Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
As Timeless as Hopi?
June 10, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 10 comments

Card-holding Commentariat Member Scott Vaughan was sceptical about the timelessness of Amondawa in a recent post. He compared it to the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf (no relation to the Worf on Star Trek) on the Hopi notion of time, or lack thereof.

No surprise that Whorf couldn’t find what he wasn’t looking for. “After long and careful study and analysis, the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, constructions, or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time,'” wrote the non-Klingon-speaking Whorf in 1956. “Thus a Hopi has no general notion or intuition of Time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universes proceeds at an equal rate.”

Problem is, Whorf didn’t speak Hopi either, which means he was also unfamiliar with the Hopi expression that translates into something like, “He’s a clueless jack-ass.” Whorf was making this stuff up. He knew one Hopi guy in Manhattan, his one and only informant. Never made it out to Arizona.

I’ve been out there many times, standing on the edge of infinity on a finger in the sky, at the ancient Hopi stronghold of Old Oraibi, passing the time with Hopi wearing wrist watches. Visit if you can. Timeless? Well, sort of. But then I don’t speak the language.  But in 1983, ethnolinguist Ekkehart Malotki learned that the Hopi actually can tell time and have plenty of words about it, too. Whorf (not to be confused with Worf from Star Trek) was wrong. But wrong doesn’t mean unpopular. Whorf’s fame took off on this flawed study.

Maybe the reason why Whorf’s idea took off is ‘cause it was such a good story, woven out of whole cloth for the fashions of the intended audience. Art-Deco Rousseau, a vogue for all-natural timelessness just as the cultural clock of a radio civilization was syncing time to the second over the airways.

His thinking spread as fast as the post office could stuff magazines in mailboxes, and despite scientific scepticism, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the theory that structure of language affects the way speakers conceptualize the world, is rooted hard and fast in our imaginations.

The stickiness of belief in long-disproved “scientific” theories, like those of Marx, Freud and Whorf, is testimony to our convictions and the way these old ideas address the world in ways we can understand, regardless of empirical study. Even if Whorf was all wrong about Hopi, his hypothesis has fueled decades of debate and research right up to the present, as we’ve seen in both the NYT and the WSJ in recent months. I’ve been reading Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass, to get a handle on this, and will be returning to Whorf’s work, but for now as a final note, I would ask readers to keep in mind that even though B. L. Whorf did not speak Hopi, and Worf from Star Trek is able to speak Hopi quite fluently using a universal translator, the two should not be confused.