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

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Wed Feb 20 2002 - 03:39:39 GMT

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    From: "Grant Callaghan" <>
    Subject: Re: Debate opens anew on language and its effect on cognition
    Date: Tue, 19 Feb 2002 19:39:39 -0800
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    As usual, the academic mind is looking up the wrong tree in their analysis.
    The terms usually used by the Mandarin speaker are not really too different
    from what English speakers do when they conceptualize. The Chinese use
    shang and xia to mean "on" and "off." Thus a student will "shang ke,"
    (arrive at class) and "shang ban" (arrive at work), as well as shang ma
    (mount a horse), and shang che, (get into a car or bus). At the end of the
    day, they xia ke (get out of class), xia ban (get off work), xia che (get
    off the bus or get out of the car), and xia ma (dismout the horse). A more
    important consideration is the fact that the written chinese characters have
    traditionally been read from top to bottom and from right to left, while
    western languages read from left to right and from top to bottom. I think
    the two cultures tend to see time in terms of how we process a string of
    written words rather than the meaning of the words used. You'll notice we
    also "get off" work, just as the Chinese do, and I don't doubt some people
    think in terms of getting off school. We also think of ourselves as being
    "on the job" before we get "off work."

    The fact that Chinese readers read from top to bottom is probably what makes
    it easier to process them that way in tests. And why it is easier for
    westerners to process words across a page instead of from top to bottom.
    It's the way we learned to do it.

    Where the real differences show up is in the connotations of what we call
    things. The Chinese written language is pictorial in its construction and
    the pictures with which it is "spelled" influence the mental picture that
    accompanies the sound of the word. The fact that "yang guei" is made up of
    the pictographs for "ocean" and "devil" no doubt has an influence on the
    Chinese conceptualization of all foreigners as devils from across the sea.
    Teachers of ESL from overseas and foreign coworkers in business are usually
    referred to as "lau wai" or "old outsider." This is a kinder term, but
    still doesn't have a pleasant connotation to it. The third most common term
    for foreigner in Chinese is "ye ren" or barbarian. It's hard to find words
    in Chinese that are not colored by the pictographic nature of the written
    language and the historical use of those words by people from the "middle
    kingdom" or "jung guo" which implies a central place for China in the
    affairs of the world.

    So the words they use do color their thinking on any and all subjects and on
    their perceptions of the world around them. The color yellow, for instance,
    does not imply cowardice in Chinese as it does in English. But it does have
    connotations of sex, just as it does for us. Historically, the Yellow
    Emperor was the emperor who first unified all the states of China into a
    single country. The communists of modern China are seriously trying to
    duplicate that feat, which has a great influence on the way they view Tibet
    and Taiwan.


    >From: "Philip Jonkers" <>
    >To: <>
    >Subject: Re: Debate opens anew on language and its effect on cognition
    >Date: Tue, 19 Feb 2002 13:08:39 -0900
    >Interesting stuff Wade... thanks.
    >Language determining not only communication but
    >also thought. This Whorfian view seems compatible with that upheld by the
    >Dennett/Blackmore camp of memetics.
    >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.
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    >Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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