 and 1915 articles published in Paris. These papers substantiated the existence of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock which had previously been posited.

Nor did Sapir then relax into an armchair. Benedict continues:

After two years in Pennsylvania he was called in 1910 to Ottawa as chief of the newly established Division of Anthropology under the Geological Survey of Canada. […] His first fieldwork under the Canadian auspices was among the Nootka Indians of Vancouver Island […] This was the time also of his work on Sarcee and other Athabascan languages of Canada. His interest had shifted; he was devoting himself to the study of linguistic change and to the study of genetic relationships among languages not hitherto classifed together. His intensive studies of various Athabascan languages, continued in later years with a highly refined study of Navaho, gave him the material with which to explore processes of linguistic change with rigorous methodology and to construct an Ur-Athabascan language in the best philological manner.

I could go on, but really: Edward Sapir an "armchair linguist"? I don't think so. How could Ange Mlinko believe this? I can only imagine that she was unwilling to leave the comfort of her poetical armchair long enough to do a web search on Sapir's name.

I mentioned two history-of-linguistics howlers. What's the other one? It's more subtle:

This complete reversal of cherished assumptions induced a revulsion proportionate to the excitement Sapir-Whorf once generated. For the past several decades we have accepted the Chomskyan version of language—that it is a genetic and therefore universal component of the human brain—and have seen it championed in the pop science press by the untergiversating Steven Pinker.

Chomsky's views on the biological foundations of language are complex and somewhat hard to pin down, but they are clearly not the same as those of Steven Pinker. Thus the abstract of Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, "Natural language and natural selection", Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13(4): 707-784, 1990, begins:

Many people have argued that the evolution of the human language faculty cannot be explained by Darwinian natural selection. Chomsky and Gould have suggested that language may have evolved as the by-product of selection for other abilities or as a consequence of as-yet unknown laws of growth and form. […] We examine these arguments and show that they depend on inaccurate assumptions about biology or language or both.

Various aspects of this debate continued in a series of articles chronicled in my post "JP versus FHC+CHF versus PJ versus HCF", 8/25/2005. And if you'd like some further discussion of what Noam Chomsky apparently thinks about language, evolution, and the genome, check out "Chomsky testifies in Kansas", 5/6/2005.

Visit the site and read the comments.

Liberman, Mark. 2010. "Edward Sapir was not an "armchair linguist"!". Language Log. Posted: September 11, 2010. Available online:

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