The Hidden Dimension
The Silent Language
Dr. Hall’s recent book is an expansion of Chapter 10 of The Silent Language, and those familiar with the earlier work, now in its tenth printing, may need to know no more than that. Dr. Hall is a homegrown, very old-fashioned, practical-problem kind of American anthropologist who has been quite unaffected by the developments which have taken place either in his own subject or in linguistics during the past twenty-five years. As he himself sees it, his basic thesis is “that the principles laid down by Whorf in relation to language apply to the rest of human behavior as well, in fact, to all Culture.”
The American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf died in 1941. His academic celebrity rests on his contention that an ordinary Hopi Indian has a different perception of time and space from that of an ordinary white American because the categories and syntax of the Hopi language are different from those of English. Dr. Hall makes the astonishing claim that “only in recent years, and to just a handful of people, have the implications of Whorf’s thinking become apparent.” In fact, Whorf’s thinking has now been rehashed in so many different forms that it is positively threadbare, and anyway the underlying hypothesis was far from original. In European philosophy a concern with translation problems goes back at least as far as Kant, and the baffling interconnections between apperception and modes of linguistic expression have provided a favorite stamping ground for the British followers of Wittgenstein ever since the early 1930s.
Wittgenstein’s own version of the Whorfian hypothesis runs: “When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is the vehicle of thought.” This implies that I can only think the kind of thoughts that my language allows me to think. So also Dr. Hall, using a crude version of the now hackneyed analogy that “culture is like a language,” wants to tell us that our modes of thinking are delimited by our general cultural experience and that this inhibits us from understanding members of other cultures. Which is no doubt true, but surely rather obvious. Every fieldworking anthropologist is faced with the kind of problem that evidently troubled Malinowski even in 1915: “How can, I explain to a reader of English, whose past experiences all come from a European context, just what a Trobriand magician is really up to?” Much space in both of Dr. Hall’s books is taken up with clumsy ethnographic illustrations of questions of this sort, but he offers few suggestions as to how they might be resolved.
IN The Silent Language, jargon and private boasting apart, the argument boils down to the banality that, since customary behavior presupposes an audience which is familiar with the custom, honest Americans who are unlucky enough to meet foreigners who speak English should not imagine that they can understand what is going on. The Hidden Dimension presents the same thesis on a narrower front. One…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.