The Whorf Hypothesis

Lieutenant Worf

Lieutenant Worf in 2366

No, no, we’re not talking about the big tough guy from Star Trek. Instead, we’re taking a little detour from what we usually talk about to consider the applicability of linguistic relativity, also referred to as the (Sapir) Whorf Hypothesis. (I put Sapir’s name in parentheses because he was an influential teacher and mentor of Whorf but they never collaborated on the hypothesis).

Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Hypothesis “is the idea that differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages will tend to think and behave differently depending on the language they use.”

Benjamin Whorf

Benjamin Whorf

A minor example of this might be the English word “parent” in Spanish is “padre” which is the same word that is used for “father.” How could a teacher send home a non-gender specific letter to the parent(s) of one of her students if the Spanish word for parent is father? Another example would be trying to describe or explain snow in the native language of someone from New Guinea or Vanuatu or other equatorial countries where the temperature never drops below 75 degrees.

Benjamin Whorf graduated from MIT in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering and had a long successful career in fire prevention. In addition to his work preventing fires, in 1925 he began studying the Nahuatl language (Aztec) and Mayan hieroglyphics. By 1930 he was considered a leading name in Middle American linguistics, prompting him to travel to Mexico and to publish more papers about Nahuatl and Mayan. After 1931, Whorf started taking classes from Sapir, who had a significant influence on Whorf’s thinking about language. In 1938, Whorf’s health began to decline because of cancer and he passed away in 1941.

The Wikipedia biography of Whorf includes this anecdote:

“Another famous anecdote from his job was used by Whorf to argue that language use affects habitual behavior. 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”.”

So what does this have to do with parallel programming? The point here is that when we talk about parallel programs and what is going on under the hood, we have to use programming words (fork, join, lock, synchronize, etc) to describe parallel activities which constrains or limits how we think about the actual parallel activities that we want to happen. Our thinking is limited to the just artificial constructs provided in the programming languages.

Much like Whorf’s Hypothesis, the Avian Hypothesis is that programming language determines the actual program behavior, what can be done, and even how one can think about its actions. By changing our thinking about the parallel activities to more natural scenarios, such as flocks of birds, it becomes easier to think about what we want done without the constraints of what the programming language allows us to think about.

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