Re: Debate opens anew on language and its effect on cognition

From: Philip Jonkers (
Date: Wed Feb 20 2002 - 02:10:43 GMT

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    Subject: Re: Debate opens anew on language and its effect on cognition
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    It all makes sense to me. To interpret the world around us language defines
    which elements are important and
    which can be ignored. We only have limited resources
    (time and energy) to construct a worldview that makes
    sense so we better discard all the non-essential elements. Language focuses
    on the important elements.

    For example, the inuit have a
    zillion different words for different sorts of snow.
    That is because snow is of central importance to the inuit
    (for transportation, making iglos, etc.). We only have
    snow... and wet snow perhaps.

    Also it is not the elements of importance are not only
    language specific but also, for example, dependent of profession. An car
    engineer would look different at
    a porsche 911 than let's say a business man who only
    wants a fast ride.


    Debate opens anew on language and its effect on cognition

    By Gareth Cook , Globe Staff, 2/14/2002

    In English, time rushes forward. In Mandarin Chinese, it moves down. The
    past lies above, and the future lies below.

    So is the mind of a Mandarin speaker different from the mind of an
    English speaker?

    The question is one of science's loaded topics, a politically charged
    theory with a racist past. But researchers now say they are uncovering
    proof that it may be true.

    At a major scientific conference in Boston opening today, a half-dozen
    specialists in the resurgent field will debate the role of language in
    shaping the way people think about basic concepts such as space and
    time. A growing body of research suggests simple quirks of language -
    such as the lack of a word for left or right - can fundamentally alter
    the way people perceive the world around them.

    Their findings could have dramatic implications for psychology,
    anthropology, and even international relations. But the researchers are
    cautious. Their work touches on politically divisive issues, such as the
    importance of bilingual education, and raises uncomfortable questions,
    such as whether speakers of certain languages are superior in some
    respects to others.

    ''This suggests the private mental lives of people who speak different
    languages may be very different,'' said Lera Boroditsky, an assistant
    professor at MIT who conducted an experiment comparing Mandarin and
    English speakers.

    Boroditsky is one of the researchers presenting her work at the American
    Association for the Advancement of Science conference at the Hynes
    Veterans Convention Center this week. Last year, she published a study
    in which she asked people to answer simple time sequence questions while
    watching a video screen. When objects on the screen move vertically, the
    Mandarin speakers are able to answer faster than English speakers -
    implying that their brains processed time questions differently, and
    hinting that there could be other differences.

    In some ways, this idea is not a new one. It first arose early in the
    20th century in the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, an engineer who
    studied the Hopi Indians. The Hopi language does not have past, present,
    and future tenses, and Whorf theorized that the Hopi had a profoundly
    different notion of time than English speakers.

    His idea - that language determined thought - became known as the
    ''Whorfian hypothesis.'' At a time when the image of the noble savage
    held sway, the theory was both beguiling and influential. It took the
    romantic notion of a national character - that the French, for example,
    have a particular way of thinking - and extended it to all the planet's
    disparate tribes.

    Arriving before the tools of modern linguistics and anthropology had
    been developed, the Whorfian hypothesis was used to support theories
    that ranged from arrogant to outright racist, such as the idea that
    ''primitive'' peoples were incapable of thinking about abstract ideas.

    But as science progressed, Whorfian thinking crumbled. Anthropologists
    documented the cultural and verbal sophistication of supposedly
    primitive tribes. And linguists also came to realize that thoughts are
    much richer than language, undercutting the very notion that people
    would need a word to think a thought.

    What researchers are probing now is whether each language, with its
    unique set of concepts and distinctions and vocabulary, causes people to
    experience the world differently - a feeling shared by many who have
    learned another language, but which has proven exceptionally difficult
    for scientists to document.

    ''There is this disconnect between the science and people's intuitions,
    but now I think that gap is being closed,'' said Boroditsky, whose work
    on Mandarin Chinese was published last year.

    Outside of English, many languages give nouns a gender, a grammatical
    distinction that linguists have long considered to be without any real
    meaning. But in 2000 Boroditsky found that the system subtly changes a
    speaker's experience of everyday objects.

    The word ''key,'' for example, is masculine in German and feminine in
    Spanish. Boroditsky recruited two groups of volunteers, native German
    speakers and native Spanish speakers, who spoke English well. She then
    asked them to name three adjectives to describe objects.

    She found a consistent pattern of German speakers using more masculine
    terms to describe the key - such as ''hard, heavy, jagged'' - while
    Spanish speakers favored more feminine descriptions, such as ''golden,
    intricate, lovely.'' Boroditsky said she is now considering studying how
    the design of bridges - a masculine word in Spanish, but a feminine word
    in German - differs between the two cultures.

    Another researcher has found evidence that languages which have many
    terms for color, such as English, give their speakers an advantage in
    remembering them.

    Critics say the findings are all small effects, well short of profound.
    ''What happens to these neo-Whorfians is they keep backing off,'' said
    Lila Gleitman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. ''Their
    position then becomes sufficiently weak that it holds no interest.''

    Now, though, the research is turning to even more controversial ground,
    how speakers of different languages remember events. Gleitman said she
    had just completed research, accepted but not yet published by the
    journal Cognition, showing that the different verb structures in English
    and Spanish do not cause speakers to remember events differently.

    But Boroditsky said that she is beginning to uncover ''interesting
    differences'' in ongoing research into how speakers of Turkish and other
    languages remember events.

    ''Since September 11, the English-speaking world is waking up to the
    fact that other cultures not only speak differently, they think
    differently,'' said Susan Bassnett, a specialist on translation at the
    University of Warwick. ''One of the problems of global English is that
    native English speakers are losing their skills in foreign languages and
    so are increasingly unable to access those alternative realities.''

    Gareth Cook can be reached by e-mail at

    This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 2/14/2002.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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