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Whorf Essay

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In "An American Indian Model of the Universe," Whorf uses the Hopi culture as an example to demonstrate that perception is determined by language. According to Whorf, speakers of Hopi and non-speakers of Hopi can never perceive the universe the same way.

Whorf believes that the Hopi culture "has no general notion or intuition of time"(370), referring to the absence of the word "time" in the Hopi language as well as the past, present, and future tenses in the Hopi grammar. He describes the Hopi grammar as having only the "manifested" and the "manifesting"(372), which roughly translates to the known and the unknown respectively. Something manifested or objective can include a past event, something that is occurring right now, as well as anything that can be grasped by the physical senses. Conversely, the subjective or the manifesting covers not only the future but also anything that is abstract or inaccessible to the physical senses, such as "mentality, intellection, and emotion"(372). Anything subjective in the Hopi language is associated with the verb "tunÐ"ÐŽtya"(374), or hope. According to Whorf, "the word is really a term which crystallizes the Hopi philosophy of the universe"(374). It contains the combined idea of "Ð''thought,' Ð''desire,' and Ð''cause,'"(374) but is at the same time associated with inanimate objects and involuntary actions; "the Hopi see [hope] in the growing of plants, the forming of clouds and their condensation in rainÐ'... and in all human hoping, wishing, striving, and taking thought: and as most especially concentrated in prayer"(374).

While it is true that "the Hopi language has no word quite equivalent to our Ð''time,'"(375) the essence of time remains despite their not having a word to define it. If told by an elder to keep a fire going, a Hopi fireguard observing a fire pit can mentally grasp the urgency of the fire needing more wood by taking note of the color of the embers. A cowboy with a pocket watch observing from a distant hill may notice the young Hopi getting up to replenish the pit with firewood every forty-five minutes. But the fireguard does not think in terms of seconds, minutes, or hours. He is merely using his observation of the embers to gauge time the same way the cowboy tells time looking at his watch. By reading the color of the sky, or the position of the sun, a Hopi walking in the desert will most likely know how fast he would have to walk in order to get to a certain location before dark. Yet the Hopi has no word for time, let alone been introduced to the time in motion formula d = rt, or distances equals rate times time. The concept of time does not "disappear" in the Hopi universe; it simply presents itself in a form different from ours.

And while it is probably true that a Hopi would have a hard time grasping the concept of three hours, or five minutes, it is reckless and ethnocentric to conclude that the Hopi would have no concept of time without dividing it up into increments of sixty and twenty-four. If the aforementioned cowboy becomes stranded in the desert and is stripped of his watch and any contact with the Western world, he too, will eventually be forced to distinguish the different durations of the day by observing nature. Whorf's theory suggests that if the sun did not rise for a week, a Hopi would never know the difference since he has no concept of when the sun is supposed to rise. But it is evident that the Hopi would eventually catch on if the sun did not rise, despite not having a watch. Units of time and the tense

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