languages and thought
June 25, 2009 8:52 AM   Subscribe

How does our language shape our thinking? :"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."
posted by dhruva (101 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
 
W00t! This is something I've pondered almost my entire life. Will read with great interest...
posted by Navelgazer at 8:56 AM on June 25, 2009


For a philosophical counterpart, see also: Herder, Humboldt, Wittgenstein, and all my friends of the linguistic turn.
posted by ddaavviidd at 8:58 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


This wonderfully readable essay confirmed some of the observations (and hunches and suspicions) I've developed over the last year as I've learned to speak German. Thanks!
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:00 AM on June 25, 2009


HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09]
By Lera Boroditsky Sapir and Whorf
posted by FatherDagon at 9:00 AM on June 25, 2009 [16 favorites]


By Lera Boroditsky Sapir and Whorf

Yes, because science is static and people never make contributions to original theses that were, frankly, rather weak in the first place.

Or were you implying that the article was plagiarized?
posted by muddgirl at 9:04 AM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


OMG. I hope that thought shapes language more than the other way around.
posted by longsleeves at 9:11 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yeah, this is a badass article. Mad props to Boroditsky for dispassionately studying what can often be a contentious issue, especially vis a vis gender. Go science!
posted by Afroblanco at 9:13 AM on June 25, 2009


Interesting. I've been hearing it stated that Sapir Whorf was flat out wrong for a while - I guess it's not as open and shut as that?
posted by Artw at 9:17 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


It is interesting, but I am still not so sure that it is language that provokes these different "modes" of thought. Indeed, the author uses English just fine to convey the new ideas he wishes to express. There are certainly new ideas, but I think most languages can find perfectly reasonable ways to express those ideas.

I tend to believe that language evolves in response to physical and social environments. The classic example is the Inuit and the multiple words for snow, right? The reasons they have all these different words for snow is that they have a real need to differentiate between types of snow, which may signal any manner of environmental changes. BUT, we, speaking English, can when exposed to it recognize these different types of snow, and we can even describe each type, using English. The Inuit thinks about snow more often and so have a much more descriptive language in regards to snow, but the fundamental "how" they think (not what they think about) is not much different.

The native Hawaiians, in their language did not have words for numbers above a certain point (I forget exact what the cut of was, so lets just say 10). Did that mean they where unable to conceive of any number above 10? Of course not, indeed when the need arose, using already existing words, they easily incorporated such notions into their language. Producing exceedingly long component words to describe something like 1000, much less a million.

I remain unconvinced by this article. When he talks about introducing new words to introduce new ways of thinking, what he is doing is describing a new thought and then giving it a specific word. He IS teaching new things to think about, but one could do that and give it some random made up name in no language, or a compound name in the aboriginal language.

To me, a thought is a thought and we use whatever language skills we have to describe that thought. Again, WHAT we think about is made easier by specific languages, which arise out of social and physical need, but HOW we think is crosscultural.

I could write more, but that is it for now.
posted by edgeways at 9:21 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Having an English and Spanish background, I've often mused about how English is the perfect sales language. In English you put the adjective before the noun, the descriptor is more important than the item. In Spanish it is reversed. In English the possessor comes before the object possessed, "I am Joe's Marketing Device." In Spanish, the object comes first, "I am the marketing device of Joe." In English you exaggerate. "I am so cold." In Spanish, you possess the coldness, not become it. "I have coldness."
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:24 AM on June 25, 2009 [9 favorites]


Still controversial. 2 recent papers (in a very high-profile journal) reported 10 different studies that failed to replicate her findings.

(January & Kako, 2006, Cognition, "Re-evaluating evidence for linguistic relativity: Reply to Boroditsky"; Chen, 2006, Cognition, "Do Chinese and English speakers think about time differently? Failure of replicating Boroditsky")
posted by svenx at 9:25 AM on June 25, 2009 [9 favorites]


After earning a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Stanford in 2001, she served on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences before returning to a faculty position at Stanford.

I like to imagine that lunchtime at the MIT Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences involved lots of snap-fights between the Sapir/Whorf brigade and the Chomsky/Pinker brigade...
posted by muddgirl at 9:25 AM on June 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


OMG. I hope that thought shapes language more than the other way around.

Well, it's interesting. After reading the article, I became more convinced than ever that language and thought shape each other, in sort of a chicken-and-the-egg relationship.

For example, she mentioned how the language of an aboriginal tribe requires its speakers to be well-oriented at all times. However, she doesn't go into the anthropological aspect of that. For example, I would guess that something in their lifestyle -- either presently or historically -- required them to be particularly well-oriented. And these things can be self-reinforcing; i.e. you start thinking of a table as inherently feminine, this causes you to attribute feminine characteristics to tables, which in turn reinforces the notion that tables are 'feminine,' etc.

Boroditsky doesn't make the conclusion that language and thought shape each other; instead she focuses solely on how languages shapes thought. I can't tell if she believes that it's strictly a one-way street, or if she was only focusing on one side of things because she was trying to disprove a common misconception. Perhaps that debate is outside the scope of her research.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:25 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, in fact, there is a feedback loop. Our thinking shapes our language, which in turn shapes our thinking, which in turn shapes our new language, amirite?

On preview, what Afroblanco said.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:26 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'll note something here. What many people objected to about Sapir and Whorf was the implication that language somehow fixed the possibilities of thought permanently after a critical period. (Though the phrase 'critical period' is itself of a later vintage.) Their suspicious claims that, for instance, the Hopi had no concept of time or the passage of time, somehow entailed that the Hopi could never come to understand time and lived in a wholly different sort of conscious realm, at least in the interpretations of others even further removed from psychology, philosophy of mind and linguistics.

From my quick perusal of Boroditsky's article, her overarching thesis does not seem so inflexible. Additions to our lexicon and grammar certainly open up different ways of representing the world, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that there are subtle differences deeper down that empirical research could uncover, and which are themselves somewhat plastic. That's not to prejudge what she'll find or what asshattery others might make of it later, but her starting point sounds more reasonable than what some have argued in the past.
posted by el_lupino at 9:27 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


edgeways - the author is a woman. Of course, Steven Pinker would argue that there's no social harm in assuming that a Default Person is male, but I bet Lera Boroditsky would disagree.
posted by muddgirl at 9:28 AM on June 25, 2009 [5 favorites]


I hope that thought shapes language more than the other way around.

There seems to be more evidence of this than the reverse in my opinion. One of the most important aspects of language is that it can easily evolve to express new ideas, so if a community of speakers needs to communicate in new ways the language will tend to bend toward making it easier to do so.

One very neat example of this in the real world is the evolution of a pidgin to a creole. A pidgin is a bare-bones language that is created as a way to provide easy communication between groups of people with different languages that come into contact with each other. A creole is a pidgin language once it actually starts being used as a native language by children. Here's a good blog post about that process. A quote from the article:

Pidgins, by their very definition, do not count any native speakers. When children are born into a pidgin and start interacting with each other, they do not simply acquire better fluency in what is only their parents’ second language: they invariably develop it into their own richer, full-featured language; what is generically labeled a creole by linguists (capitalized Creole usually refers to one specific language or culture). Though it should be noted that this creolization process does not always take place (there are cases where the original pidgin simply disappears in favor of another language), when it does, it has been shown to spontaneously produce new structures absent from the language spoken and taught by parents.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:28 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


The question is, does language shape our thinking in non-trivial, interesting ways. The fact that people whose language requires them to be aware of their orientation get to be good at knowing their orientation is unsurprising, as is the fact that people who use different metaphors for time tend to think of time in terms of different metaphors.
posted by Phanx at 9:29 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I've been hearing it stated that Sapir Whorf was flat out wrong for a while - I guess it's not as open and shut as that?


From what I understand, the Sapir-Wharf stuff really fell out of favor for a long time. But now there's a huge renewed interest in it (sometimes referred to as Neo-Wharfianism). In fact, at a psychology conference I went to last fall, there was a whole special session about it. Definitely not open and shut... but then again, is this sort of thing ever?
posted by rebel_rebel at 9:32 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


muddgirl, yeah thanks. I did notice after I hit post. Should have paid more attention when I read the article but was more interested in the ideas then who wrote it. I'll have to go give myself some serious penance for dropping into the lazy "him" mode.

Having said that, I still stand behind what I wrote, even with the pronoun snafu.
posted by edgeways at 9:34 AM on June 25, 2009


Neo-Wharfianism? What's up, dock?
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:42 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


lolwut
posted by mhoye at 9:44 AM on June 25, 2009


This is nicely readable, but also a bit confused too. It seems she fails to make the distinction between thinking and thinking about. To say language influences (in a weak sense) how we think is not to say those who speak different languages think differently. It is correct that some languages demand speakers to pay attention to different elements of their environment than other languages. It is also true that people will also operate differently, each according to the metaphors contained in their language. But to say this difference in language, and then operation, shows that people think differently seems to over-reach.

Her own example, that once people are taught different orientation metaphors they will arrange objects differently does not prove her point. In fact, it may prove the opposite. If it is so easy to change thought via language we wouldn’t have a number of social/political and other issues today. Instead, what is happening is people are thinking about spatial (and other given example terms) differently. They are reacting to the metaphors within the language, not to the language itself. Their reactions do not imply a different mode of thought, but a different subject of their attention, one pointed out to them by the foreign metaphor.

What is interesting to me is that despite different metaphors being employed by different languages, how similar the underlying categories are between the languages. For example, some languages see time as a distance metaphor, others as an amount metaphor. But these two metaphors share common presumptions – space and extension in that space. That speakers may physically express the differing metaphors only means the metaphors are different, not that the speakers think differently.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:47 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


See also snow crash
posted by tehloki at 9:49 AM on June 25, 2009


Also, neo or not, any significant, nontrivial theory of linguistic influence on thought would almost certainly need to focus on grammaticization and not the lexicon.

As a linguistic anthropologist, I long ago gave up on engaging in the relativity debate, which goes around the same circle approximately every decade.

And now, in fact, I just spend a lot of my time hanging out with Eskimos in the snow!

I can report that they have as highly refined cognitive and perceptual apprehension of their snowy, icy world in English as in Inupiaq, whether or not they even speak Inupiaq (as many younger folks don't).

The term "culture" is usually missing in these discussions, as if cognition and language were purely individual and ahistorical phenomena. Sapir was very clear about this, and his arguments have been caricatured and reduced unfairly by subsequent generations of linguists.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:55 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


edgeways: I remain unconvinced by this article. When he talks about introducing new words to introduce new ways of thinking, what he is doing is describing a new thought and then giving it a specific word.

But that's different than the cognitive performance tests that were administered in her research, where no new words were introduced.
posted by sleevener at 9:56 AM on June 25, 2009


This seems self-evident.

Our environment - social and otherwise - largely determines the topology of our neural networks, and therefore our approaches to problems and the kind of thoughts we are most likely to think.

Generally speaking when using language we rarely engage in actual cognition in the sense that most people think about it, as it's easier to simply pattern-match social situations and conversational phrases.

Different languages will cause naturally cause different conversational patterns and problem-solving skills to rise to the fore, and therefore drastically alter the brain.

There can be no 'higher internal monologue' that is then expressed through a filter of language, because language dictates the landscape upon which the monologue occurs.
posted by Ryvar at 9:56 AM on June 25, 2009


See also snow crash

See also 1984, Babel 17.
posted by Artw at 9:58 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I liked it when Worf killed Chancellor Gowron. I was all like, finally.
posted by everichon at 10:00 AM on June 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Edgeways - she's not making the claim that different ideas can only be expressed in certain languages, but rather how the structure of language will emphasize certain aspects over others in ways which subtly and unconsciously affect our way of looking at the world. To me, this is so obvious as to be outside of the realm of serious debate - language is how we interact with the world, and is built up of a complex and often arcane system of rules not of our own choosing. It is how our thoughts are structured. Of course it affects thought. Of course it does.

Now the fun is in these questions of where the effects can be seen. So basically my response to this essay is to just want more more more and for others to, yes, try to repeat the results of her studies.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:01 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


she's not making the claim that different ideas can only be expressed in certain languages, but rather how the structure of language will emphasize certain aspects over others in ways which subtly and unconsciously affect our way of looking at the world.

But this is a pretty trivial thesis. Language may affect one's way at looking at things, but it is another thing entirely to claim it affects one's way at physically seeing things. Do speakers of different languages live in different worlds? Of course not! If they did language translation would be nearly impossible. Instead different languages employ different metaphors, but the underlying logic of those metaphors is consistent language to language.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:08 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


"The question is, does language shape our thinking in non-trivial, interesting ways. "

Language is where culture lives. It is the shared bond. It's the shapes into which we pour thought, and the nature of the shapes affects how and whether we can get other people to understand the thought, to wedge it into their consciousness.
posted by Diablevert at 10:09 AM on June 25, 2009


This will be controversial till the funeral of the last doctrinaire Chomskian. It is heinously, utterly, anti-Chomskian.

It is, however, very consonant with the sort of linguistics done by Ronald Langacker, and George Lakoff, and folks like that.

If language affects thought, if languages are not basically interchangeable (as Chomsky believed), then language extinction means a loss of cognitive diversity that might be as dangerous to humanity as a loss of biodiversity.

Chomsky's belief that languages were basically interchangeable had political origins and implications -- that "those people" who speak in that funny way are actually just like us and therefore we ought not to treat them as inferior.... it eliminates the notion that "primitive languages" inferior to "civilized languages" could possibly exist.

However, it also eliminates the notion that exotic languages could possibly have inherent value; to a Chomskian language extinction is the unfortunate loss of a data point for linguistics, and that is all. It has no other consequence, since all languages are really the same language with some switches flipped differently and different arbitrary tokens representing semantic units.
posted by edheil at 10:11 AM on June 25, 2009 [9 favorites]


When I first learned German, I assumed the word for cheese (Käse) was feminine, mainly because the word ends with an E like many other words that end with E. I also falsely assumed that there was some sort of logical derivative order: Cheese comes from Milch (also feminine), which comes from female mammals. Well there you have it! Pluse cheese is yummy and soft (mostly) and chewy. It all fit neatly together in the language compartment of my little brain.

Then I found out after years of saying die Käse, that I should have been saying der Käse and I had been forming my articles and pronouns incorrectly. I explained my logic to the person who set me straight and she said, "Nein, Käse ist männlich, weil er stinkt!"
posted by chillmost at 10:12 AM on June 25, 2009 [21 favorites]


Language may affect one's way at looking at things, but it is another thing entirely to claim it affects one's way at physically seeing things.

I'm not quite sure she claimed that it changes how one physically sees anything. Did she make that hypothesis? Did I somehow miss that?

As for how we perceive things, however, yes. Absolutely. Language affects our perception greatly. Again, this seems like a given to me. But to give a turn-about example to what she was saying about the Russian distinction between light blue and dark blue - that's exactly analogous to how English-speakers perceive red vs pink. If tasked with doing so, we could learn to speak in a way where it's all just under the heading of "Red" or some other third word, and eventually being to register pink as "light red," but as it stands, we see pink as something distinct from red. The language changes our perceptions. But I don't think anyone is claiming that it changes the mechanics of the eye or anything.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:14 AM on June 25, 2009


A lot of folks are claiming this is trivial or self-evident, but the dominant linguistics schools of the past half century have denied that any of this could possibly be true. Language was supposed to be done by a "language module" of the brain, that operated independently of the rest, and followed its own arbitrary rules. Different languages were supposed to be different manifestations of the same basic human language with some switches flipped to determine whether verbs came before nouns or not. Grammar was supposed to be an arbitrary system totally separate from thought, except where they met in the formalistic world of Logical Form.

This is stuff ordinary people have believed for many years based on their day to day experience, but it is stuff that most mainstream linguists have completely denied for decades (in reaction to earlier generations of linguists who perhaps took it too far).
posted by edheil at 10:16 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Language translation is nearly impossible for higher levels of exactitude.
posted by Casuistry at 10:17 AM on June 25, 2009


The fact that language can be imprecise is demonstrated very clearly by how many interpretations you guys have made about her article.

I believe she is simply saying that a person's language shapes their thinking. Seems reasonable to me. Your language is the most important tool in your abstract thinking toolbox, because so much of the input and output is via language.

Stated another way, if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But I ain't no linguist, cunning or otherwise.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:18 AM on June 25, 2009


Obligatory recommendation for Lakoff, particularly Metaphors We Live By and Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. (One of my favorite papers I wrote as an undergrad was a paper on gender and conceptual categories in Irish Gaelic, based on Lakoff's work in WFaDT.) If the linked article intrigues you, I recommend his work as well.

Linguistic anthropology and the impact of language on culture (and vice versa) is part of what led to my interest in comparative literature and my recent AskMe.
posted by elfgirl at 10:35 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Seconing elfgirl's shout out.
posted by edheil at 10:39 AM on June 25, 2009


Perhaps linguistic types can answer this for me; do we have any idea why "gendering" nouns arose in the first place? What function could it have served?

/hated having to learn stupid noun genders in German class
posted by emjaybee at 10:40 AM on June 25, 2009


Navelgazer, but I think "emphasize certain aspects over others" is just another way of saying language reflects the situation. If a language is structured to emphasize certain aspects over others, it is because something is more important to those speakers. We develop language to concisely express ideas that concern us.

We are not passive users of language and we, each one of us, modifies how we speak, and how we use our language/s, the arcane is not nearly so inaccessible, every year many many words are added to the English language, how we put thoughts together into words, and words into language is always changing.

Language affects how we think by conveying ideas from person to person, but those ideas are not confined to a specific language, and if a new idea is not confined to a specific language then that language can not claim to be a distinct way of thinking, but merely the tool that a specific people use to express that idea. The directional (N. S. E. W.) descriptions of the aborigines is fascinating, but their language is not what provokes or reinforces the idea, rather the idea is described by the language, and the continuation of expression of the idea, in whatever language, is what reinforces it. Language is a very powerful social tool, it may allow us to think more precisely, but is not wholly necessary for thought itself. Our thoughts are much more than just words, or language, I can look out the window, see rain clouds and put on a rain jacket going out the door without any formulation of words, English or otherwise.


Yes, language can affect how we think, but I do not think it does to the level people emotionally want it to. Indeed, often when people argue it MUST play a vital role, words like subtly and unconscious appear. But, I posit, that if language was this powerful, that language has a strong direct influence on how we think there would be nothing subtle about it. I believe, again, language influences what we think about, in that it is pre-loaded with cultural reinforcers, but the fluidity and mutability of languages means we are not locked into a static field of what we think about. And if we are not locked into what we think about, then no language can claim to be the source of HOW we think, but a reflection thereof.

svenx has already posted cites to two sources that where unable to replicate the author's findings.
posted by edgeways at 10:40 AM on June 25, 2009


Our environment - social and otherwise - largely determines the topology of our neural networks, and therefore our approaches to problems and the kind of thoughts we are most likely to think.

Obviously environment has an effect on how we learn and grow, but I'm not sure if it's as drastic as you're making it out to be here. A lot of the structure and functionality of the brain is more or less the same for everyone, as evidenced by things like localized brain damage having identical effects on different people. Also, it's hard to make any definite statements about brain network structure, because we still know so little about how the brain actually works on that level.

Generally speaking when using language we rarely engage in actual cognition in the sense that most people think about it, as it's easier to simply pattern-match social situations and conversational phrases.

If this was the case then it would be much, much easier to create artificial intelligence programs that can come anywhere near fluency in natural language. Fifty years ago the idea that creating an AI chatbot program that could carry on a very simple conversation would be significantly more difficult than creating a chess program that could beat a chess grandmaster would have been laughable. But Deep Blue beat arguably the greatest chess player of all time over a decade ago and modern chatbots are still not a lot more convincing than ELIZA was. Language is an extremely complicated system that even modern linguists don't fully understand, so it's much more than simple pattern-matching.

Different languages will cause naturally cause different conversational patterns and problem-solving skills to rise to the fore, and therefore drastically alter the brain.

There can be no 'higher internal monologue' that is then expressed through a filter of language, because language dictates the landscape upon which the monologue occurs.


What evidence is there of any of this though? The blog post I mentioned earlier talked about deaf children who first taught no formal language at all, and later developed their own basic sign language, which as it was taught to younger children quickly evolved into a more complex and expressive language. With your theory, wouldn't those original deaf children be cognitively disabled to the point of not being able to think at all, considering that they were never given the landscape you claim is necessary for thought?
posted by burnmp3s at 10:42 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Edgeways - she's not making the claim that different ideas can only be expressed in certain languages, but rather how the structure of language will emphasize certain aspects over others in ways which subtly and unconsciously affect our way of looking at the world.

I get the sense that this misunderstanding is one of the reasons Whorfianism has been taboo in linguistics for so long. It's a short step from "Interesting — so you're saying the Hopi think about time differently than we do?" to "YOU RACIST BASTARD! HOW DARE YOU IMPLY THAT THE HOPI CAN'T COMPREHEND LINEAR TIME?!"

And occasionally someone does make a hard claim like that. Take the whole kerfuffle over Dan Everett and the Pirahã. Part of the problem there was that Everett really, seriously, no misunderstanding, no beating around the bush, just flat-out claimed that the Pirahã are incapable of learning to count. That's serious business, and the jury's still out on whether Everett could possibly be right or not. A lot of us think that he just has to be mistaken — brains are brains and people are people and we're all capable of the same thoughts, right?

But anyway, even most serious Whorfians don't go that far. Take this stuff about direction. I know some people who work on it. None of them would claim that speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre or the dozens of other languages like it can't comprehend relative terms like "left" and "right," or for that matter that speakers of English can't comprehend absolute terms like "North" and "South."

Rather, the claim is that Kuuk Thaayorre speakers wind up with brains that are optimized for representing space in north-south-east-west terms, and English speakers wind up with brains that are optimized for representing it in left-right-front-back terms. Each of us can force ourselves to represent things in the other coordinate system; it just takes a little work and concentration. (If I say to you "Pass me that book that's north of your elbow" you have to stop, figure out that you're facing west, translate "north" into "right," and then look to your right. Kuuk Thaayorre speakers would have to go to the same extra work if you asked them for something to their right.)

What Boroditsky's claiming is that when you optimize your brain for a certain way of representing space, you're likely to take advantage of that by representing time in the same way. So people who represent space in left-right terms will tend to imagine the future as being to their right or their left. And people who represent space in east-west terms will tend to imagine the future as being to the east or west.



I'm using "represent" rather than "think" here on purpose, because I think it actually clears up some misunderstanding about what's going on. Think about the difference between polar and cartesian coordinates, or RGB and CMYK color, or arrays and linked lists, or hanzi and pinyin. In each case, you've got two different ways of representing the same content. Anything that you can do with one, you can do with the other; anything you can express with one, you can express with the other; but some things are more natural with one or the other.

And that difference in naturalness makes a difference. Suppose you're checking a list of names for duplicates. If they're written in pinyin, the obvious thing to do is alphabetize the list; if they're written in hanzi, the obvious thing to do is to sort the names by the number of strokes in each character. So here we've got two different representations that lead to two different behaviors, even though they both represent the same content. That's what Whorffians are talking about when they say language affects thought: to put it in CS-ier terms, your choice of data structures determines your choice of algorithms, even if in principle you can do anything with one data structure that you can do with the other.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:44 AM on June 25, 2009 [9 favorites]


I've often wondered if any of the people who have strong opinions on this are fluent in more than one language.

My own personal observations have been that those fluent in multiple languages tend to be proponents of language relativism. And, conversely, monolingual folks are the ones who dismiss it.

Does anyone know if Steven Pinker can speak a language other than English?
posted by vacapinta at 10:46 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Navelgazer: What I see in the article is a trivial thesis that language influences perspective impling something non-trivial - that language influences perception (up and down, color sense, time etc.)

She does strongly imply, if not say, that differences in language affect our sense perceptions:

In Russian there is no single word that covers all the colors that English speakers call "blue." Russian makes an obligatory distinction between light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). Does this distinction mean that siniy blues look more different from goluboy blues to Russian speakers?
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:49 AM on June 25, 2009


This will be controversial till the funeral of the last doctrinaire Chomskian. It is heinously, utterly, anti-Chomskian.

I don't think the opposition is quite as cut-and-dried as this. Yes, given a very rigid interpretation of Chomsky's guiding ideas (maybe this is what you mean by "doctrinaire Chomskian"), the differences among languages would not be able to touch the underlying universals, so that people's thought processes would be the same regardless of what language they spoke. At the other extreme, according to a kind of anything-goes linguistic relativism where differences among languages both constrain thought processes and are themselves unconstrained, there would be no sense in talking about cognitive or linguistic universals at all.

But it doesn't seem hard--indeed it seems pretty natural--to imagine a position between these two poles, where there are both underlying universals and cognitive differences among language speakers. You would just need a somewhat less rigid and all-or-nothing notion of the universal. None of the differences that Boroditsky adduces (assuming for the moment her results are viable) seems so radical that you'd have to posit a completely unbridgeable gap between the cognitive capacities or tendencies of different language groups. In fact, she describes several instances of experimental subjects switching between cognitive practices without too much trouble.

Probably what is need is a less metaphysically charged and absolutizing way of thinking about what we mean when we say "language," "thought," "way of thinking," etc.

(This seems to run roughly parallel to the debate in philosophy over the concept of a "conceptual scheme," a fundamental structure of concepts that governs and articulates our thinking. Donald Davidson argued, to put it very roughly, that the fact that we can acquire ways of thinking proves that there can't be any such thing as a conceptual scheme; responding to Davidson, Hilary Putnam argued that there are conceptual schemes, it's just that they're mutable and constantly fluctuating. The caricatured version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that Pinker and his ilk disparage is based on something like the implausible notion of conceptual scheme that Davidson refuted; Boroditsky seems to be working with something more like Putnam's flexible notion.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 10:52 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


edgewise: The classic example is the Inuit and the multiple words for snow, right?

*facepalm*

The Inuit language is agglutinative, like German. They can mash any set of words together to make a new word whenever they want one. So they have an infinite number of words for snow, and for everything else.

There are certainly new ideas, but I think most languages can find perfectly reasonable ways to express those ideas.

Well, sure. If you have an idea and you want to express it, you'll do whatever needs to be done in order to do so, whether that means elaborate metaphors, or pointing at the object of interest and saying "I will call it a wug!" or whatever. But what about all those cases where you need to express some idea, and don't want to put so much work into it? You'll probably use whatever terms and structures your language already has, right?

Look a bit further on in the article, and you'll find an example of some experiments where Spanish and German speakers were asked to describe things that had different grammatical genders in their native languages. Even though the test was done in English, the speakers chose descriptive terms that had the same gender in their native language as the item they were asked to describe:

To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering."

Which is not to say that the German speakers couldn't describe the bridge in the same manner as the Spanish speakers, but they weren't specifically asked to, so they went with their native language's default.

Defaults are important. If you go out and buy a computer, and you don't ask for any particular kind, you will get a computer with Windows on it. This is why Microsoft has a majority market share. Likewise, when a German painter (one paragraph later in the article) decides to paint Death, he will likely paint a man, because the German word for "death" is masculine; a Russian speaker will likely paint a woman.

The effects are real and measurable; the question is what sort of impact they have on people's everyday lives, outside of art and such. Spanish may have sexist tendencies—male is the default gender for everything, and a group of mostly-women with just one man in it is considered a "male" group—but does that really mean that, say, people are more apt to ignore women in a mixed-sex group? This article doesn't say.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:54 AM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Bah. Should have previewed.

The directional (N. S. E. W.) descriptions of the aborigines is fascinating, but their language is not what provokes or reinforces the idea, rather the idea is described by the language, and the continuation of expression of the idea, in whatever language, is what reinforces it. Language is a very powerful social tool, it may allow us to think more precisely, but is not wholly necessary for thought itself. Our thoughts are much more than just words, or language, I can look out the window, see rain clouds and put on a rain jacket going out the door without any formulation of words, English or otherwise.

This is a good and interesting point. You get into a sort of chicken-and-egg problem here: do the Kuuk Thaayorre think in absolute directions because their language privileges absolute-direction terms over relative-direction terms? Or does their language privilege those terms because that's already the way they think?

But at very least, language is the vector through which shared habits of mental representation spread. Let's say I represent the world like this and you represent the world like that. If we never talk, then that difference in representation doens't matter. If we talk, but we do it in a language that conceals the difference in representation, then it doesn't matter. But if we talk in a way that reveals the difference in representation, then the difference starts to be a big deal; we're going to notice it, we're going to stumble over it, and we're going to have to find a compromise in order to communicate.


Perhaps linguistic types can answer this for me; do we have any idea why "gendering" nouns arose in the first place? What function could it have served?

One theory is that gender is good for pronoun disambiguation. "He/she/it kissed him/her/it" is ambiguous; "He kissed her" and "She kissed him" and "She kissed it" and so on are all clear. Of course, it's not perfect. "He kissed him" is still unclear.

There are Bantu languages with dozens of genders (more or less; they don't correspond to biological sex, obviously, but neither does German gender, as you're learning). They lean even more heavily on gender for disambiguation than English does. They can get away with using fewer explicit nouns and more pronouns (or, well, pronoun-like things; I'm glossing over some stuff here) because more often it's the case that the subject and object of a sentence are in different genders anyway.


>She does strongly imply, if not say, that differences in language affect our sense perceptions:

In Russian there is no single word that covers all the colors that English speakers call "blue." Russian makes an obligatory distinction between light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). Does this distinction mean that siniy blues look more different from goluboy blues to Russian speakers?


I believe there's experimental evidence that it does — that your language's color terms affect your judgments on color similarity. This is less up my alley than the stuff about direction, though, so someone else probably has a bigger clue than me.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:56 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


What Boroditsky's claiming is that when you optimize your brain for a certain way of representing space, you're likely to take advantage of that by representing time in the same way.

Well, yeah. But does this imply much beyond how things are represented?
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:58 AM on June 25, 2009


The article seemed a bit thin to be, but it was still an interesting read.
posted by Pecinpah at 10:58 AM on June 25, 2009


Light blue, dark blue. English uses qualifiers to describe some color sensations. I see no reason to assume I see shades of blue different than a Russian speaker.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:03 AM on June 25, 2009


Spanish may have sexist tendencies—male is the default gender for everything, and a group of mostly-women with just one man in it is considered a "male" group—but does that really mean that, say, people are more apt to ignore women in a mixed-sex group? This article doesn't say.

Even if there was good data on that sort of thing, it's still a chicken and egg problem. Is sexist language a side effect of sexist culture or is sexist culture a side effect of sexist language? If you could find people who grew up in a Spanish cultural environment but never learned Spanish and instead learned a language with more gender-neutral words, you might be able to infer something about the actual effect of the language on behavior with regards to gender. But it would be nearly impossible to find significant numbers of those kinds of people or otherwise control for the cultural variables that most likely have a greater impact on behavior and thought than language does.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:05 AM on June 25, 2009


When I moved from Germany to London a long time ago I had quite an interesting experience. I spoke English almost fluently before but I was still thinking in German. After living in London for almost a year that started to shift. For maybe 2 or 3 months I was gradually starting to think less in German and more in English until the transition was complete.
During that time I would find myself thinking about the same issue first in one and then in the other language.
I noticed that I would come to slightly different conclusions depending on the language used. In terms of content the conclusion would usually be the same but often one language would make me feel either more positive or more negative about it than the other. As I became aware of this and started to observe it more consciously I realized that it seemed to arise from a couple of causes:
1) some concepts exist in one but not the other language (standard example: Schadenfreude). Being able/unable to use these concepts in your thought process colors experiences differently in terms of emotional response.
2) some words exist in both languages but they have subtle differences in connotation. A particular word may have a slightly more negative or positive feel to it in one language compared to the translated word in the other. Again this colors experiences differently as far as emotional context is concerned.

And this is just German and English which are not very different from each other really. Even here I noticed the subtle influence of language on emotional responses to thoughts.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:12 AM on June 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


Well, yeah. But does this imply much beyond how things are represented?

Depends on what sort of implications you're looking for.

It's unlikely to give you big-picture ethnic stereotypes the way some pop science writers want it to. No "Finns are less sexist because they don't have grammatical gender," no "Indians are always late because they see time differently." But, hell, we don't want big-picture ethnic stereotypes like that. They're sloppy and mean-spirited — and more importantly, they're almost always wrong, so if you discover that your linguistic theory predicts them, that's a strike against your theory in my book.

I do think it's likely to give you... well, like I put it before, algorithmic differences. Given a task that requires you to juggle a bunch of spatial and temporal representations, speakers of different languages are likely to hit on different explanations. To cog-sci types, that's exciting news. It might have consequences in everyday life too — it'd be interesting, for instance, to see what an absolute-direction culture comes up with when they design their own calendar or their own train timetables — but honestly, stuff like that seems more useful for impressing reporters than for really understanding other linguistic communities.


Light blue, dark blue. English uses qualifiers to describe some color sensations. I see no reason to assume I see shades of blue different than a Russian speaker.

The research on this tends to distinguish between basic color terms and the others. Basically, a color term X is basic if nobody would say "Well, X is really a shade of Y." So English speakers say "Light blue is really just a shade of blue," but don't say "Green is really just a shade of blue." There are other languages where there's a single color term covering both blue and green, so that speakers would say "Blue is just a shade of grue" and "Green is just a shade of grue."

I don't know for sure about Russian — like I said, this isn't really my ball of wax — but if a Russian speaker wouldn't be inclined to say "goloboy is just a shade of siniy" or "siniy is just a shade of goloboy" or "goloboy and siniy are just shades of FOO," then that suggests they are categorizing things differently than us. The hierarchy of color categories is different for them, even if every color ultimately finds a spot on both hierarchies.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:12 AM on June 25, 2009


Basically, a color term X is basic...

Ugh. Sorry.

posted by nebulawindphone at 11:13 AM on June 25, 2009


elwoodwiles: The idea is not that you are incapable of differentiating dark blue from light blue. The idea is that, because of language, you recognize both of them under same umbrella, which a Russian speaker wouldn't do. So yes, there's a difference in perception, which may or may not be trivial, but is nonetheless there.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:14 AM on June 25, 2009


Also, it's hard to make any definite statements about brain network structure, because we still know so little about how the brain actually works on that level.

We know enough for making statements in a non-formal setting (like, say, a community blog) with reasonable assurance. The brain is a massive, highly-interconnected tapestry of neurons, with an at best very fuzzy association between semantic topology and neural topology. All of these interconnections, whether they are used for memory representation or as executive reasoning pathways, are competing with each other in a quasi-Darwinian fashion for 'attention' to refresh themeselves against low-level electrochemical background noise which is constantly slowly degrading or 'unwinding' the linkages between the component neurons and their greater topological structures. As the brain receives new data and is confronted with new systems that pose new cognitive modeling problems, it reappropriates whatever least-used topologically local neurons are at hand for that purpose.

Over time certain pathways become firmly entrenched due to constant usage in executive reasoning, visual processing, auditory processing, speech parsing, muscle memory, etc. As the topology ossifies, learning new things becomes more difficult due to the inability to extend existing semantic structures because of hard resource/spatial limitations of the neural layer. Neurogenesis and the regional signal threshold modifiers introduced by emotions unfortunately complicate matters further.

This model accounts for just about everything seen in baseline human cognitive development, day to day experience, and every medical edgecase involving brain damage that I've ever encountered. It's not new, and it's not my own idea; just a synthesis of various books, essays, and research papers I read when I was studying cognitive science in school.

Because linguistic structure of necessity *must* impose gross topological differences in the executive reasoning pathways of the brain, it must therefore impose substantial differences in the universe-modeling necessary for high-level problem solving. Additionally, while, as you say:

Language is an extremely complicated system that even modern linguists don't fully understand, so it's much more than simple pattern-matching.

the vast majority of human speech encountered by people in day-to-day life can be boiled down to a few thousand statements with nous, verbs, and adjectives swapped to fit the circumstances. This also happens to be conveniently topologically efficient.

With your theory, wouldn't those original deaf children be cognitively disabled to the point of not being able to think at all, considering that they were never given the landscape you claim is necessary for thought?

No. In this case the linguistic landscape arises in stepwise fashion with the shared cognitive models of their 'culture' to fit the needs of the individuals in their environment.

All of the above is a shot in the dark, but I challenge you to find an aspect of human behavior or a medical edge case that it doesn't easily explain.
posted by Ryvar at 11:19 AM on June 25, 2009


Hairy Lobster: I noticed that I would come to slightly different conclusions depending on the language used.

This is really fascinating. Any concrete examples you could share?
posted by Adam_S at 11:22 AM on June 25, 2009


""do the Kuuk Thaayorre think in absolute directions because their language privileges absolute-direction terms over relative-direction terms? Or does their language privilege those terms because that's already the way they think?"

If you take some random kid from anywhere in the world and had him raised by the Kuuk Thaayorre, he'd come up thinking of language in this way, yes? The language encodes the culture, it is how the culture is transmitted.

Light blue, dark blue. English uses qualifiers to describe some color sensations. I see no reason to assume I see shades of blue different than a Russian speaker.

Point me at a forest, as me to describe it. I'd say something along the lines of, "Uh, it's a bunch of trees?" Poke me a little harder, maybe I'd be able to say, "There's a lot of evergreens in it." I'm a city person and I don't know much about forrests.

Point a National Park Ranger at the same forrest, you're likely to get something like "It's a temperate North American hardwood forest, primarily coniferous with a sprinkling of young elms and beeches."*

Did the trees change? No. Are our optic nerves different? No. But a forest ranger notices a lot more about the nature of a forest, and has a lot more words to describe what he sees. Yank me away from said forest and ask me, "Did the forest have a lot of skinny white trees with brown stripes?" and I'd probably say something like. "Hunh, yeah, I think I saw a couple. I'm not sure."
Ask the forest ranger, "Were there a lot of beeches?" and he'd be able to say, "Yes, a fair sprinkling." Or "No, rather few."

When we look at something, there's shit-tons of data that enter our eyes and heads and get processed. But what we notice? What we remember? What we think is important? All that gets selected, filtered. And language is the filtering system, it's the label on the boxes that determine where concepts and information get sorted, what they get put next too, whether they get tossed entirely as irrelevant.

More important, though, is archetype --- the abstract Paltonic image of something that arises in our heads. There's an area where language has real and obvious power. Say to me, "So there was this tall guy standing there,"and I picture Wilt Chamberlain. Say "So there was this big guy," and I think James Gandolfini. But in French, either way he's "un grand homme," there's no way to make such a distinction. There's no such thing as "tallness," or rather "grand-ness" has elements of both bigness and tallness. Granted, these topics are not entirely unrelated in English. But they are distinct.


*That may or may not makes sense. I really don't know much about forests.
posted by Diablevert at 11:26 AM on June 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


Still on the blue/green topic, I have a little first-hand experience with that. Apparently colloquial Chinese, despite having different words for blue and green, tends to use the two somewhat interchangeably. Thus, my parents, who lived in China until they were in their late 20s, tend to call green things blue and blue things green. But this isn't only in Chinese--they do it in English too! I've always wondered if maybe one's native language influences how one perceives things like color and that's why my parents do that.

Also, in response to the comments about language influencing perception versus perception influencing language, yes, no doubt language developed as an adaptation to the surroundings of the group that developed it. But the fact that English still uses foward-backward and Chinese uses up-down language for time doesn't seem like something we continue to create with our current perceptions. So while language is adaptive, I'd argue it isn't within such short time spans that it wouldn't affect perception as well.
posted by inara at 11:27 AM on June 25, 2009


I grew up in two languages, so I always sort of wondered about how each shaped the way that I thought. I know that there's an entirely different emotional impact to the Spanish "tengo hambre" (I have hunger) than to the english "I am hungry;" I'd even elucidate upon the point occasionally to illustrate how language imposes structure upon thought.

And now, thanks to Metafilter, I find that concept to be a hotly-debated issue among certain academics; that whole linguistic careers are being built on variations on this line of thought.

Every so often, Metafilter give me a sliver of insight into an entire field of human endeavor, a glimpse of the passionate pursuits in which other human beings engage, and makes me realize that there's a whole world of enthusiasms out there that I'm kind of vaguely interested in, and that other people take way more seriously than I ever would.

Thanks, Metafilter!
posted by MrVisible at 11:27 AM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


*summarily dismisses*
posted by jock@law at 11:30 AM on June 25, 2009


elwoodwiles: The idea is not that you are incapable of differentiating dark blue from light blue. The idea is that, because of language, you recognize both of them under same umbrella, which a Russian speaker wouldn't do.

Exactly--you attend to them differently, because attention is tied directly to our apprehension of difference. If two colors are categorically different (blue vs. red), you attend to them more than if you think of them as merely different degrees of the same category of color (light-red vs. dark red). In fact, all colors form a single continuum with only more or less arbitrary (if uniform by convention) boundaries to define the transitions from one color to the next.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:38 AM on June 25, 2009


I tend to believe that language evolves in response to physical and social environments. The classic example is the Inuit and the multiple words for snow, right?

I can't believe no one had a shitfit about this (where are all the Language Log readers at?). Just for the record, the only thing this is a classic example of is statements on language that are completely incorrect.
posted by Falconetti at 11:38 AM on June 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Like MrVisible I grew up in two languages-English and French, with some others thrown in for briefer periods before the age of 18- Italian, German, Russian-. I had never really thought about how the gendering in some of those might have affected my sense of the world and of myself. Hm, I'm going to have to ponder this for a while.
posted by mareli at 11:46 AM on June 25, 2009


I would just like to say that I had no idea how many linguistic/psycholinguistic-type people there are here on MeFi! It warms my little heart.
posted by rebel_rebel at 11:50 AM on June 25, 2009


Because linguistic structure of necessity *must* impose gross topological differences in the executive reasoning pathways of the brain, it must therefore impose substantial differences in the universe-modeling necessary for high-level problem solving.

If this is the case, why is there not clear unambiguous data showing these topological differences in people who speak different languages? If the reason is that these topological differences are not directly or indirectly observable enough to document such changes, how do you know that they exist at all in any scientifically valid way?

the vast majority of human speech encountered by people in day-to-day life can be boiled down to a few thousand statements with nous, verbs, and adjectives swapped to fit the circumstances. This also happens to be conveniently topologically efficient.

Everyday speech is usually made up of a few thousand vocabulary words and a much smaller set of grammatical structures. But saying that the process is no more than taking a few thousand template sentences and swapping out words is a gross oversimplification of how language works. It's like saying that mathematics is about taking a standard equation and swapping out the numbers to make it mean something else.

In this case the linguistic landscape arises in stepwise fashion with the shared cognitive models of their 'culture' to fit the needs of the individuals in their environment.

But how? According to your earlier statement, there is no higher internal monologue that is then expressed through a filter of language. In my opinion the development of sign language in that case is clear evidence that such a higher level monologue does exist, because not only could their ideas be expressed though the evolving new sign language, but they built that language from scratch with no outside help. If language is mostly a matter of learning a few thousand speech templates until they form a certain neural topology and then swapping words around, how did they go through the key language development isolated with no language exposure at all, only to spontaneously create a language when coming into contact with other deaf children? To me the only explanation that makes sense is that the core components of language are innate rather than learned, and that learned languages are very much a filter on top of the core language constructs that we all have and use when communicating with others and constructing ideas.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:04 PM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


GREAT THREAD MEFITES!

I read Sapir/Whorf decades ago and it left me with what I think is a more basic question: Can you have a thought that you don't have the words for?
That is, doesn't language constraint the scope of our thinking? I think it does.
posted by ahimsakid at 12:05 PM on June 25, 2009


The lexical stuff seems like it's a little bit trivial. Point of evidence: 3 days ago at work a wee girl took my pile of blue pens, pencils, and crayons and sorted them into синий and голубой (the others were also piled by colour). Sure, she was behaving in a measurably different way to a similarly fussy child in the UK, but I'm sure you could train an English-speaking child to do the same. Or rather... you could if you used to different terms for blue consistently, it would probably be quite difficult otherwise. "No! Not there! That's the blue pile, and that pencil's... blue. Um. Yeah". But there's a difference between saying "those are different colours" when we talk about crayons and when we talk about buying wallpaper (I'm sorry, but I don't see the difference between all those shades of "almost white"), and I don't think it ultimately affects The Way We Think.

The gender stuff is more interesting... for starters, the original carvers didn't imbue "tables" with gender: they acquired it in every gendered language. I would dearly love to know how. I would certainly like to know if gendered verbs and adjectives have different connotations. In Russian, "avtomobil" and "mashina" both mean "car", but with masculine and feminine gender respectively. In most places this would be a rhetorical question, but maybe here I'll get a link to a pdf: do "novaya" and "noviy" mean anything different in "novaya mashina" and "noviy avtomobil"? Does it make a difference that "problem" has different genders in different languages?

To get down to brass tacks, the problem(a) everyone seems to have here is that nobody disputes that culture affects thinking, but language and culture are strongly correlated, and it's a devil of a problem deciding whether language affects thinking independently from culture.

Also, can we take the "inuit words for snow" meme out to an ice floe and let it fend for itself?
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:07 PM on June 25, 2009


Can you have a thought that you don't have the words for?

Unequivocally, yes. Or rather, I often have thoughts that are incompletely summed up in words. It's the reason literature is so rich with metaphors, no?. Otherwise, instead of saying, "It's like this," we'd say, "it is this".

I always wonder why Helen Verran's book doesn't get more play in the linguistic community. Her thesis is, essentially, the same, although from a different discipline - that cultural counting systems/counting words/counting schemes lead to different performances among children on certain tasks.
posted by muddgirl at 12:15 PM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


"language affects thinking independently from culture"

I think that's like wondering if a virus can affect the body independently from the disease....
posted by Diablevert at 12:23 PM on June 25, 2009


If this is the case, why is there not clear unambiguous data showing these topological differences in people who speak different languages

As I understand it, haven't fairly major topological differences been demonstrated not only in the brains of people who speak the same languages but even people who have close genetic ties? I mean, speaking not necessarily at the gross functional level (assuming there's no major brain damage), but just below it?

Research since the 1970's or so has tended to support the idea that the brain can be quite elastic. Even gross cognitive functions aren't necessarily rigidly localized, as demonstrated by clinical cases of individuals with severe brain damage whose brains reorganize themselves to work around the damage and restore function.

Or consider the guy I posted about a while back, who still functioned normally despite the fact that fully 75% of his brain was completely missing.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:23 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


> I read Sapir/Whorf decades ago and it left me with what I think is a more basic question: Can you have a thought that you don't have the words for?

Unequivocally, yes. Or rather, I often have thoughts that are incompletely summed up in words. It's the reason literature is so rich with metaphors, no? Otherwise, instead of saying, "It's like this," we'd say, "it is this".


Another example of this is kinesthetic thinking: what we call "muscle memory," plus the thought that goes into planning physical action and predicting what effects it'll have.

Think about what happens when you expect a stairway to have one more step than it actually has, so that you put your foot "through" the step that "was" there. If you've had the experience (and, as it happens, most people who live around stairs have had it) then I can direct your attention to your memory of it. But if you haven't had the experience, then there's no use my trying to explain it to you. The only way for you to get that thought into your head is to have the experience that produces it.

Now, this points out an ambiguity in what it means to "have the words" for something. In a sense, I do have the words for that stepping-through-the-top-stair sensation — I just described it in the last paragraph and you knew what I meant, right? I can allude to the sensation just fine. What I can't do is convey it to you in words.

I've got a hunch that we can allude to any thought we're capable of having. But we certainly can't convey 'em all verbally.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:32 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


That Verran book looks wonderful, muddgirl. I guess I must be one of those linguists it hasn't been getting play with. Thanks!
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:33 PM on June 25, 2009


muddgirl said"I often have thoughts that are incompletely summed up in words." Doesn't that make the point? The ineffable is that which we don't have words for . . . whether that be a feeling, a mood, or a holy notion. Metaphors and smilies work to bridge the gap, but the gap is clearly there, no?
posted by ahimsakid at 12:38 PM on June 25, 2009


Diablevert: I'll argue right now that it isn't, seeing as the English language hasn't changed significantly in the last 200 years, but the culture has (women, slavery). Specifically, the word for slavery hasn't changed, but our attitudes have.

More handwavingly, I don't see anything inherently ridiculous about the idea of a China, with a Chinese-speaking culture, believing in the values of the USA, or a USA where everyone speaks English, proclaiming the values of contemporary China. Culture changes with time, language changes with time, I don't see any compelling mechanism which compels them to remain in lockstep.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:41 PM on June 25, 2009


That Verran book looks wonderful, muddgirl. I guess I must be one of those linguists it hasn't been getting play with. Thanks!

Yeah, I read it during an STS course. It's not surprising that there's overlap between cognitive science and STS, but little communication. But they share a lot of common techniques.

Metaphors and smilies work to bridge the gap, but the gap is clearly there, no?

I think we're in agreement. Unless I misunderstood your point.
posted by muddgirl at 12:43 PM on June 25, 2009


As I understand it, haven't fairly major topological differences been demonstrated not only in the brains of people who speak the same languages but even people who have close genetic ties?

No, I agree with that, I wasn't being specific enough in my wording. Specifically my point was that if a specific language structure systematically imposes different neural topologies that affect things like problem solving, there should be observable evidence of those specific topological differences between people who speak different languages, above and beyond the evidence that all people have wildly different brain activity at a low enough level. Otherwise those kinds of claims aren't scientifically valid.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:43 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Heh. There's so little communication, I didn't even know what STS stood for until I googled it. (The Society of Thoracic Surgeons? Wut?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:45 PM on June 25, 2009


No, I agree with that, I wasn't being specific enough in my wording. Specifically my point was that if a specific language structure systematically imposes different neural topologies that affect things like problem solving, there should be observable evidence of those specific topological differences between people who speak different languages, above and beyond the evidence that all people have wildly different brain activity at a low enough level. Otherwise those kinds of claims aren't scientifically valid.

My sense is that there's a signal/noise problem here. We can't always tell differences in neuroanatomy that make a functional difference from those that don't. If we look at speakers of two typologically different languages, we're guaranteed to find differences in their brains, but we won't know if those differences count as ones that confirm some sort of Whorffian theory or not. We won't know whether they're significant or just noise.

So observing behavioral differences, in studies like the ones mentioned in the FPP article, is about as close as we can get.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:50 PM on June 25, 2009


I've got a hunch that we can allude to any thought we're capable of having. But we certainly can't convey 'em all verbally.

But naming a thing helps fix it, gives it a little box in the sorting system, a place to exist in our heads. To riff on your example: Esprit d'escalier. Practically everyone has had that experience---coming up with a good comeback a shade too late to deliver it --- and if I wanted to I could easily allude to that sensation in a sentence or two, English-speaker to English-speaker, and you would almost certainly recognize what I meant. But if we were two Francophones, then the whole sensation of that is encapsulated in the phrase, and if I used that phrase not only would you understand what I mean instantly I could riff on it, play with, add to it based on that sense of common understanding --- maybe something like esprit de la cage d'ascenseur, spirit of the elevator shaft, to denote not merely a light regret at coming up with your comeback too late but a bitter reflection made after you've already been humiliated and are plummeting to your metaphorical doom.

So there's plenty of common sensations and experience people have that there aren't good words for. That one's of the pleasures of good writing, finding a writer who can name some of those things for you. But the words and concepts that we do choose to give a name to, the ones that stick around --- these are the things that encapsulate culture, because if we have to make up a word for it it means we have to talk about it with each other. The shape of the word, it connotations and associations, shapes how we think of the thing....
posted by Diablevert at 12:54 PM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Guys, guys... "bridge the gap" is a metaphor already. Really, if you can't express your ideas directly, you can't have them ;-) There's still a "gap" "there".

I'm sorry, I don't mean to be snarky, honestly. But the line between language and metaphor is incredibly porous.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:54 PM on June 25, 2009


But the line between language and metaphor is incredibly porous.

I dunno — going by your standards, I think I'm gonna have to confiscate this thought. :)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:58 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Adam_S: Hairy Lobster: I noticed that I would come to slightly different conclusions depending on the language used.
This is really fascinating. Any concrete examples you could share?


Well, for example if I'd be trying to decide between 2 courses of action I would find that when using German language the more unusual and less conventional option would have a decidedly more negative feel to it while when thought about in English it might feel no worse than the other.
Of course this didn't directly trump any logical reasoning but it would impact my motivation and decisions quite clearly when things weren't as clear cut on other levels of reasoning.

That said, I'm sure that personal background figures into all this as much as subtle connotations buried in language.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 1:08 PM on June 25, 2009


seeing as the English language hasn't changed significantly in the last 200 years

Wrinkled Stumpskin: I disagree a little. Try calling someone with a handicap 'a cripple' in most circles and see what reaction you get. Or refer to someone of mixed ethnicity as 'a mulatto.' Or call someone with mental retardation 'an imbecile.' That's all semantic, not syntactical change, of course, but it seems wildly inaccurate to say the language hasn't changed syntactically either. Consider this quotation from Abraham Lincoln:

Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper and loss of self-control.

Part of the reason it reads as stilted/artificially-elevated now is that the syntax is slightly jumbled compared to how we would express the same basic ideas today (for instance, "still less can he afford" might more likely be stated "he can afford to take...still less").
posted by saulgoodman at 1:09 PM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


seeing as the English language hasn't changed significantly in the last 200 years

You've lost me there. What kinds of changes would you consider significant?

I mean, after fiddling with Wiki a bit, I see that famous authors publishing works in 1808-1811 included Washington Irving, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Sir Walter Scott, and Jane Austen. I have read a number of these writers with enjoyment, but I sure as hell don't talk like them. Off the top of my head: The use of contractions has undergone significant shifts in the past 200 years. Acronyms and intialisms were introduced to the languages primarily during WWII. (Which is why all those chain emails about For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and so forth are bull.) And the subjunctive mood has nearly died out.

Acronyms are a good example of language affecting and reflecting culture: The were pioneered by the military during the course of a huge bureaucratic endeavor and are usually an attempt to simply and render coherent and abstruse or complex project/device (SCUBA, RADAR) reducing it to an abbreviated shorthand. However, this can often result in staggering obfuscation, and was almost immediately parodied from within the military itself (FUBAR, SNAFU).
posted by Diablevert at 1:21 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fair play, consider me pwned on that point. I grabbed 200 completely at random by thinking of which authors I can read easily in the original and guessing when they were alive, I certainly won't try to argue that the language hasn't changed since that time. I just counted "significantly" in a (too) wide sense - English versus middle English as opposed to English now versus English then. Mea culpa.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:29 PM on June 25, 2009


Sorry, I just realized I failed to address this, and then I'll shut up and quit hogging the thread:

Culture changes with time, language changes with time, I don't see any compelling mechanism which compels them to remain in lockstep.

Language is the tool through which we communicate meaning to each other. If a new thing comes into being, we need to either invent a new word or phrase to describe it or to alter the meaning of an old word or phrase so that it comes to encompass the new aspect of the thing. ("Day game.") As old things cease to be of use and are forgotten, the words for them fall out of language and old meanings fade away.
posted by Diablevert at 1:35 PM on June 25, 2009


To me, that doesn't sound like "lockstep". That sounds like saying that culture leads, and language lags. Honest question, is that always the case? I'll refrain from making any follow-up points, because that point affects pretty much everything.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:49 PM on June 25, 2009


To me, that doesn't sound like "lockstep". That sounds like saying that culture leads, and language lags. Honest question, is that always the case? I'll refrain from making any follow-up points, because that point affects pretty much everything.

I'll need to think about this some more, but I'd say that it certainly appears as though culture leads and language lags, but that might simply be because language, as a tool of reflecting and communicating culture, has more of a restraining and structuring affect on culture than a "driving force" effect. Or maybe not. I'm definitely within my afternoon fatigue, but I'll give this some more thought, for sure.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:04 PM on June 25, 2009


read Wittgenstein. Besides this:

"The possession of another language is the possession of another soul". Charlemagne.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 2:22 PM on June 25, 2009


This seems relevant: Language specific madness:
multilingual psychotic patients can present with either different or less psychotic symptoms depending on the language they use.
posted by psyche7 at 3:24 PM on June 25, 2009


ahimsakid: "69I read Sapir/Whorf decades ago and it left me with what I think is a more basic question: Can you have a thought that you don't have the words for?"

Yes. People make up stuff all the time. Even words.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:22 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


seeing as the English language hasn't changed significantly in the last 200 years

English has changed significantly in the last 200 years. Especially with the rise of literally thousands of new dialects worldwide, each with their own set of distinct phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic differences. Even if you look solely at the Standard American English dialect, and you look at only one of the five areas mentioned above, you will find huge amount of change. English syntax has been especially active...there has been an explosion of prepositions, word compounds and neologisms. Over ~400 years ago English had a relatively fixed word order and complex morphology. Today English has an extremely syntactically complex and free word order, and rudimentary morphology. This is a relatively short period of time to have a language basically reallocate the complexity of all its paradigms into wholly new linguistic territory.

When looking at a text from ~1800, you will see the differences. The harder you look, the more you will see. However, you won't see the changes in phonology or in speech, and you will also only be looking at a sample of the way something was, not all the new stuff that has happened since. And there's been quite a bit that's come along...new sounds, new phonotactics, new affixes, new words, new word orders, new word meanings, and new ways of using all this to do new things with words.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:38 PM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Just as an historical footnote, what Whorf said about words for snow was that, unlike English speakers, the Eskimo had no general cover term for snow as a substance by itself. He happened to be wrong about that. In different dialects, it's _apun_, _aput_, or _apu_, and although it may be translated as snow on the ground, Eskimo speakers can reportedly use it as a default term for categorizing the stuff falling out of a blizzard or stuck in your hair or whatever as all essentially the same substance.

But what he wanted to show had nothing to do with the number of words for snow. What Whorf was arguing was that the Eskimo were simply pickier about denoting the way in which snow was encountered and that what English speakers perceive as irrelevant (because snow is 'clearly' one kind of thing wherever you find it), Eskimo speakers might perceive as crucial (because it matters so much whether it's on the ground or in the air that it's worth it to always note the fact). On the same page, he brings in examples from Hopi, which he actually knew, to substantiate his point, and they do.

In believing Eskimo had no general word for snow, Whorf probably misread or misremembered Boas's introduction to the Handbook of American Indian Languages (pp. 21-22)--already classic in Whorf's time. But Boas doesn't really say whether there's a general term for snow among the four words for snow he lists. Since in related examples Boas mentions where there's a cover term, it's not hard to imagine how someone might be confused about his snow example. Whorf's reading is a stretch, not at all clear from Boas's text and in fact incorrect, but it's a possibility Boas leaves open.

Incidentally, Boas actually knew Central Eskimo, and his point was accurate and non-controversial as well (Can we suppose that American Indian languages more frequently depend on common roots to describe similar phenomena and are therefore more primitive? No and no).

Now, if you want to see a serious mess of inaccuracies and misrepresentations on related topics, check out Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. In just a few pages on Whorf, Pinker misidentifies what languages Whorf is talking about (Pinker says Apache; Whorf's examples are Nootka and Shawnee), misrepresents Whorf's experience as a linguist (he wrote brief grammars of Milpa Alta Aztec and Mishongnovi Hopi), mischaracterizes Whorf on the topics of visual perception and other universals of subjectivity (Whorf explicitly describes the mechanisms of perception as universal and in a separate article offers the concept "UP" as an example of a likely universal semantic primitive), mistakes and distorts several things Whorf said about time in Hopi (certainly Whorf is clear that Hopi has temporal expressions--Whorf calls them "temporals" in his grammar; his discussion of Hopi time is nothing to do with mysticism, but rather a purely empirical response to Kant; etc.), and generally misunderstands just about everything Whorf ever wrote.

Also, good link.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:41 PM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


"To me, that doesn't sound like "lockstep". That sounds like saying that culture leads, and language lags. Honest question, is that always the case? I'll refrain from making any follow-up points, because that point affects pretty much everything."

It's pretty clearly the case that you can have aspects of culture for which there are as yet no words. Cultural meaning can be conveyed in other ways, also --- clothing, gesture. So in that sense I guess you could say language lags behind culture, as it's hard to have words for concepts that don't exist yet. Gets a little Red Queeny up in there.

But we don't just invent new things and concepts. We also invent new people, who do not yet know any of the old words, e.g., children. This brings us back to the beginning --- the idea that the language that you learn can shape the way you think about the world. I mean, take the example of direction and time that she gives in the piece --- to a cardinally oriented person, the past is east and the future's west. So if you're facing east the future's in back of you. I type that, and yet I find it disconcertingly difficult to conceive, this idea of the future being somehow behind me. I can't quite wrap my mind around that, because that's not how English works.

To me, the thing that really interests me about this is not how this subtle shaping affects big simple obvious stuff. It's more how it affects subtle, allusive understandings, the kinds of differences that are the difference between the great and pedestrian. For instance, that idea of the future being in front of us, that idea helps give power to the Gettysburg address, "Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth...." that repetition of the "for" sound helps link up that passage with the concepts of "forward" "front" and "future", and hits up an important theme of the speech, the idea that the relationship between the states was not a set contract that could be broken but a ongoing project whose progress depended upon the efforts of the current generation. It's these little hidden links that make that speech great, and which would be destroyed in translation to any other language.
posted by Diablevert at 9:51 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


vacapinta: as someone who speaks 3.5 languages, the only people I've encountered who are not linguistic relativists are monolingual.

I think Malcolm Gladwell's anecdote about the cultural theory of plane crashes (Korean Air crews were crashing planes madly until management made them speak English in the cockpit - the Korean language has so many levels of deference that co-pilots were unable to tell pilots they were doinitwrong) is relevant here.
posted by grubby at 12:04 AM on June 26, 2009


What Whorf was arguing was that the Eskimo were simply pickier about denoting the way in which snow was encountered and that what English speakers perceive as irrelevant (because snow is 'clearly' one kind of thing wherever you find it), Eskimo speakers might perceive as crucial (because it matters so much whether it's on the ground or in the air that it's worth it to always note the fact).

And he was wrong.

Snow. Slush. Hard pack. Sleet. Powder. Blanket. Drift. Blanket. Dusting. Skiers and snowmobilers can probably add to this list, but that's just a few moment's reflection.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:00 PM on June 26, 2009


Snow. Slush. Hard pack. Sleet. Powder. Blanket. Drift. Blanket. Dusting. Skiers and snowmobilers can probably add to this list, but that's just a few moment's reflection.

Your mistake here is probably a useful illustration of the history of the snow example. Since you agree that those are all kinds of snow, you actually prove that Whorf was correct in his description of English speakers' intuitions--we can't resist considering them all kinds of snow.

You might need his other example from the same page to understand what his point actually was. Do you think airplane pilots and dragonflies are the same kind of thing, yet not the same kind of thing as birds? They are in Hopi.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:55 PM on June 26, 2009


Sapir-Worf
posted by Eideteker at 4:43 AM on June 27, 2009


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