It’s more than 50 years since Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that the structure of the language we speak forms our world view — what is today known as linguistic determinism or strong linguistic relativism — and apparently some cognitive scientists are still strong proponents of that idea. The Wall Street Journal recently published a short paper by associate professor in psychology at Stanford University, Lera Boroditsky, claiming to have proven the Whorfian hypothesis (like so many others before her), and at the same time emphasizing why psychologists should always ally themselves with a linguist before putting forward such claims. (I can’t deal with all the ridiculous claims put forward in the article, so I’ve selected a few “highlights”.)
About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.
Well, yes — or no actually. It might as well be the language that reflects a skill acquired by necessity. There’s no evidence to support the claim that the skill is acquired as a result of how their language is structured. That would indicate that at some point — without any motivating factors — they just constructed a system of absolute spatial terms and afterwards found a use for it. If language structure dictates world view, then they could not have had that particular “world view” before constructing the system in the language. But why construct a linguistic system that you are not going to use? Lakoff (1987) and Johnson (1987) suggest that basic image-schemata are acquired way before any sort of language mastery, so without language where does this pre-linguistic cognition come from? Some sort of universally inate language structure common to all human beings? And are you sure you really want to be sleeping with Chomsky?
50 years ago we had no need for a specific word refering to the act of searching for something on the internet, but today we google stuff like there was no tomorrow — mind you, even if we don’t use the particular search engine that the verb is derived from. We, the language users, adapt the language to our needs, not the other way around.
[…] my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).
Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.
Of the Pormpuraawans (pop.: 653), the Thaayorre mainly speak Kuuk Thaayorre (~150 speakers) or a dialect thereof, while the Mungkan speak a variety of Kugu or Wik languages. Looking up these languages on Ethnologue, it’s clear that most (if not all) of these languages are in serious decline and close to extinction. Another thing that immediately springs to mind is the fact that Ethnologue mentions nothing about any of these languages having a writing system. If speakers of English, Chinese, Hebrew, and what have you, think of time in relation to their respective writing-/reading-directions, where does that leave the Pormpuraawans? Well, they could think about time in relation to — dun-dun-duuuun! — time! As the day passes, the most prominent object in the sky, which is incidentally also the object that defines the starting and ending points of a day, moves from the east to the west. In the east-most position you have the beginning, in the west-most position you have the end. The acts of reading and writing are inherently ego-centric, but when you have never done either why would you chose it as the basis for your temporal cognition? That’s right. You wouldn’t! In any case it may be a simple case of cognitively utilizing the strategy most readily at hand, which in this case happens to be the reading-/writing-directions of languages priviledged enough to have such, and the movement of the sun for speakers of languages where the sun’s movement is psychologically more salient. This is not entirely unlike the triad experiment by Kay & Kempton (1984), in which they determined that if speakers had the option of relying on language in color discrimination tests, they would. They dubbed this the naming strategy. Paul Kay eventually teamed up with Terry Regier and others and published some great papers on how relying on language for cognitive categorization is a question about maximization and subconscious choice (Regier, Kay & Khetarpal, 2007). It does not prove anything about language determining world view. Again it might just as well be language reflecting cognition. And once a specific linguistic system is in place in a language it is not easily discarded.
English has gender-specific 3rd person pronouns, so when you use English you have to be aware of that fact. Finnish has no distinction of gender in the 3rd person pronouns, but that does not imply that speakers of Finnish are not able to cognitively distinguish male, female and neuter. Likewise, Danish has four 3rd person pronouns: male (“han”), female (“hende”), common gender (“den”) and neuter (“det”), but the common gender and neuter pronouns are never used about humans, so Danish “lacks” a gender neutral personal pronoun for humans. Some attempts have been made to create such a pronoun (e.g. Hans Arndt’s “høn”), but none have caught on. This could be interpreted as a failed attempt to use language to change the world view of the speakers, not because the speakers do not agree with the proposed world view, but because there is no linguistic need for such a construction. Should the need one day arise, the language users will find a way to satisfy that need and the language will change accordingly.
All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.
No. Just no. I will never understand — nor respect — why people apparently choose to only read litterature/articles that support their view on the subject in question. There is litterally tonnes of articles that disprove these Whorfian “facts” that always seems to be presented without any solid supporting evidence; and almost always by psychologists eager to share their paradigm-shattering linguistic discovery with the world.
That being said, I am not trying to say that the structures of the languages we speak in no ways reflect our world views, I am merely saying that it goes both ways rather than just being a unidirectional highway to the human cognition. It may be time that someone came up with a theory of quantum linguistics, because this whole language <=> cognition debate reminds me a lot of Schrödinger’s Cat . . . or does it?
Bibliography and related articles
Boroditsky, L. & Gaby, A. (2010). Absolute spatial representations of time in an Aboriginal Australian community. Psychological Science (PDF; requires log-in)
Davidoff, J. (2004). Coloured Thinking. Psychologist 17 pp.570–72
Johnson, M. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. University of Chicago Press
Kay, P. & Kempton, W. (1984). What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? American Anthropologist 86 pp.65–79
Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press
Levinson, S., (1997). Language and Cognition: The Cognitive Consequences of Spatial Description in Guugu Yimithirr. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 7 pp.98–131.
Núñez, R.E. & Sweetser, E. (2005). Aymara, where the future is behind you: Convergent evidence from language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science (PDF)
Regier, T., Kay, P. & Khetarpal, N. (2007). Color naming reflects optimal partitions of color space. PNAS 104 pp.1436–41 (PDF)
Roberson, D., Davidoff, J., Davies, I.R.L. & Shapiro, L.R. (2005). Color categories: Evidence for the cultural relativity hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology 50 pp.378–411
Whorf, B., (1971). Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.