How does our language shape the way we think?

Discuss various aspects of natural language.

Moderators: Calilasseia, ADParker

How does our language shape the way we think?

#1  Postby tuco » Nov 24, 2010 6:48 pm

Perhaps a bit off topic, hopefully not too much.

HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK?
By Lera Boroditsky

For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.

[snip]

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/borodit ... index.html

---

edit: Sure katja z. If you or anyone else feels it deserves its own topic, and I do realize it is off topic, feel free. My compass for such things fails.
Last edited by tuco on Nov 24, 2010 7:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
tuco
THREAD STARTER
 
Posts: 15552

Print view this post

Ads by Google


Re: the "language instinct"

#2  Postby katja z » Nov 24, 2010 7:07 pm

^^ In fact it is quite a distinct topic, I've requested it be given a thread of its own. I've scanned the beginning of the article, and I'm glad to see it's not another "the limits of your language are the limits of your world" one. This should be interesting. :cheers:
User avatar
katja z
RS Donator
 
Posts: 5353
Age: 40

European Union (eur)
Print view this post

Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#3  Postby katja z » Nov 27, 2010 10:14 pm

I'd already read about much of the research referenced in the article - the bits about grammatical gender, absolute vs. relative spatial orientation, and some of the stuff on colour and temporal axes, but this bit was new and very interesting:

So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.

To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they'll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role.3 So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don't use words like "left" and "right"? What will they do?

The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west.

This neatly confirms that temporal and spatial representation are very tightly linked. The Kuuk Thaayorre use an absolute frame for spatial orientation (cardinal points) and accordingly represent time as running in the direction the Sun takes across the sky.

An important question at this point is: Are these differences caused by language per se or by some other aspect of culture? Of course, the lives of English, Mandarin, Greek, Spanish, and Kuuk Thaayorre speakers differ in a myriad of ways. How do we know that it is language itself that creates these differences in thought and not some other aspect of their respective cultures?

The author cites research that confirms that language itself causes these differences in speakers' perception. While true in a synchronic perspective, I think this misses half of the question - how did these differences get there in the first place? Some of them do, indeed, boil down to historical accident - as can be seen in the way related languages will assign different genders to the same word - but not all of them (absolute vs. relative spatial frames, expression of causality). I think any answer that goes just from language to cultural perception or from cultural perception to language misses the point - there's a recursive loop between the two. Speakers receive language "from the outside", as it were, as children, and are influenced by it - then they influence it in their turn as active users.

While languages do provide different ways of conceptualising the world, the mother tongue doesn't represent an inescapable mental fate (as some people interpret this kind of findings); we can readily learn new distinctions and relations as encoded in a language different from our own, and these aren't just switched on when we speak that other language either (I regularly find myself wishing I could make a distinction or generalisation in Slovenian I can make in, say, French, or vice versa). I'd love to see more research on this done with multilingual and diglossic speakers.
User avatar
katja z
RS Donator
 
Posts: 5353
Age: 40

European Union (eur)
Print view this post

Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#4  Postby martti_s » May 17, 2011 12:48 pm

bah I had read it already
martti_s
 
Name: Martti Suomivuori
Posts: 7

Country: Reunion
Reunion (re)
Print view this post

Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#5  Postby don't get me started » May 18, 2011 4:20 am

I too think this a fascinating question.

I agree that when learning a new language, although some of the concepts may be at variance with the concepts in one's native language, they are always 'learn-able'. The problems that usually arise are more to do, in my opinion and experience, with questions of memory and L1 interference rather than some essential 'unknowability' of the L2's concepts.
Basically, it is entirely possible to break out of the word view of one's native language and adopt a way of thinking that is encoded in another language.

But here is the caveat: The L2 way of thinking is, I would suggest, never that different from the L1.

I'll explain what I mean.

Typically, time seems to be metaphorised as a concept by reference to space. In English we refer conceptually to the future as being in some sense, 'ahead' of us, whilst the past is in some sense 'behind' us.

I went to a conference last year where the presenter showed video clips of her Chinese ESL students making up/down hand gestures, when referring to past and future, the past being 'up' and the future being 'down'. It was suggested that this stems form the Chinese vertical writing system.
No matter, the basic point was that although the concept varied in orientation from English, the basic 'time is expressed by reference to space' concept was the same.
I remember in one of Steven Pinker's books he mentioned a language which encode the future as 'behind' and the past as 'in front', which makes sense as we cannot yet see the future but we can see the past. (Basically, as English speakers conceptualise themselves as walking 'forward' down the road into the future, these language speakers were conceptualising themselves as walking down the road 'backward' into the future.
Again, the concept of time is basically metaphorised in spatial terms.

In light of this, I would be very surprised to hear of a language which conceptualised time in another way, for example, the past as 'sweet' and the future as 'sour' or the past as 'odd numbers' and the future as 'even numbers'

To take another example, the vocabulary of body parts varies from language to language.
In English there is a differentiation made between 'leg' and 'foot'. That is, the limb above the ankle is the leg and below the ankle is 'foot'.
This distinction is absent in Japanese. From the hip joint to the tip of the toe is all 'ASHI', which leads to some interesting L1 interference expressions. "A man stood on my leg on the train this morning.'
( I once read that Greek differentiates at the knee)

But still, the divider is conceptually simple.

I would be very surprised to hear of a language that drew an imaginary curved line from the right collar bone to the left hip and conceptualised what is above this line as one body part, and everything below as another body part.
It seems that body part distinctions are based on more or less straight, horizontal or vertical lines.

So, although it is possible to escape from the 'room' containing the world view of one language, it seems that you can only escape into another 'room', looking much the same, perhaps with the furniture arranged differently.

It seems to me that human cognition and language is vastly variable, but with certain innate limits.

I'd be interested to hear of any insights/opinions that others might have on this.
don't get me started
 
Posts: 1143

Country: Japan
Japan (jp)
Print view this post

Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#6  Postby Bribase » May 18, 2011 4:31 am

:popcorn:
User avatar
Bribase
 
Posts: 2671
Age: 39
Male

Print view this post

Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#7  Postby epepke » May 18, 2011 4:42 am

don't get me started wrote:I would be very surprised to hear of a language that drew an imaginary curved line from the right collar bone to the left hip and conceptualised what is above this line as one body part, and everything below as another body part.
It seems that body part distinctions are based on more or less straight, horizontal or vertical lines.


Maybe, but there is some evidence of weirdness in counting systems. From one of Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games columns:

Martin Gardner wrote:On an island in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea people would count to five by tapping the fingers of their left hand, but instead of going on to the right hand they tapped their left wrist, left elbow, left shoulder, left nipple, and sternum, then continued the count by reversing on the right side of their body.
User avatar
epepke
 
Posts: 4080

Country: US
United States (us)
Print view this post

Ads by Google


Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#8  Postby don't get me started » May 18, 2011 5:14 am

Hmm...interesting.
Although the the counting system is weird from our perspective, I note that the points mentioned are pretty logically arranged, that is, mono-directional (periphery to centre) and stopping at all of the joints on the way to the centre then, when there are no more joints, stopping at the most salient 'point' between shoulder and sternum, the nipple.

The notion of 'centre' seems pretty, well, central to our concept of having a body. This is why we talk of 'fingertips' not 'arm tips' or 'ear lobes' not 'head lobes'. Our perception of ourself seems to have this orientation, a centre (located somewhere in the chest)with gradually more distant parts.

I'd be truly surprised if there was a system that went finger, knee, nose, left ear, right ankle, left bicep....

But, anyway very interesting epekpe.

I guess that there are two ways to look at this kind of of phenomenon. How it is different or how it can be systematised to highlight the similarities that it may have with other cognitive systems.
don't get me started
 
Posts: 1143

Country: Japan
Japan (jp)
Print view this post

Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#9  Postby epepke » May 18, 2011 5:34 am

don't get me started wrote:Hmm...interesting.
Although the the counting system is weird from our perspective, I note that the points mentioned are pretty logically arranged, that is, mono-directional (periphery to centre) and stopping at all of the joints on the way to the centre then, when there are no more joints, stopping at the most salient 'point' between shoulder and sternum, the nipple.


After 10, it's center to periphery, and 20 would make an upside-down U, and the counting would ultimately go in a physical circle. I wonder if such people would arrange things in time in a circular fashion. A fairly obvious mainstream circular representation of time would be the analog clock.

I find that I have some weird ideas about spacial orientation in time. My spacial perception of the years since 1900 resembles a crankshaft in some respects.

As to your statement that, while thought patterns in language may be different, they aren't very different, it's a truism of anthropological linguistics that anything possible to express in one language is possible to express in all languages. Though a truism, it might or might not be true. Certainly there has been some unpleasantness on both sides. I'm sure that you're familiar with the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax http://users.utu.fi/freder/Pullum-Eskimo-VocabHoax.pdf On the other hand, there are the Pirahã, who have an unusual language and culture that seem to fit together. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirahã_people
User avatar
epepke
 
Posts: 4080

Country: US
United States (us)
Print view this post

Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#10  Postby don't get me started » May 18, 2011 5:50 am

Yeah, I have some pretty weird cognitive models.
In terms of mental representations of numbers I view then as the dots arranged on a die or a domino tile.
(Sorry, I haven't figured out the quote function yet: this is in reference to your crankshaft model of time.)

I have followed some of the debates centring around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and related concepts. What particularly interests me is the imagining of ways of thinking and language that seem so unlikely (Sweet past, sour future) that they provide some kind of mental boundary to the possible ways in which humans can think.
don't get me started
 
Posts: 1143

Country: Japan
Japan (jp)
Print view this post

Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#11  Postby epepke » May 18, 2011 6:13 am

don't get me started wrote:Yeah, I have some pretty weird cognitive models.
In terms of mental representations of numbers I view then as the dots arranged on a die or a domino tile.
(Sorry, I haven't figured out the quote function yet: this is in reference to your crankshaft model of time.)


I seem to have a bit of grapheme synesthesia myself. I represent numbers as colors (or at least small numbers). Unfortunately, it isn't the same as the resistor color code, which has caused me some distress.

I have followed some of the debates centring around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and related concepts. What particularly interests me is the imagining of ways of thinking and language that seem so unlikely (Sweet past, sour future) that they provide some kind of mental boundary to the possible ways in which humans can think.


Or possibly dark past, bright future, or clear past, fuzzy future, or something like that. Perhaps it has to do something with the distinction between a degree of variation (if that's the term I want) and a dimension.
User avatar
epepke
 
Posts: 4080

Country: US
United States (us)
Print view this post

Re: How does our language shape the way we think?

#12  Postby epepke » May 18, 2011 6:15 am

don't get me started wrote:Yeah, I have some pretty weird cognitive models.
In terms of mental representations of numbers I view then as the dots arranged on a die or a domino tile.
(Sorry, I haven't figured out the quote function yet: this is in reference to your crankshaft model of time.)


I seem to have a bit of grapheme synesthesia myself. I represent numbers as colors (or at least small numbers). Unfortunately, it isn't the same as the resistor color code, which has caused me some distress.

I have followed some of the debates centring around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and related concepts. What particularly interests me is the imagining of ways of thinking and language that seem so unlikely (Sweet past, sour future) that they provide some kind of mental boundary to the possible ways in which humans can think.


Or possibly dark past, bright future, or clear past, fuzzy future, or cold past and hot future, or something like that. Perhaps it has to do something with the distinction between a degree of variation (if that's the term I want) and a dimension.
User avatar
epepke
 
Posts: 4080

Country: US
United States (us)
Print view this post


Return to Linguistics

Who is online

Users viewing this topic: No registered users and 1 guest