January 18, 2014

Linguistic relativism, Whorf, and fire safety

From the Wikipedia bio of a short-lived contributor to a long-running debate over whether a particular glass is part full or part empty:
Benjamin Lee Whorf

Born April 24, 1897
Winthrop, Massachusetts
Died July 26, 1941 (aged 44)    Hartford, Connecticut 
Nationality American 
Fields linguistics, anthropology, fire prevention 
Institutions Hartford Fire Insurance Company, Yale University 
Benjamin Lee Whorf (April 24, 1897 – July 26, 1941) was an American linguist and fire prevention engineer. Whorf is widely known as an advocate for the idea that because of linguistic differences in grammar and usage, speakers of different languages conceptualize and experience the world differently. This principle has frequently been called the "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", after him and his mentor Edward Sapir, but Whorf called it the principle of linguistic relativity, because he saw the idea as having implications similar to Einstein's principle of physical relativity.[2] 
Throughout his life Whorf was a chemical engineer by profession, but as a young man he took up an interest in linguistics. At first this interest drew him to the study of Biblical Hebrew, but he quickly went on to study the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica on his own. Professional scholars were impressed by his work and in 1930 he received a grant to study the Nahuatl language in Mexico; on his return home he presented several influential papers on the language at linguistic conferences. This led him to begin studying linguistics with Edward Sapir at Yale University while still maintaining his day job at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. ...
After his death from cancer in 1941 his manuscripts were curated by his linguist friends who also worked to spread the influence of Whorf's ideas on the relation between language, culture and cognition. Many of his works were published posthumously in the first decades after his death. In the 1960s Whorf's views fell out of favor and he became the subject of harsh criticisms by scholars who considered language structure to primarily reflect cognitive universals rather than cultural differences. Critics argued that Whorf's ideas were untestable and poorly formulated and that they were based on badly analyzed or misunderstood data. In the late 20th century, interest in Whorf's ideas experienced a resurgence, and a new generation of scholars began reading Whorf's works, arguing that previous critiques had only engaged superficially with Whorf's actual ideas, or had attributed him ideas he had never expressed. 
The field of linguistic relativity studies remains an active focus of research in psycholinguistics and linguistic anthropology, and continues to generate debate and controversy between proponents of relativism and proponents of universalism. By comparison Whorf's other work in linguistics, the development of such concepts as the allophone and the cryptotype, and the formulation of "Whorf's law" in Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics, have met with broad acceptance....

Whorf graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering where his academic performance was of average quality. In 1920 he married Celia Inez Peckham, who became the mother of his three children, Raymond Ben, Robert Peckham and Celia Lee.[4] Around the same time he began work as a fire prevention engineer (an inspector) for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. He was particularly good at the job and was highly commended by his employers. His job required him to travel to production facilities throughout New England to be inspected. In one anecdote his arrival at a chemical plant is described in which he was denied access by the director because he would not allow anyone to see the production procedure which was a trade secret. Having been told what the plant produced, Whorf wrote a chemical formula on a piece of paper, saying to the director: "I think this is what you're doing". The surprised director asked Whorf how he knew about the secret procedure, and he simply answered: "You couldn't do it in any other way."[5] Whorf helped to attract new customers to the Fire Insurance Company; they favored his thorough inspections and recommendations. 
Another famous anecdote from his job was used by Whorf to argue that language use affects habitual behavior.[6] Whorf described a workplace in which full gasoline drums were stored in one room and empty ones in another; he said that because of flammable vapor the "empty" drums were more dangerous than those that were full, although workers handled them less carefully to the point that they smoked in the room with "empty" drums, but not in the room with full ones. Whorf explained that by habitually speaking of the vapor-filled drums as empty and by extension as inert, the workers were oblivious to the risk posed by smoking near the "empty drums".

Did Whorf ever solve the "empty drums" problem?

There was an even worse fire safety problem with the English-language word "inflammable," which means "easily set on fire," but seems like it might well mean "incapable of being set on fire." You really don't want confusion over that when dealing with overturned tanker-trailers, so the word "inflammable" has largely been abandoned in America in favor of the more easily grasped neologism "flammable," as we see here:
 

25 comments:

Dave Pinsen said...

Interesting that Whorf and the poet Wallace Stevens had day jobs in insurance. Seems the industry used to attract some bright lights.

Anonymous said...

The "flammable" neologism is pretty recent. I remember in the 90s seeing "inflammable" everywhere. Then in the 2000s I started seeing "flammable" everywhere.

ironrailsironweights said...

There was an even worse fire safety problem with the English-language word "inflammable," which means "easily set on fire," but seems like it might well mean "incapable of being set on fire." You really don't want confusion over that when dealing with overturned tanker-trailers, so the word "inflammable" has largely been abandoned in America in favor of the more easily grasped neologism "flammable"

The safety switches in the cockpits of Air Force bombers carrying atomic bombs used to read "Off" and "On," until someone realized that the labeling could result in a potentially disastrous misunderstanding. Would "Off" mean that the safety switch was off and the bomb could detonate or did it mean that the safety switch was on and the bomb was disarmed? "On" created analogous confusion. Eventually the switches were changed to read "War" and "Peace."

Peter

Glossy said...

Franz Kafka had a day job in insurance.

Anonymous said...

Re: on/off, war/peace.

I've noticed a similar issue on Youtube. Someone posts a video, the content of which they disapprove and invites viewers to share their disgust.

The video then gets assorted up and downvotes.

But it's never clear if the upvoters are agreeing with the criticism or actually approving the video itself. Downvotes - same problem in reverse.

ziel said...

From Strunk and White: "Unless one is concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable" - from memory - don't flame me if I didn't get it exact.

ziel said...

From Strunk and White: "Unless one is concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable" - from memory - don't flame me if I didn't get it exact.

Anonymous said...

"don't flame me..."

Does that make this post flammable or inflammable? I'm so confused...

Dr. Nick said...

Yup, it's definitely mentioned in "Elements of Style" so for a neologism this one's quite long in the tooth now.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Whorf and the poet Wallace Stevens had day jobs in insurance. Seems the industry used to attract some bright lights.

Peter of ironrailsironweights is in insurance. Like Whorf and Stevens, he has in interest in a fluffy subject.

Foreign Expert said...

I read somewhere that Whorf's linguistics relativism arose from his concern that science undermined christianity. If science and christianity are just different expressions of the same underlying reality, then christianity is saved.

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia desperately needs copy editors with some minimal grasp of written English stylistics.

Anonymous said...

Originally read the headline as "Worf" and thought this would include something about the study of Klingon linguistics.

The flammable/inflammable debate reminds me of (what else) a classic Simpsons episode where Dr. Nick (after blowing up a bunch of oxygen tanks) exclaims, "inflammable means flammable? What a country!"

-SonOfStrom

Anonymous said...

http://sultanknish.blogspot.com/2014/01/academics-in-wonderland.html?utm

Anonymous said...

So much depends on a red fire truck.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the reverse of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is true, i.e. the way the brains of a human population are wired influence the kind of language they will have.

Anonymous said...

General MacArthur is reputed to have told his officers:

Never give an order than can be understood. Only give orders that cannot be misunderstood.

After first reading the first sentence, I thought to myself, old Doug was just another bureaucrat concerned with CYA. But the second sentence changed my mind.

An interesting study might be made of, in which languages it is easiest to the do the first, and in which it is easiest to do the second.

Svigor said...

Did Whorf ever solve the "empty drums" problem?

Yup. He told the SOB responsible to "fix it or I will kill you where you stand!" and that was that.

Anonymous said...

"I wonder if the reverse of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is true, i.e. the way the brains of a human population are wired influence the kind of language they will have."

I have wondered this myself. In theory, it is possible that if evolutionary fitness historically was at least somewhat dependent on linguistic facility, that certain brain configurations would be more adept at certain languages and would therefore proliferate over time.

annk said...

There is also an interesting paper about how the way that numerals are named makes the learning of basic math easier/more logical in Asian language cultures. Makes sense to me, as someone who is highly educated but struggles with math.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that Whorf's linguistics relativism arose from his concern that science undermined christianity. If science and christianity are just different expressions of the same underlying reality, then christianity is saved.

He seems to have come from a conventional religious background and was quite devout as a young adult. Later, I think he would be better classed as a religious "seeker", being interested in Mme Blavatsky's Theosophy for example.

"Science and Christianity express the same underlying reality" is the tradition Christian position, and for most Christians a pretty obvious conclusion.

Richard Sharpe said...

There is also an interesting paper about how the way that numerals are named makes the learning of basic math easier/more logical in Asian language cultures.

Could you point out that paper?

They seem just as arbitrarily named as numerals in English, and once you get past nineteen and one hundred, numbers become more regular in English.

Steve Sailer said...

"Although "flammable" is first documented in an 1813 translation from Latin, its use was rare until the 1920s, when the U.S. National Fire Protection Association adopted "flammable" because of concern that the in- in "inflammable" might be misconstrued as a negative prefix. Underwriters and others interested in fire safety followed suit. Linguist Benjamin Whorf, who shares credit for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language shapes thought, might have been influential in promoting this change. The Merriam-Webster Editorial Dept. writes: "Though we have been unable to confirm that Benjamin Whorf was responsible for the word's adoption, the theory seems plausible enough: he was, in fact, employed by the Hartford Fire Insurance Company from 1918 to 1940.""

So, Whorf might have influenced the change that began in the 1920s, or the change that began in the 1920s might have influenced Whorf, or neither.

Anyway, the point is that this is an example of where the content of a language -- the word "inflammable" -- caused problems, so a lot of effort was put into changing.

But changing the word caused problems during the transition period when some trucks said "flammable" and others said "inflammable," implying that the latter couldn't be set on fire.

So, this one example suggests a general pattern that problems in a language can eventually be worked around, but the work-arounds aren't cost-free.

Reg C├Žsar said...

[Asian numerals] seem just as arbitrarily named as numerals in English, and once you get past nineteen and one hundred, numbers become more regular in English. --R Sharpe

In comparison, Western Europe is downright hobbled. "92" is a blackbirdy "two-and-ninety" in Germany and the Low Countries, and the Lincolnic "fourscore-twelve" in France. It hasn't sandbagged the math genius of these realms.

By combining these quirks, the Danes boast Europe's, perhaps the world's, worst counting system: "92" is "two-and-half-the-fifth-score". Somehow Tycho Brahe and Niels Bohr got past this.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
So much depends on a red fire truck.

1/18/14, 11:40 PM


Williams didn't work in insurance but was a family doctor (a profession sometimes also associated with autistic introspection or perhaps just downer abuse). Other than Sherwood Anderson I can't think of many career frilly-literary types to come out of ad copywriting, which seems like the natural AAA team.