Edward Sapir was not an "armchair linguist"!

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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.


  1. goofy said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 9:34 am


  2. Chris said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    Interestingly, Mlinko's piece is the only hit in Google for "untergiversating" (I assume this post will soon be the second). "Tergiversating" gets about 272,000.

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    Hmm, I always think of Pinker as being übergiversating.

  4. Dw said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    If one defines "the Chomskyan view of language" to be the view that "it is a genetic and therefore universal component of the human brain", then perhaps it is reasonable to regard Pinker as champion in "the pop science press".

  5. Eli said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    @Dw: Yes, but it's probably better to think of it as the "mainstream" or "commonly-accepted" view of language (or at least, commonly accepted in linguistic circles.) I'm pretty sure Chomsky was not the first person, nor was he the main person, to believe language was thus.

    On 'untergiversating': My excitement on finding a word I had never heard before quickly waned on realizing that I never have nor never will need this word, and can't think of a time when I would use it instead of a more common substitute. I don't like judging people who use five-dollar words when a fifty-cent one will do, but in this case, Ange Mlinko has already lost that good faith. It probably didn't help that I had to turn to Google (not even Wordnik helped!) to figure out I needed to analyze "un-" as a prefix instead of part of a morpheme "unter".

  6. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    and the curious notion that Bertrand Russell was a partner in Wittgenstein's later work

    Is it clear that the reference is to Wittgenstein's later work? Given Sapir's dates, it would make more sense if it related to Wittgenstein's earlier work. The Tractatus is certainly about the limits of language in some sense, and it was both influenced by Russell and had an influence on him.

    [(myl) Maybe — but it's not clear that either Russell or (early or late) Wittgenstein had any meaningful influence on Sapir. Neither name occurs in his 1921 book Language. The Tractatus had only been published in 1919, so there wouldn't have been much time for it to have influenced Language, but there were plenty of earlier publications by Russell and his colleagues on semantics and the philosophy of language, and I'm not aware of evidence that this work was much attended to by Sapir or the other students of Boas.

    My copy of Selected Writings of Edward Sapir has no index, but I can now search it via Google Books, and determine that Wittgenstein does not occur in it anywhere, and that Russell occurs only in the bibliography, which registers that fact that Sapir wrote "The Skepticism of Bertrand Russell," a review of Bertrand Russell's Sceptical Essays, published in The New Republic, 57: 196. I looked this review up in the TNR archives, and it doesn't suggest that Russell had any influence on Sapir relative to the S-W hypothesis, or indeed much of any influence at all:

    We lay down the book with wonder that we are not more deeply stirred by its sincerity and by its spirit of fair play. […] On second thoughts we wonder […] whether, after all, Mr. Russell hasn't really been asking us to trek to a nicer world than any we know — a world in which concepts stay put and in which, for our daily bread, we build unassailable propositions out of them. […]
    We begin to resent, in other words, the subtle dissociation which the pure intellectualist is always effecting between life and his dream of life. […] We do not see the eyes of Mr. Russell fixed in loving abstraction on the stars, nor fixed on ourselves with a "savage indignation." We see them fixed, rather, in a not wholly serious bemusement on a static world of mirror images. In his "TIme and Western Man" […] Mr. Wyndham Lewis finds Mr. Russell's mind absorbingly interesting but fundamentally lacking in seriousness. He finds Mr. Russell's philosophy to be essentially a craving for "amusement." It is likely that Mr. Lewis, one of the most deadly and intuitive intelligences of our day, has hit clean to the mark.

    Mlinko might be connecting (forms of) the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" to the famous Wittgenstein quote from the Tractatus "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world"; or she might be referencing Wittgenstein's later (post 1929) idea that word meanings can't be extricated from a matrix of individual and cultural connections. But in fact I don't know of any evidence that either line of thought directly influenced either Sapir or Whorf.]

  7. John Cowan said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    I was immediately able to analyze untergiversating as un+tergivers+ate+ing, as I remembered that tergiversate was a verb, but unfortunately not what it meant. On inquiry, I found it meant the same as equivocate, a much clearer word with a more obvious analysis. Tergiversari is in fact analyzable in Latin as tergum versari 'turn one's back', but the connection with equivocation is rather indirect: originally it meant 'apostasize' and only later 'waffle'.

    However, I am not sure that Mlinko actually associates Russell and Wittgenstein here. I would parse the coordination as "influenced by (Bertrand Russell) and (Ludvig Wittgenstein's work)" rather than "influenced by (Bertrand Russell and Ludvig Wittgenstein)'s work". If I intended the latter meaning, I would write "Russell's", and even then it would be ambiguous whether they worked jointly or severally on the topic.

  8. Ben said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    "Untergiversating" is a corruption of the Yiddish "untergeverset," which in turn is derived from the verbal prefix "unter," which in this case means something like "in the process of," plus "geverset," the past participle of the nonexistent verb "versen," meaning "to think poetically and therefore not accurately." Thus "untergeverset" is a participial adjective meaning "in the process of thinking poetically, and therefore not accurately." What I don't understand is why she applied this adjective to Pinker and not herself.

    This bit of nonsense is not that off topic, since Sapir did important work on Yiddish.

  9. Janice Byer said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    It's so unjust that I wonder if Ms. Mlinko is aware of the common figurative meaning of "armchair". Just grasping at a straw. Clearly, she meant something negative that belies history.

    [(myl) Perhaps she'll tell us. But my null hypothesis would be that she was just confused and careless.]

  10. Mark Eli Kalderon said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    Minor point, but while the association of Russell with the later Wittgenstein may be a stretch as you suggest, Russell was influence by the Tractatus which does concern the limits of language.

  11. Robert Elliott said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    Damn. I called him an amateur linguist myself. I readily concede that I don't even qualify as an amateur in this regard, but in my defence I say stuff like this so that I can be corrected by people who know what they're talking about.


  12. Bill Walderman said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    Mlinko pulled the armchair out from under Whorf and forced Sapir down into it. Whorf was the armchair linguist.

    [(myl) Not really. For example, Whorf did field work in Mexico in 1930, with results that were published e.g. as "The origin of Aztec TL" American Anthropologist 39(2) 1967, and posthumously as "The Milpa Alta dialect of Aztec (with notes on the Classical and the Tepoztlan dialects)", Linguistic Structures of Native America pp. 367-97, 1946, and "Pitch Tone and the 'Saltillo' in Modern and Ancient Nahuatl", IJAL 59(2): 165-223 1993.]

  13. Don Sample said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    To say that Sapir was influenced by the work of Russell and Wittgenstein does not imply that Russell and Wittgenstein worked together, any more than saying that a writer was influenced by the work of Dickens and Hemingway implies that Dickens and Hemingway worked together.

    [(myl) True. But if you interpret "Bertrand Russell and Ludvig Wittgenstein's work on the limits of language" to mean their joint work, then it does. And in any case, Wittgenstein was Russell's student, so that his early work definitely was in a significant sense "together" with Russell.

    But all of this is quibbling, because neither their work together nor their work apart had any influence on Edward Sapir's development, either in general or in the specific area of "the limits of language". To start with, Sapir began publishing in 1907, four years before Wittgenstein gave up aeronautical engineering and went to Cambridge to study with Bertrand Russell. Sapir's major book Language was published in 1921, less than two years after Wittgenstein's Tractatus (which there is no evidence Sapir ever read) came out; and Language contains no mention of either Russell or Wittgenstein. It appears that the only mention Sapir ever made of either man in print was a rather negative review of one of Russell's books (discussed above).]

  14. John O'Toole said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    Along the lines of Mr. Elliott's reaction above, Mlinko may have indeed been confusing Sapir and Whorf and drawing on half-remembered "general," unconfirmed knowledge about the latter. When I first read about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it was in college in the late-seventies, early eighties in a physics class for humanities students; as I recall, it was a photocopied article from Scientific American on the parallels between the quantum physics world and the world view of the Hopi. The (incorrect) info I "picked up" here and there indeed made linguistics out to be something of a fun parergon for Whorf, i.e., that he was employed in one field (fire inspector/insurance) while his heart, at least in his spare time, belonged to de Saussure et al. By the same token, Ms. Mlinko would have to call the insurance lawyer Wallace Stevens an armchair or amateur poet along with the GP and pediatrician WC Williams, to name two professionals from her chosen field. Ms. Mlinko indeed should have done the intellectual due diligence before putting her thoughts out there in the ether. Open poetic mouth and insert iamb. Or spondee.

    Here's an excerpt from the Wiki page devoted to Whorf:

    "Originally educated as a chemical engineer, he took up an interest in linguistics late in his life, studying with Sapir at Yale University. In the last ten years of his life he dedicated his spare time to linguistic studies, doing field work on Native American languages in the US and Mexico. He managed to become one of the most influential linguists of his time, even while still working as a fire inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company."

  15. fog said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    I think Bill two comments up is right. I agree that it's not accurate to call Whorf an armchair linguist, but on his Wikipedia page it says "he dedicated his spare time to linguistic studies," and Google shows there's many pages where Whorf is called an "amateur linguist." An amateur scientist doesn't have much credibility, even though that's not always justified. If you're talking about an amateur whose ideas are discredited, it's not too difficult to make the leap from amateur to armchair, especially when you use the OED definition of armchair.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

    The Wiki paragraph makes it sound like Whorf was an old man when he took up linguistics. But his life was short (he died at 44), and his interest in languages, and later linguistics, had started when he was quite young. He did not just work on languages "in his spare time", such as evenings and weekends: he also arranged to get time off from his work to go off for several weeks at a time to do fieldwork. (How many companies would be willing to allow the same flexibility to one of their top employees nowadays?)

  17. marie-lucie said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 7:56 pm


    I don't remember seeing any form (negative or positive) of this "verb" in English, but tergiverser is quite common in written French. I don't think there is an adjective based on it though. It means more or less "to play for time by hesitating between two possible decisions".

    "armchair linguist": it is laughable that the author calls Sapir an "armchair linguist" in order to denigrate his work in favour of Chomsky's.

  18. dirk alan said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    my understanding of tergiversater ( spell ? ) is indian giver. apology to native americans. so the un version means you cant take it back once given.

  19. groki said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:28 am

    it wouldn't explain all Mlinko's errors, but maybe "armchair" is an eggcorn of "amateur" in her idiolect.

  20. maidhc said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:38 am

    My understanding of the meaning of "untergiversating" is "I sit up nights reading the thesaurus which is why I am your intellectual superior".

    If an author is unable to express herself without the use of outlandish words (was it in the Moomin books that there was a Dictionary of Outlandish Words?), it raises doubts in my mind about her ability to analyze any complex topic. If I encountered a sentence like the one given above, I would conclude that the article is unlikely to contain anything worth reading,and turn to some other activity.

    It also reminds me why I let my subscription to The Nation lapse many years ago.

  21. Peter C. Rollins said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    It is delightful to see a revival of interest in Sapir, Whorf and the influence of Sapir on Whorf. Both were brilliant although each had a different sensibility and approach to language that is often missed because the two are yoked together in the literature.

    My BENJAMIN LEE WHORF LEGACY CD-ROM has a number of discussions of the two linguists plus numerous hitherto unpublished essays and fictions by Whorf. It should prove to be a treasure trove for those who seek new perspectives. See details at http://www.petercrollins.com

    My book on Whorf is also on the CD. One chapter tries to spell out the specific differences between the goals and methods of the two icons of "linguistic relativity."

    Peter C. Rollins

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    Re groki's point, I had half-jokingly thought last night based on some earlier comments that for a sufficiently intoxicated speaker of a non-rhotic dialect, amateur and armchair might be homophones. But the bare outline of Mlinko's life in her wiki bio (born Philadelphia, now lives somewhere in the Hudson Valley, went to college/grad school at places where the student body is not dominated by the non-rhotic) would not lead me to presume that she is non-rhotic.

    Re "untergiversating," as with Ben my eye also wants to misparse it as a Germanism/Yiddishism with "unter-" as the first morpheme.

  23. chris said,

    September 14, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

    If an author is unable to express herself without the use of outlandish words

    …then he or she is not as creative as Poul Anderson, who invented new words to replace the (literally) outlandish ones in order to write _Uncleftish Beholding_.

    Seriously, though, what if someone just thinks outlandish words are fun? It doesn't imply that they couldn't have avoided them, only that they didn't choose to avoid them.

  24. Stephen Jones said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    Somebody has just pointed me to Deutscher's NYT article. I must admit, it seemed eminently sensible.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

    I think Von Humboldt, via Boas, is probably a better place to look for the sources of Sapir's relativism than Russell and Wittgenstein. At any rate, as George Steiner discussed at length in "After Babel," it's not as if the idea was newly arrived at in the twentieth century.

  26. Alon Lischinsky said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:51 am

    Chiming in with marie-lucie, "tergiversar" is formal but common in Spanish. However, it isn't semantically equivalent to either the English ("waffle") or French ("prevaricate") cognates, but rather means "deliberately misrepresent someone's words; twist, distort".

  27. Taylor B said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    I totally consider myself an armchair linguist :)
    However, the first book I read in ling was "Mathematical Methods in Linguistcs" (Partee, Meulen, Wall) and, for example, when I occasionally answer questions on Japanese Stack Exchange (Q&A website for Japanese language) I consult books like "The Phonology of Japanese" by Oxford Linguistics. I take my armchair very seriously, thank you very much.

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