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The Greeks have no word for "Sovereign Default" OR timeo danaos et linguas quae futurum tempus habent dicentem.
February 11, 2012 1:44 PM   Subscribe

I find that speakers of languages with little to no grammatical distinction between the present and future (weak-FTR ["Future Time Reference"] language speakers) engage in much more future-oriented behavior. Weak-FTR speakers are 30% more likely to have saved in any given year, and have accumulated an additional 170 thousand Euros by retirement. I also examine non-monetary measures such as health behaviors and long-run health. I find that by retirement, weak-FTR speakers are in better health by numerous measures: they are 24% less likely to have smoked heavily, are 29% more likely to be physically active, and are 13% less likely to be medically obese.

MetaFilter has discussed the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis previously here and here.

The inimitable Geoff Pullum of Language Log is on the case. Additional coverage at Big Think.
posted by gauche (70 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
The key section of Pullum's response: 'I also worry that it is too easy to find correlations of this kind, and we don't have any idea just how easy until a concerted effort has been made to show that the spurious ones are not supportable. For example, if we took "has (vs. does not have) pharyngeal consonants", or "uses (vs. does not use) close front rounded vowels", would we find correlations there too? I have some colleagues here at the University of Edinburgh, within Simon Kirby's research group, who have run some informal experiments on the data Chen uses to see if dredging up spurious correlations of this kind is easy or hard, and so far they have found it jaw-droppingly easy.'

I think (though Pullum is too polite to quite come out and say it) that the odds of there being any real causal relationship here are vanishingly small.
posted by pete_22 at 1:54 PM on February 11, 2012 [14 favorites]


It's been awhile since I read it, but wasn't there an element of this in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle? I seem to remember that the language the people spoke on the island in the story had no past or future tense, only present, although I don't remember if that any bearing on the story itself or if it was just random information thrown at the reader.
posted by mannequito at 2:17 PM on February 11, 2012


Languagehat is going to be (see what I did there) giddy.
posted by notreally at 2:19 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is just dumb. Geoff Pullum is more generous than he ought to have been.

Note, as Pullum writes, that this is quite a strong form of Whorfianism. While a weak Whorfianism is arguably credible, the strong form is basically utter bullshit. It's folk linguistics intersecting with folk epistemology.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:19 PM on February 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


I feel like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is taught as invariably untrue in most linguistics departments (as it certainly was in mine) because it almost always doesn't explain the phenomena that people think it does. It's like one of those mathematical rules that is always, always true, except in the three exact cases X, Y, and Z, which you don't learn about until your fourth year of grad school, so you're best off just thinking that it is invariably true until you reach that level. And even then, those three cases are the only ones where it might not be true—it hasn't been conclusively proven that it's not, it's just that the evidence leans that way.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:23 PM on February 11, 2012


(And I should add that I think the hypothesis is almost certainly untrue in this case specifically, lest my former professors come and kill me in the night for expressing such heresy.)
posted by ocherdraco at 2:24 PM on February 11, 2012


correlation != causation?
posted by oonh at 2:26 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems to be regarded as always and ridiculously untrue, except in the cases where it's so obviously true that it's not worth considering. Do linguists actually think that their specialized vocabulary gives them no benefit at all? Would a physicist perceive the world the same way if they'd never learned math or geometry?
posted by hattifattener at 2:34 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think of it more like the weak and strong anthropic principle. The strong form is either stupid or tautological. The weak form is trivially true. This is exactly the case with Sapir-Whorf, except that its strong form is empirically proven false. And the weak form expresses something that is self-evidently trivially true: that the words we have available influences how we verbally reason.

What's interesting about this, which wasn't quoted in the post but which Pullum mentions, is that the much-discussed Pirahã language, which has been used in the past in discussions of Sapir-Whorf, and notably to reach exactly the opposite conclusion, completely goes against Chen's hypothesis. As Pullum notes, if Chen were correct, the Pirahã, in lacking entirely a future tense and thus should be more mindful in the way that Chen describes. But they're not.

And, in any case, here's a very useful rule-of-thumb that I recommend everyone follow: when an economist or a physicist does research completely outside their field, it's safe to ignore it. It's probably bullshit. These folk tend to have bad cases of engineer's disease, partly because they believe that they're the only people in the world competence at mathematics or have ever brought sophisticated mathematical tools to bear on problems outside their fields.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:35 PM on February 11, 2012 [12 favorites]


correlation != causation?

Yeah, but it's even more like:
correlation !=causation, even if correlation = causation is really, really enticing and seems to explain things about speech and behavior that intuitively make since to our tiny, bigoted human brains
posted by ocherdraco at 2:35 PM on February 11, 2012


the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

This was something I noticed on my own, when I was learning French -- that there were thoughts I could have in French that I simply couldn't have in English. I could sort of vaguely approximate them, but it wasn't the same thing at all... the new patterns in French let me see new relationships between things that were not visible in English.

Unfortunately, I can't explain what those concepts were, because I'm no longer fluent in the language, and have lost the patterns. I can remember that I had them, without remembering what they actually were. And I'm not certain I could have explained them even when I WAS fluent -- I never tried, as I never realized that it was A Thing that I should pay attention to. (I remember marveling about it a little to my family and friends, and they just sort of rolled their eyes at me.)

But I will back this idea with every fiber in my being; your language is both an incredible tool and a narrow scope through which to view the world. When you are looking at something as 'a flashlight', you're just seeing that it has a bulb and emits light if you press the switch. You're NOT seeing, in that moment, that you could disassemble it and use it as a cup, or put dirt in it and make it a planter, or turn it on end and use it as a stand for something else. You can see those attributes of the flashlight if you think about them, but they're invisible to you in routine use. You're ignoring almost everything that's true about an object, in order to manipulate an aspect of it that's important to you in the moment.

This is the basic process of rational thought. It's an incredible tool -- just look around you for countless examples of how useful it is -- but it's also a set of giant horse blinders. When you looked around, you probably looked at your ideas of what's around you, not the actual things themselves. Your eyes registered a particular pattern, and your brain saw, say, 'chair', instead of an object with a flat surface and four supporting pillars, good for any number of different things. You can see those attributes if you try, but by default, you're blind to them. It's just a chair, the thing you sit in at the computer, not a device of myriad potential uses.

I've come to believe that the really creative people simply ignore less of the world around them.
posted by Malor at 2:38 PM on February 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


Do linguists actually think that their specialized vocabulary gives them no benefit at all? Would a physicist perceive the world the same way if they'd never learned math or geometry?

But all jargon (even linguistic jargon) is definable within the language those linguists and physicists learned it in. Think about it: just because a person doesn't know a law of physics explicitly doesn't mean that they can't observe it in action and describe it. Not knowing the jargon of physics is not necessarily a barrier to learning and understanding physical phenomena.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:38 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


In other words... that thing you're holding is a flashlight because you call it a flashlight. Call it a planter, and it becomes something different. Call it a stand, and it's something else again. The word you use for the object changes what it is in your map of the world, even though the object itself isn't changing at all.

We almost always see our maps, not the territory, and words are how we make them.
posted by Malor at 2:42 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just bet this article makes sense in retrospect.

Anyway, amateur Whorfianism, again? It's as if medicine stopped before the germ theory of disease, and some archaeologist was arguing that ancient societies were healthier because they had more balanced exposure to all 17 humors, or whatever.
posted by spitbull at 2:44 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


And what's more, when I read this article tomorrow, I predict I hate it.
posted by spitbull at 2:45 PM on February 11, 2012


Also, the coffee here be cold.
posted by spitbull at 2:47 PM on February 11, 2012


I don't know if I agree with the author's assertion that English differs from other Germanic languages in the obligatory marking of future time. Consider English "I'm going to the movies" vs. German "Ich gehe ins Kino." Both statements are grammatically correct and can refer to a present or future action.
posted by pravit at 2:47 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Would a physicist perceive the world the same way if they'd never learned math or geometry?"

Math and geometry are not languages. There is basically no evidence that human languages could take arbitrary form and plenty of evidences that they necessarily many features. A strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis asserts essentially two things: 1) that natural human languages are relatively unbounded in form; and 2) that the particular boundaries of expression in a given language form the boundaries for the cognition of an individual possessing that language. Thus, radically different and incompatible cognition about the world is possible between two different human brains, even to the degree to which they don't intersect.

This appeals to everyone who's dabbled in strong philosophical relativism. Which is, basically, everyone who never got beyond a sophomore's level of thinking about the nature of reality. Sapir-Whorf came about at a time when strong relativist theories about humans were greatly in vogue. However, across all anthropological disciplines over the subsequent decades there's been mounting evidence that shows a weak cultural and psychological relativism, but nothing approaching the notions of strong relativism that were previously favored. Popular notions about science and reality haven't really caught up with this, unfortunately.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:48 PM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


"...plenty of evidences that they necessarily [share] many features..."
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:51 PM on February 11, 2012


My point exactly. And what about more complex cases, like future conditional tense marking, or the Inuit (!) languages, where proximity in time (before or after) is obligatorily marked along with tense as a verbal affix, to put to put it approximately. What can we say about the relationship between that and a high-reciprocity subsistence economy with a very strong corporate ethic?

And what's next? Are speakers of ergative languages more (or less, I can't quite figure this one) aggressive or entrepreneurial than speakers of absolutive languages?

What people always fail to understand is that the language/culture relationship is not a duality, but a singularity. Culture is encoded and enacted in language. Language is honed in relation to cultural imperatives (and this very much includes traditional human environments and modern ones, because "language" is a process, not a thing). Linguists need to do a much better job getting our key findings out into the public sphere, so hurray for LanguageLog, again.
posted by spitbull at 2:56 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"I find that" are not words that ring in my ears as a defence of a particularly reliable scientific thesis. Is that typical wording for linguistics papers?


hattifattener: Do linguists actually think that their specialized vocabulary gives them no benefit at all? Would a physicist perceive the world the same way if they'd never learned math or geometry?

I think you're conflating tools with psychological outlook.

Physicists use the tools of math & geometry, which are artificial constructs by which they describe physical events: putting one bean next to another bean {1+1=2}, or the amount of light incident on a surface {E2=E1*cos(a)}.

Sapir-Whorf, as I understand it, claims that one's perceptions of the world are limited by one's linguistic idioms. The difference is between saying "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail" (Sapir-Whorf), or "Without a hammer, a man isn't likely to nail together a house" (tools for the job).
posted by IAmBroom at 2:56 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Considering that Republican's are reputed to have the edge in using language to "guide" thought (e.g. "death tax", "pro-life", "values") are they more accepting of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:01 PM on February 11, 2012


(My use of the apostrophe isn't meant to show ownership, but illiteracy.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:02 PM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Also, there's a saying among linguists who bang our heads on the table every time one of these stories happens: "The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is neither Sapir's, nor Whorf's, nor a Hypothesis."

Sort of like that old bumper sticker about the Moral Majority.

I could get into it Chapter and Verse, but instead refer you to the work of John Lucy, especially his magisteiral 1992 book "Language Diversity and Thought." We've been there, done that, at least in anthropological linguistics. The naive claim that grammar (or lexicon) and behavior or "thought" in the abstract are concrete and easily distinguished "things" in the world that exist in a direct, binary, deterministic relationship is laughable to a generation of linguists, or two really.
posted by spitbull at 3:04 PM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm not talking about jargon— which, IME, is usually fairly simple shorthand for concepts that you could use more words to express in the host language— but entire systems of concepts making up a specialized vocabulary or language. Math (to choose my most obvious example from above) isn't jargon; it's much more like a language, and one that's so very different from "natural languages" that it causes people to see the world in very different ways.

I guess another way to say what I (and I think Malor) am getting at is that language is one of the ways we culturally transmit or instil modes and habits of thought and perception. Without that transmission, you will have different thoughts and perceptions, even if the physical world around you is the same.

A strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis asserts essentially two things: 1) that natural human languages are relatively unbounded in form;

I don't really see how strong-Sapir-Whorf requires that languages have arbitrary form, only that they can have different forms from each other. Interestingly, the few things I've read actually written by Whorf are often concerned with arguing against what had been a fashionable thought at the time: that there was a universal, fixed ur-language to which all languages were an approximation. Not just a Chomskian predilection for certain grammatical structures, but an actual innate identification of certain sounds with certain objects or ideas.

and 2) that the particular boundaries of expression in a given language form the boundaries for the cognition of an individual possessing that language.

That's the strongest form, OK, which appears insupportable (but makes for some great science fiction). But even the weaker assertion that language affects cognition — that it is more difficult to think outside the boundaries of your language than inside them — seems to be considered ridiculous by modern linguists. That's what I don't get.

Thus, radically different and incompatible cognition about the world is possible between two different human brains, even to the degree to which they don't intersect.

That's possible even if people think they're speaking the same language. Welcome to the Internet!
posted by hattifattener at 3:13 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Considering that Republican's are reputed to have the edge in using language to "guide" thought (e.g. "death tax", "pro-life", "values")

I think the Republicans would argue that it is, in fact, the Left, with its Political Incorrectness, who believe in the idea of reshaping language in order to reshape thought.
posted by hattifattener at 3:15 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


And dammit, by the way, even to the neurolinguists. What we generalize as "Tense" -- the ability to encode the temporality of reported action -- is very likely marked in underlying syntax whether or not it is expressed in surface expressions. It's an inherent property of reality that every human language is able to model sufficient to its own contexts, and always in sophisticated ways because without it, language is hardly a tool at all. That's why this claim is so easy to falsify for English. It was the basis of my series of jokes above, all of which could be expressed using auxiliary future tense verbs with slightly more effort and in slightly more formal styles.

Whorf's famous argument about Hopi was precisely that tense/aspect systems were in a deterministic relationship with the experiential psychology of enculturated speakers. In a nutshell, he suggested Hopi was a better language in which to do physics, as it were. Along the way he got Hopi grammar pretty wrong (although on balance he contributed hugely to its first real formal description, of incalculable value to later efforts to sustain the language), but initiated an interesting contribution nonetheless . . for 1941.

Sapir came closest to arguing for what has become the contemporary view -- what I called above the "singularity" perspective.

Boas actually proved that language does indeed directly determine perception, at a very brute level. You, mefite, are not able to perceive phonetic distinctions that are not phonemic to your language. I guarantee it. You can learn to do so, but at first you will not hear the difference.

I perform this experiment on a classroom full of students once a year. It gets them focused on what the real issues are.
posted by spitbull at 3:18 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Considering that Republican's are reputed to have the edge in using language to "guide" thought (e.g. "death tax", "pro-life", "values") are they more accepting of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Rather, this is an example of labeling theory at work. If I can simply tag something with a label that implies "bad," then it become "bad" and not just "different."

"Death tax" reminds me of "death" and death is bad, so people that are for death taxes are for death and are therefore bad people all around.

Similarly for "tax." And there's a double judo move in there, too, in that a "death tax" sounds like a tax you pay because you somehow "chose" to become dead. So it sounds illogical, unfair and confusing, and people just don't like being confused in general, and react negatively to people that confuse them.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:22 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the subject of good linguistic science fiction, China Mieville's "Embassytown" impressed me a lot. I can't give much summary for fear of conceptual spoilers, but the core conceit of a language that acts as pointers to objctive truths rather than variables containing subjective truths is described quite early in the book.

His "The City and the City" also shows Sapir-Whorf influences but is more about conceptualization and expression of ideas, than words for those ideas as such; the characters' vocabulary contains concepts that they have from birth been trained to not express.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:41 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


John Barnes's Thousand Culture books also explore cultural relativsm and language, with some strong Whorfianism involved, in a very entertaining way. Especially with regard to the culture of Utilitopia, where the native language is an artificial, strictly rational language reminiscent of Lojban.

Of course, there's really not much you can do with readers who mistake science fiction for science.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:27 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


the core conceit of a language that acts as pointers to objctive truths rather than variables containing subjective truths is described quite early in the book.

This reminds me of the time I was working as a waitress at a Chili's and someone asked me why it cost more to substitute a side salad and shouldn't it be the same price as any other substitution since it's CALLED a side salad? Were we really going to charge more for that? I was tired and it had been a long day and I was sick of having people complain to me about things I couldn't change (as a customer he probably had more control over the pricing of a salad at Chili's than I did) but instead I told him that it was a post-structuralist salad; it was called a "side" salad to differentiate it from an entree salad as opposed to the word "side" identifying it as a referent. He looked confused.

It is possible he looked confused because I misremembered how post-structuralism works; it's been a long time since I was in college.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:11 PM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems to be regarded as always and ridiculously untrue, except in the cases where it's so obviously true that it's not worth considering. Do linguists actually think that their specialized vocabulary gives them no benefit at all? Would a physicist perceive the world the same way if they'd never learned math or geometry?
Yeah but you could replace all the words in math and geometry and you'd still have math and geometry. The words are fairly arbitrary. And often times uses words that you already know in a new way, like implies, field, ring, group, ideal, vector, function, and so on. Other then 'imply' those words don't have that much to with their mathematical equivalent. An algebraic 'ring' is nothing like a ring you wear on your finger.

And on top of that mathematics is often explained using complex formulas full of Greek letters that you have to look at, rather then read. They are not really 'pronounceable'.
Math (to choose my most obvious example from above) isn't jargon; it's much more like a language, and one that's so very different from "natural languages" that it causes people to see the world in very different ways.
Yes, but the point is it's not a language it's a way of thinking about things. The way mathematics was expressed a few hundred years ago was very different and things need to be 'translated' into modern mathematical notation to be understood. But it was still the same 'math'. In fact, in ancient Greece they did a lot of math using geometric constructions
I guess another way to say what I (and I think Malor) am getting at is that language is one of the ways we culturally transmit or instil modes and habits of thought and perception. Without that transmission, you will have different thoughts and perceptions, even if the physical world around you is the same.
Yes, of course language (and images) are used to transmit knowledge, but the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that which language you use matters. We now know that's not true.

The 'weak' Sapir-Whorf for is something like, okay that tribe where people use north/south/east/west rather then left or right, they have a much better sense of their cardinal directions because they have to do so. Obviously if a language forces you to learn or know something to use it, obviously you'll get better at it.
Interestingly, the few things I've read actually written by Whorf are often concerned with arguing against what had been a fashionable thought at the time: that there was a universal, fixed ur-language to which all languages were an approximation.
Recent studies have shown that it's mathematically likely that all spoken languages evolved from a common root.
This was something I noticed on my own, when I was learning French -- that there were thoughts I could have in French that I simply couldn't have in English. I could sort of vaguely approximate them, but it wasn't the same thing at all... the new patterns in French let me see new relationships between things that were not visible in English.
I dunno dude, to me it seems like 'internal' language is internally just narrating the thoughts you are already having. When I'm thinking about complex mathematical concepts, I tend to think in images, without any particular words associated with them.
posted by delmoi at 5:33 PM on February 11, 2012


Okay, that's you. A lot of us think in words, and the idea of different vocabulary changing the way we think about things is laughably obvious to us.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:59 PM on February 11, 2012


I stumbled on an interesting discussion about visualization on lesswrong a while back. Apparently people's ability to produce mental imagery varies widely, and because it never occurs to, well, almost everyone that others even could visualize differently, people tend to assume that anyone who claims otherwise is stupid and/or lying.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:14 PM on February 11, 2012


delmoi:
Obviously if a language forces you to learn or know something to use it, obviously you'll get better at it.
There exist languages that require every verb to specify evidentiality (the nature of the evidence for an assertion: did you directly observe it, infer it, or is it hearsay?). I don't know if there has ever been a study on whether or not such languages instill in their users a more skeptical outlook, or if such speakers are less likely to fall for fraud or false rumors. My hunch would be that it doesn't.

Also, as far as mathematical thinking goes, I think this book is pertinent. It polls a number of prominent 20th century mathematicians, and almost all of them say that they think in pictures or abstract symbols, not in words. Here is Albert Einstein:
The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.
posted by simen at 6:33 PM on February 11, 2012


Okay, that's you. A lot of us think in words, and the idea of different vocabulary changing the way we think about things is laughably obvious to us.
Lots of things are laughably obvious to people and still false, and still false.
posted by delmoi at 6:35 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


where is the edit window!?
posted by delmoi at 6:36 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


This was something I noticed on my own, when I was learning French -- that there were thoughts I could have in French that I simply couldn't have in English. I could sort of vaguely approximate them, but it wasn't the same thing at all... the new patterns in French let me see new relationships between things that were not visible in English.

I have had exactly the same experience in Polish as a second language. I would think it is a common subjective experience for anyone fluently bilingual. Given such strong subjective / personal evidence of our own consciousness there has to be some weak form of S-W that is true. It really is the case that there are things I can much more easily think and feel in Polish, and my Polish inner self is a slightly different version of the English one.

I'd like to see the correlation of fluent bilingual linguists to linguists who are S-W supporters.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:39 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd like to see the correlation of fluent bilingual linguists to linguists who are S-W supporters.
I don't really think there are any, it would be like a physicist who supports the theory of aether.
posted by delmoi at 6:43 PM on February 11, 2012


I'm not a linguist, but a professional translator. Put me down for weak S-W. The strong version is overstated, but the weak is not as weak as some might like to think. I don't think the effects of language variation are trivial. As part of my working process, every day, I inhabit a space infused with two very different languages, and code-switch on a minute-to-minute basis; translation requires continual compromise, and generally speaking I think that people who are not fluently bilingual tend to severely underestimate just how different the approach to thinking about a concept can be, depending on the language used. The Dunning-Kruger of Sapir-Whorf, if you will.
posted by jet_manifesto at 7:25 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Okay, that's you. A lot of us think in words, and the idea of different vocabulary changing the way we think about things is laughably obvious to us.

Heck, I think in non-words, like delmoi describes, and I have a hard time imagining thinking otherwise— though I've met enough people who say they think in words that I believe that's how some people think— and I still think it's laughably obvious. Which is why I'm so curious why it's seen as obviously false by linguists (most of the time).

Yeah but you could replace all the words in math and geometry and you'd still have math and geometry. The words are fairly arbitrary. And often times uses words that you already know in a new way, like implies, field, ring, group, ideal, vector, function, and so on. Other then 'imply' those words don't have that much to with their mathematical equivalent.

I think you're supporting my point. I don't think even strong-SW supporters believe that the specific sounds used are what make languages have an effect on thought. (In fact, as I said, W argued against this idea.) I could, for example, take something in French, mechanically substitute each word with some English word or arbitrary symbol, and for many intents and purposes the result would still be French (just encoded). The relevant aspect of a language here is the set of meanings its words have (which won't usually map cleanly onto the meanings available in another language) and the way the language implies relationships between meanings (by means of grammatical categories and so on). By learning a language you learn those meanings and accustom yourself to associating or examining them in the ways the language dictates.

On the subject of good linguistic science fiction,

I also recommend Ted Chiang's award-winning Story of Your Life, which takes as a premise a rather strong S-W, though what makes the story good isn't its linguistics content exactly. Linguistics shows up a lot in SF (gotta talk to those aliens after all) but I can only think of a few examples of SF truly centered around SWH ideas— Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao; Delaney's Babel-17; Embassytown, as you said; I think there was a Le Guin or two but I'm blanking on the name... Snow Crash, kinda... that Star Trek episode that I always roll my eyes at... Google reminds me of Ian Watson's The Embedding which I have yet to read...
posted by hattifattener at 7:40 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Linguist Mark Liberman wrote in The Economist on this debate recently:
Properly interpreted, the proposition is true: the language we speak shapes how we think. But the way we think also shapes the language we speak, and the way we live shapes both language and thought. When we encounter or create new ideas, we can usually describe them with new combinations of old words. And if not, we easily adapt or borrow or create the new words or phrases we need. As Edward Sapir once put it, "We may say that a language is so constructed that no matter what any speaker of it may desire to communicate … the language is prepared to do his work."

So in its common interpretation, which sees a list of dictionary entries as determining the set of available thoughts, this proposition is false.
The claim that a language has an influence on the ideas that one can easily express in that language is not contested by anyone. The claim that language determines how its native speakers comprehend the world in a deep sense is contested. There are a whole host of problematic assumptions built into the latter claim; and yet it is a very attractive idea to most people for pretty much the exact same reasons as people believe a lot of empirically false things. There is selection bias, for example. There is confusion of correlation with causation. There is improperly generalizing from subjective experience.

The reason that linguists don't accept strong Whorfianism isn't because they are monolingual—obviously they are almost always multilingual by necessity—it's because they are empiricists, they are scientists. They've arrived at their beliefs on this topic by virtue of rigorous experimental study and analysis.

Ideas about language are plagued by the fundamental mistake that people make in assuming that because they are experts speakers of a language, they are experts at language as an object of study. They wrongly believe that because they have extensive history with a subjective experience, that this is equivalent to having expertise on the related topic as a matter of intellectual rigor.

For example, all people in this planet have experienced suction in some form; basically everyone has drank a liquid by sucking on something. Thus the notion that "nature abhors a vacuum". All but a tiny portion of humanity is absolutely certain that when they drink through something like a straw, they're pulling the liquid into their mouth.

All of those people are wrong. That's not what's happening, you're not "pulling" the liquid into your mouth. Things that everyone believes that are obvious are, in fact, very often not true, as delmoi says.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:46 PM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Mistakes were made.
posted by vicx at 8:32 PM on February 11, 2012


Heck, I think in non-words, like delmoi describes, and I have a hard time imagining thinking otherwise— though I've met enough people who say they think in words that I believe that's how some people think— and I still think it's laughably obvious. Which is why I'm so curious why it's seen as obviously false by linguists (most of the time).
That's how science works. You come up with a hypothesis, then you come up with an experiment to test to see if your hypothesis is true. Just like with luminous aether: they tested SW experimentally and found no effect. That makes it scientifically untrue.

The "weak" SW is a bit more complex because you have to quantify how 'weak' you mean. I mean certainly, if two words rhyme in your language, you're more likely to associate the concepts. For example, English speakers would never use crabs as a symbol of censorship, but the words in chinese sound similar to 'harmonize' -- a euphemism for censorship from the government. So they became an in joke about internet censorship.

I'm sure various words make different people think about different things. And I'm sure that languages that require you to use various concepts also strengthen those concepts in your mind over time, like how Chinese people have trouble with indefinite articles like 'the' or rules for plurals and things like that, since they're not present in Chinese.

And anyway I'm not saying that personally I don't "think in words", there is always a verbal stream of words in my head as I think about things, but I question whether the words are the "true" thoughts or merely a reflection of what I'm thinking. Certainly when I am thinking about a mathematical concept it isn't that the words go away, it's just that they no longer represent what I'm thinking about. I don't really pay much attention to it but it's probably mostly just stuff like "okay... right... mmm, no... wait, okay, Okay I need to go back, let me try again"

Or if you're doing some physical activity do you really think in words about how to throw a basketball, or hammer in a nail or turn a screw? You might think "I need to hammer this nail" or something like that. But you're thinking about concepts that relate to physical action, or a concept you don't have a word for. Your brain just skips that word in your internal monolog, but you still think it.

About people thinking things that are false are obviously true, check out this video about little kids doing various mental exercises. The with the first kid, they take two cups of water with equal amounts in them, and poor them into a thinner glass. She agreed they had the same amount, but when poured into the thinner glass she thought there was more. With the second kid, they actually take quarters and ask her if two rows have the same amount. She actually counts them to double check and says there are. Then, when the women moves the quarters farther apart she says the longer row has more, even though she just counted them.

Both kids are pretty confident in their incorrect belief.

Based on these questions people can be put into what are called piaget stages. But here's the thing, what if there are still cognitive errors that most people make, even at adulthood? Isn't it possible that what you think is 'laughably obvious' is obvious due to some weird quirk in how your mind works, just like the 'obviousness' of a longer length of quarters is 'more' then a shorter list to a toddler?

What I disagree with is the idea that you have to have a word to describe a concept in order to 'think' about a concept. Learning a new language may introduce a new and previously unthought of concept, but that does not mean that you couldn't have thought of the concept if you'd had it explained to you in English or if someone came up with an English term for that concept and explained it to you.
posted by delmoi at 8:42 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ivan Fyodorovich The claim that language determines how its native speakers comprehend the world in a deep sense is contested.

delmoi What I disagree with is the idea that you have to have a word to describe a concept in order to 'think' about a concept.

Yes, I think these are the points that get a lot of people riled up about S-W. But does the S-W hypothesis actually claim that? As far as I can tell, it doesn't seem to. Who actually makes such absolutist claims? According to linguists, basically no one with any credibility whatsoever. The linked paper by M. Keith Chen doesn't seem to (although I've only skim through it.) So...is this a battle against straw soldiers?

posted by jet_manifesto at 9:08 PM on February 11, 2012


gah...didn't close the bold tag...
posted by jet_manifesto at 9:09 PM on February 11, 2012


Well, it's not so much an absolutism as it is about how deeply cognition is influenced by a particular language.

In the smaller scale, the claim is that if there's not a word for something then it can't be thought. This is untrue, and a lot of people can easily see that it's untrue, and yet such claims are often encountered in pop-linguistics in the form of "in language X there is no word for Y, therefore they don't have the concept that is associated with Y".

In the larger scale, the claim is that supposed systematic differences between languages correspond to systematic differences in the cognition of those who speak those languages. This is not the same thing as talking about being merely more or less facile in expression of an idea depending upon a language's felicity to that idea; it's asserting that, as in this paper, things like the tenses available in a language correspond to essential differences in how people speaking different languages comprehend time, in general.

Both of these are strong forms of S-W, and they're both refuted by empirical research. In the former case, pretty much unambiguously. In the latter case, there's slightly more ambiguity, but so far initially somewhat credible claims of this type have not held up to extended scrutiny. This paper won't, I predict.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:28 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's always seemed pretty clear to me from childhood that thought precedes language (for lack of a more precise way of putting it). My experience was being raised first to speak German, then having to quickly learn English as a five year old, and for a while there, I remember being conscious of the fact that I felt caught somewhere kind of in between, with really no comfortable native language of my own.

For years after I mastered English, I had a sort of incessant inner monologue going all the time, such that it often made it hard for me to settle down to sleep at night. Then, at a certain point in time, after years of making a concerted conscious effort to quiet that inner monologue, it actually did mostly disappear, so now most of the time, I don't have an inner monologue at all (on the other hand, I have had a tendency toward logorrhea since then, and I sometimes find it helpful to talk through particularly difficult, nuanced ideas outloud).

Conscious, intentional thought for me tends to be a very abstract, very vague visual phenomenon; however, I can still rehearse things that I want to say by consciously verbalizing the words in my mind, if I need to.

So the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has always seemed inconsistent with my own experiences with language, though I've had arguments with friends and acquaintances who insist that thinking in the absence of conscious internal monologue is impossible, and those conversations always leave me with a renewed sense of astonishment at the vast range of different experiences and perspectives on reality the world has to offer through the diversity of human life.

At the same time, it did also seem clear to me when I started relearning German a few years back that it does feel as if speaking German forces me to change some aspect of my way of thinking in a fundamental, hard to describe way. But it seems obvious to me that even if you spoke a language that didn't include a word for the color red, you'd still see the color red the same way; that much seems self-evident, if that goes against the stronger form of the hypothesis in dispute here.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:19 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Thinking in the absence of inner monologue" reminds me of the works of Eckhart Tolle, and the meditative states on which his work is based. Personally I have found it conducive to calm, however I've not yet been able to maintain it without concentration.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:04 PM on February 11, 2012


i wonder why relativism starts to seem like bullshit when the economy and living conditions start going to shit and people are frightened and angry

eh, it's probably nothing
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 3:04 AM on February 12, 2012


The argument about whether the "Sapir" "Whorf" "Hypothesis" is true or false is an excellent example of a particular hypothesis that is called the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis".

Basically, because the label "hypothesis" caught on, here we are trying to validate or falsify it. That's what you do with hypotheses. That's what they're for. People know this, so they respond to an interesting hypothesis by arguing about its truth or falsity.

If you already have a particular idea in mind that you call the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis," you can stick to that; the misleading name of it won't likely affect you unless you're really impressionable. But if you're hearing about it for the first time, then even if you understand how problematic a hypothesis it is, you're still likely to come away thinking it is a hypothesis--something that can be true or false.

And it ain't.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:00 AM on February 12, 2012


Sapir-Whorf is to labeling theory as memetics is to semiotics.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:07 AM on February 12, 2012


What Mark Liberman says, hear hear.
posted by spitbull at 5:20 AM on February 12, 2012


You cannot rely on your intuition to determine if "words" or "language" and "thinking" are the same thing. If intuition was a reliable guide to this problem, the Greeks would have solved it. Cavemen would have solved it. As it is it is 2012 and brain imaging is just beginning to reveal to us how simplistic and stupid the "words do/don't equal thought" debate really is.

Please, people, read some linguistics if you're going to opine on the findings of the science. You wouldn't speculate about cellular processes as if modern cellular biology didn't exist. Just because one speaks a language and thinks doesn't give you any more intuitive insight into the cognitive and neurobiological processes involved than being a sex addict makes you an expert on reproductive biology.
posted by spitbull at 5:36 AM on February 12, 2012


Put another way, language certainly directs and restricts discussion, and discussion directs what people do, and if you're in the business of science or philosophy, then discussion directs how you think, since that's what you do in your line of work. So language certainly influences thought in that avenue. That's not a hypothesis at all, more like a basic assumption of philosophy in general.

For the sort of person who's only just coming around to this realization, it is in fact a deep and significant realization, if only in comparison to how little they understood beforehand. It makes good sense to assign a label to significant things like that. Quite a pity that the label that caught on is so misleading.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:21 AM on February 12, 2012


Here's my brilliant new insight, after 10 seconds of thinking: speakers of languages with click consonants are universally poor. Time to publish.

Stay tuned for next paper: I'll prove that click consonants cause AIDS!
posted by CaseyB at 7:15 AM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


> Put another way, language certainly directs and restricts discussion, and discussion directs what people do, and if you're in the business of science or philosophy, then discussion directs how you think, since that's what you do in your line of work.

That is in a nutshell the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as Whorf himself actually conceived of it. (And he referred to it "the linguistic relativity principle".) Whorf never advocated the strong version. He did say some interesting things about how pervasive use of certain kinds of metaphors influence how we think and talk about things. Unfortunately, this gets ignored in the cartoon version.
posted by nangar at 7:59 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Languagehat is going to be (see what I did there) giddy.

Well, I'm not sure "giddy" is quite the word. Fortunately, Ivan Fyodorovich has said pretty much everything I was going to say; I'll just highlight this particularly important sentence:

> Ideas about language are plagued by the fundamental mistake that people make in assuming that because they are expert speakers of a language, they are experts at language as an object of study.

If everybody could just assimilate that basic truth, I'd sleep better at night (and fume less on MetaFilter).
posted by languagehat at 8:28 AM on February 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


> Please, people, read some linguistics if you're going to opine on the findings of the science.

And please, people, read some econometrics if you're going to opine on the findings of the, uh, pseudoscience.

"Robust" correlation doesn't mean significant or strong correlation, and a preference for a lower savings rate doesn't automatically imply "profligacy and lack of prudence." Nor would I describe a 10-30% increase in the statistical likelihood of various effects as a "dramatically increased likelihood of exhibiting high rates of obesity, smoking, drinking, debt, and poor pension provision." (Chen does say that he finds "much more future oriented behavior," but hey, it's a working paper).

Did you guys read the whole paper? Did you see the part where Chen distinguishes the weak and strong Sapir-Whorf hypotheses and describes his "as an instance of the weak SWH?" I imagine the cartoon Whorf hypothesis and the cartoon Chen hypothesis hangin' out in a cartoon Kansas cornfield somewhere. I do agree that bloggy interpretations are overblown, and that the FTR distinction is pretty muddled, which should mitigate the effects even further from "much more" to "more" to something like "more, maybe." But the data, if not the writing, read more like support for Boroditsky-type stuff than the strong SWH.

The Pirahã are always an interesting counterexample. Is it fair to say their discount rate is zero? Do they discount at all? Can you take the integral of a stream of expected rewards over time if there is no expected future time? They don't fit the hypothesis, but neither do they fit the model. I hope an answer makes it into the paper before publication.
posted by ecmendenhall at 10:15 AM on February 12, 2012


Yeah, we've mostly been chatting about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and not the paper (probably because no-one bothered to defend it).

So, for the record, without getting into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or econometrics at all. the problem with paper is that it seems to be the result of a fishing expedition. He found a linguistic feature (in one system of classification) present in German and languages spoken in Scandinavia, that excludes English (even though it's closely related) and most other European languages, but includes Finnish, and the feature has something to do with time. Bingo! Less obligatory marking of future time references is correlated with higher savings rates!

The problem is languages have lots of linguistic features, including time-related ones; if you look at enough of them, eventually something will correlate. You'd need additional empirical evidence to convince anyone that this is something other than random coincidence.
posted by nangar at 11:32 AM on February 12, 2012


I don't think we should ignore this kind of paper because it seems goofy, and tweaks our discomfort about making generalizations about cultures and language.

I think we should ignore this paper because it hasn't been peer reviewed, been through a battery of criticism by domain experts (rather than economists), and doesn't substantially addressing Pullum's point that it seems to be drawing one variable from a suspiciously deep pool of language characteristics.
posted by ~ at 1:52 PM on February 12, 2012


I don't really think there are any, it would be like a physicist who supports the theory of aether.

It would be like a physicist who, when speaking their second language, had a very strong whiff of the aether and could barely see it shimmering in his mind's eye, despite the orthodoxy.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:02 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The argument about whether the "Sapir" "Whorf" "Hypothesis" is true or false is an excellent example of a particular hypothesis that is called the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis". ... Basically, because the label "hypothesis" caught on, here we are trying to validate or falsify it. That's what you do with hypotheses. That's what they're for.

you're still likely to come away thinking it is a hypothesis--something that can be true or false.

And it ain't.


That's completely ridiculous. In any event linguistics is a science, and scientists doing science means dealing with hypothesis. If SW isn't a hypothesis that can be disproven, then it's not science, and not part of linguistics.
Put another way, language certainly directs and restricts discussion, and discussion directs what people do, and if you're in the business of science or philosophy, then discussion directs how you think, since that's what you do in your line of work. So language certainly influences thought in that avenue. That's not a hypothesis at all, more like a basic assumption of philosophy in general.
Uh, what? Of course if you can't communicate an idea then you can't transmit that idea. But that has no baring on whether or not the specific language you speak has anything to do with that ability. It's entirely possible that a people who happen to come up with idea X can communicate it just as well whether or not their native languages are English, french, Chinese or whatever.
posted by delmoi at 5:58 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


If SW isn't a hypothesis that can be disproven, then it's not science, and not part of linguistics.

I agree. The linguistic relativity principle, which I described later, is a different matter. It is often referred to as the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis," although it's not a hypothesis, and neither Sapir nor Whorf thought it was.

But that has no baring on whether or not the specific language you speak has anything to do with that ability.

"A language is a dialect with an army," right? Jargon dialects--you know, the sort that linguists speak, where "weak-FTR" is an actual term with a recognized meaning--aren't strictly necessary to communicate about the ideas in the discipline, or else they could never be defined, and therefore would never be invented. However, they make it a good deal more convenient to talk about those ideas clearly.

Convenience is kind of a big deal when you're trying to do actual work. As the work becomes less convenient, it takes more time and effort--and probably money--to accomplish anything, such as writing this paper. At some point, as the language gets more difficult to use, if there's anyone left who's willing to do the work, they'll have a hard time finding anyone who can understand them when they describe what the work is.

So the jargons that are in common use have a pronounced effect on what gets done on the subject they are about. That, in turn, will have a pronounced effect on the culture surrounding that subject--linguistics, for instance.

And that's why outdated ideas like the Sapir-Whorf "hypothesis", which were never really well-supported to begin with, nonetheless manage to stick around, both in the popular imagination and (as evidenced by the FPP) in the actual study of linguistics. The phrase "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" has stuck so hard that it continues to get otherwise well-informed people to think that it's an actual hypothesis with falsifiability. It even convinces deans to fund their projects, apparently.

It's entirely possible that a people who happen to come up with idea X can communicate it just as well whether or not their native languages are English, french, Chinese or whatever.

If enough people understand the idea and agree on terms to talk about it, BAM--you've got a new jargon. This happens all the time. languagehat coined "snowclone" and "nerdview" and those stuck. Now people talk about those concepts in forums otherwise unrelated to Language Log. Funny how that works.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:05 AM on February 13, 2012


The linguistic relativity principle may be used to derive hypotheses, which are themselves referred to as the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis," as though the hypothesis and the principle were one and the same. It's easy to miss that kind of error because it's common for many small hypotheses to be tested in support of a big one, so people assume that's what's going on there. The ambiguity of the word "hypothesis" makes it easier for the alleged Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to stick around.

I mistakenly implied a causal relation here:

Now people talk about those concepts in forums otherwise unrelated to Language Log. Funny how that works.

Some people would have talked about those things anyway, of course. But the catchy terms helped to popularize them, which led more people to think about them and discuss them. Some people figure that for a Whorf effect, on the grounds that if you happen not to care that much about linguistics, it probably wouldn't occur to you that there's anything unusual about snowclones, so without the word "snowclone," you won't notice that they're a special thing. Well, some people would, but there's certainly a big group that wouldn't.

I think it's all a semantic fuckpile borne of the vagueness of "can" and "can't". If you're insufficiently inclined to think of a thing on your own, is that equivalent to saying you can't think about it without help? I'd assume not, but then, I often say that new information allows me to try things I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. Not even scientific jargon is particularly well equipped to deal with such philosophical tarpits.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:17 AM on February 13, 2012


> languagehat coined "snowclone" and "nerdview" and those stuck.

'Tweren't me, officer! The only thing I ever coined is "languagehat" (which had zero Google hits until the end of July 2002).
posted by languagehat at 1:36 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I say, languagehat and Geoff Pullum are not the same person at all! Woops
posted by LogicalDash at 3:52 AM on February 14, 2012


Keith Chen responds in a guest post on Language Log.
posted by nangar at 4:21 PM on February 21, 2012


Also, in a comment on the same post, Östen Dahl, author of the EUROTYP paper cited, disagrees with strong and weak FTR classification attributed to him.
posted by nangar at 5:07 PM on February 21, 2012


Linguist Julie Sedivy posts some very cogent thoughts on Chen's work on Language Log today. Here's what I think is the most important criticism (bolding mine):
Suppose we got a nifty result like this. I'm afraid we still wouldn't be able to conclude that grammatical tense marking of a language has an impact on the financial planning habits of its speakers. Why not? Because, it turns out, linguistic nudges can be incredibly coarse and belong to a very broad class of stimuli that prime behaviors by virtue of their association with certain concepts or behaviors. It's true that you can elicit rude or polite behavior with certain words. But you can also prime behavior with just about any stimuli that elicit social stereotypes—people become more aggressive after seeing images of African Americans, perform better on tests after being primed with thoughts of professors rather than soccer hooligans, resist the pressure to conform socially more often after they've seen a photo of a punk rocker than a picture of an accountant, and behave more competitively if they're in a room with a briefcase rather than a backpack. Asian girls, apparently, do better on math tests if primed to think about their ethnic background, and worse if primed to think about their gender. Heck, even logos can prime behavior by virtue of their associations—in one study, subjects who saw subliminal images of the Apple logo performed better on a subsequent creativity test than those who'd seen subliminal images of the IBM logo.

All of this should lead us to worry that our hypothetical research subjects are being primed less by the grammar of their languages, and more by the cultural associations of their languages. In fact, there's some good evidence that language can serve as just this sort of generic social cue, as discussed in Language Log a few years ago ("Non-Whorfian linguistic determinism", 1/2/2009). A 2010 study by Dirk Akkermans and colleagues serves as a particularly nice illustration. In the Akkermans et al. study, Dutch subjects played a business variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma game, intended to test the degree of cooperative versus competitive behavior that subjects would choose as a strategy to maximize profits. (The game is set up so that you reap the highest profits if both you and your partner choose a cooperative strategy of keeping prices for your products high, and the lowest profits if you play cooperatively but your partner chooses to undersell you.) Half of the subjects played the game in English, and half played the game in Dutch—the idea being that the English language is more closely associated with highly individualistic and competitive cultures than Dutch. The subjects who played the game in English did indeed choose a more competitive strategy than those who played it in Dutch. But the effects of language on strategy choice were especially prominent for those who'd lived in an Anglophone country for at least three months; among this group, those who played the game in Dutch played cooperatively 51% of the time, while those who played it in English did so only 37% of the time. In contrast, among those who hadn't spent more than three months in an Anglophone country, the rates for cooperative behavior were 48% for Dutch, and 45% for English. So, the effects of language were strongly mediated by how much direct exposure to Anglophone culture the subjects had. Actual proficiency in English turned out to play no discernible role at all.

Results like these, showing cultural associative effects of language, are sometimes referred to as Whorfian effects (and indeed, the authors of the above paper interpret their results as supportive of the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). But this is puzzling to me. It's not at all clear that this is really a linguistic effect at all. I suspect you would get very similar results if you primed subjects with images of American versus Dutch flags, or recognizable national figures, or perhaps even national symbols like bald eagles versus tulips. It's certainly interesting that languages can serve as repositories for cultural associations—in fact, it's a phenomenon that's quite worthy of study in its own right. But it's not likely to be related in any way to grammatical structure. If we must, perhaps we could refer to such results as socio-Whorfian effects.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:44 PM on February 22, 2012


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