linguistic relativity

Clip show: Links to links part 2

Following on from my last post, here are some more links to some interesting online content that is related to the topics I write about here, along with some commentary from me. First of all, have a look once again at the blogroll in the sidebar — I’ve added some more blogs, including Whats in a brain? which has a recent post on linguistic relativity and time. Now in today’s post I’ve got some longer lecture-type items, mostly by academics but aimed at a broad non-specialist audience. Wherever possible I’ll try to include links to both video and audio versions for you to choose from.


First of all is a talk by James Burke titled “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll” (also available in iTunes). In addition to his usual connections approach, this is an excellent argument for the importance of the interdisciplinary approach. It’s also very witty and entertaining, as usual for Burke.

At the end of the last post I linked to some basic introductory linguistics videos, and here is another very good introduction to the basics of linguistics, “Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain” by Steven Pinker. This lecture is part of the Floating University initiative, and in it Pinker does a pretty good job of not only presenting basic linguistic concepts but also introducing and giving a balanced treatment of some controversial issues such as language universals and linguistic relativity, subjects that he has fairly strong views on. Here is the lecture on YouTube:

Related to the subject of language universals is Daniel Everett‘s Long Now lecture “Endangered languages, lost knowledge and the future” (the audio is also available in iTunes and the video can be watched on Based on his observations of the Pirahã language, Everett argues against the Chomskyan notion of  an innate universal grammar, and instead suggests that language is a cultural tool invented by humans to serve a social function.

Lera Boroditsky gives an excellent introduction to recent research on the subject of linguistic relativity in her Long Now lecture “How Language Shapes Thought” (the audio is also available in iTunes and the video can be watched on In particular, Boroditsky many of the language and time issues I’ve written about recently. Here is the lecture on YouTube:

On the subject of time, here is Claudia Hammond‘s RSA talk “Time Warped” based on her book of the same name (the full audio of the talk is also available in iTunes). Hammond discusses many interesting issues about time perception. Here is a YouTube video of the edited highlights of this talk:

Cognitive scientist David Eagleman also works on time perception (as well as a variety of other topics). Here are two lectures of his from The Up Experience. In the first, he gives good summary of his work on how we perceive time and how our sense of time is largely a construction by the brain:

In this second Eagleman talk, he discusses, among other things, the relationship between the present self and the future self, drawing on a story of Odysseus and the sirens from the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey to describe what he calls the Odysseus contract:

Economist M. Keith Chen also draws on the idea of future discounting, which Eagleman refers to in that last video, in his highly controversial connection between how languages handle the future tense and future planning (which I’ve discussed before here and here). Here is his TED talk presenting this theory:

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about our orientation to time, that is being past, present, or future oriented, and what this means to the way we approach life, also touching large scale cultural differences, in his RSA talk “The Secret Powers of Time”. Here are the YouTube videos of both the full lecture and the excellent 10-minute RSA Animate video excerpted from it:

And finally, since I started this post with James Burke’s kind of connections, I’ll end with neuroscientist Sebastian Seung‘s TED talk “I am my connectome”, in which he discusses his connectome project of mapping the brain’s neuronal connections, and related book Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are:

I’ll hopefully be able to get back to more substantive blogging later on in August, but for now good watching/listening!

Categories: cognitive, culture and thought, General, interconnectivity, Interdisciplinarity, linguistic relativity, linguistics, time | 1 Comment

Clip Show: Links to links part 1

To tide things over for a while until I have more time to write more substantive posts, I thought I’d like to put together a post of some curated links to online content relevant to the sorts of topics I’ve been writing about recently. Think of it as a kind of clip-show approach to keep putting posts up while I’m a little short of time to write. First of all, needless to say, have a browse through the blogroll at the side of the page. It isn’t an exhaustive list of the blogs that I read, but it reflects the kinds of subjects I write about here, as well as the interdisciplinary breadth I’m arguing in favour of. Next, in this post I’m including some podcasts and YouTube channels which regularly touch on issues of language, cognitive science, and in particular issues to do with time. I’ll save some one-off links to longer lectures for the next post.

The Endless Knot

The Endless Knot

First up, there are two excellent language podcasts, Talk the Talk, featuring linguist Daniel Midgely and co-host Ben Ainslie, and Lexicon Valley from Slate magazine, with Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield. For Talk the Talk I’m going to recommend episode #29 “Time in Amondawa”, which looks at the topic of space-time mapping I’ve written about recently, and for Lexicon Valley I recommend episodes #8 “When Nouns Grew Genitals” and #9 “And May He Be a Masculine Bridge”  which look at the question of linguistic relativity, and features the work of, among others, Lera Boroditsky, whom I’ve referred to on several occasions.

If you’re interested in the cognitive stuff, have a listen to The Brain Science Podcast, in which Dr. Virginia Campbell, MD reviews books and interviews scientists on a variety of neuroscience topics, and All in the Mind, in which host Lynne Malcolm covers a variety of topics about psychology and the mind. In particular, for The Brain Science Podcast  I’ll recommend episode #94 “How the Brain Makes Meaning” in which Dr. Campbell interviews linguist Benjamin Bergen about his book Louder Than Words, and for All in the Mind I’ll recommend the episode “How language shapes thought”, which again touches on Boroditsky’s work.

Now for some videos. Brady Haran has a number of educational YouTube channels, mostly on scientific topics, but also including Words of the World, which uses words, their meaning and history, as a jumping off point to examining culture and history through a series of interviews with academics from a variety of disciplines. However, I’m going to recommend three of his videos which deal with the subject of time. First from PsyFile, “Time Perception”, which discusses how the brain perceives and keeps track of time:

Next, from PhilosophyFile, “The Philosophy of Time”, which is a good introduction to some basic concepts such as McTaggart’s ideas about time and the A series (past, present, future) and B series (earlier, later) of time:

And finally, from Sixty Symbols, “Arrow of Time”, which looks at the question of whether or not physics requires directionality in time:

On the channel YouTube channel Vsauce, host Michael Stevens, who has a background in neuropsychology, frequently posts educational science videos, including this one titled “How Old Can We Get?”, which discusses not only biological time, but also issues about time perception:

And finally for today, Tom Scott has recently been posting a number of short video introductions to linguistics topics, including this one, “All The Colours, Including Grue: How Languages See Colours Differently”, which discusses the linguistic relativity question:

So have a browse through these links — they should provide some depth and background to the posts I’ve been writing lately. And coming soon, some longer lectures that have been influencing me lately.

Categories: cognitive, General, linguistic relativity, linguistics, time | Leave a comment

The Shape of Time: Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

Today I’m going to write a bit about the shape of time, a big topic which I’ll need to come back to a number of times to discuss specific examples. Consider this an overview of the topic, which follows on from my last post’s discussion of circular and linear time. In particular, today I’m going to focus on how we use space to think about time, where we locate different times in our mental landscapes. It turns out that this is not as straightforward as it might at first seem, and there is plenty of variation.

Salvador Dalí's The Persistence of Memory (Wikipedia)

Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (Wikipedia)

The first thing we need to cover is the idea that we need to use metaphor to think and speak about time. Time is an abstract idea. We have no direct way of perceiving time, no sense devoted to it. There are, of course, workarounds to this, and in fact in many cases we’re quite good at estimating the kinds of timeframes we tend to have to deal with in day-to-day life. It seems the brain has no one internal clock, though there are regions of the brain that control things like the circadian rhythm (specifically in that case the roughly 20,000 neurons collectively known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus), and it has been suggested that the number of things we experience and the number of memories we create affects our judgement of the duration of time. We are also able to perform motor tasks that require very precise timing, and can judge the minute time difference between sounds coming in one ear and the other in order to have stereo location of sounds. However, our experience of time can also be quite flexible, as Claudia Hammond discusses in her book Time Warped (which I’m working my way through right now). In any case we have difficulty thinking and talking about time without relating it to something else, as suggested by the passage I quoted from St Augustine a couple of posts ago.

suprachiasmatic nucleus and  circadian rhythms (Wikipedia)

suprachiasmatic nucleus and circadian rhythms (Wikipedia)

It is frequently noted then that we use metaphor to talk and even think about time, metaphor particularly drawn from the concrete domain of space, to think and talk about the very abstract domain of time. Indeed that’s generally the way it works, according to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their groundbreaking book Metaphors We Live By — we constantly use metaphors drawn from very concrete, experiential domains in order to think about all the more abstract domains, and we can’t get very far without doing this. Language, and indeed thought, is essentially metaphorical once you get past the concrete and the physical. Space is one of the first things we perceive and experience in life. As babies we soon learn spatial relationships, first learning to make sense of visual data, such as the arrangement of features on a face, and then interacting with the spatial domain as we become able to move through it. Thus unsurprisingly we use spatial metaphors to deal with a whole host of more abstract ideas.

It has been suggested, by Lakoff and Johnson as well as by many others, that all people, cultures, and languages draw on space to deal with time, though it has recently been argued that speakers of the Amazonian language Amondawa don’t do this space-time mapping at all (and indeed they may do very little abstract thinking about time at all, the research suggests). In any case, though most languages draw on space to talk about time, not all cultures/languages arrange time in the same metaphorical spatial relations.

In English, we’re accustomed to talking about time in what is called a sagittal axis, that is back to front relative to our bodies, with the future in front of us and the past behind. But this isn’t the only possible mapping of time onto space. There are some languages that locate the past in front and the future behind, due to the fact that we know what has already happened, but can’t “see” the future. This has long been suggested of Ancient Greek, with the following comment on the word ὀπίσω ‘backward’ in the standard 19th century Greek lexicon by Liddel and Scott: “of Time, hereafter, since the future is unseen and was therefore regarded as behind us, whereas the past is known and therefore before our eyes”. A similar claim has been made of the Madagascar language Malagasy (according to Øyvind Dahl), and other languages as well. While there has been some criticism of these claims, Núñez and Sweetser very convincingly demonstrate that this is the case in the South American language Aymara. The nice thing about their research is that they draw not only on linguistic evidence of this metaphor, but gestural evidence as well. I’ll discuss these examples at more length in a later post.

body planes, including the sagittal axis (Wikipedia)

body planes, including the sagittal axis (Wikipedia)

English speakers also tend to use a left-to-right arrangement for time as well, with the past to the left and the future to the right. Though we never use left-to-right metaphors in speech — you don’t for instance say Boxing Day is right of Christmas — test subjects will tend to arrange temporally ordered pictures in this direction and more quickly recognize temporal orders if consistent with the left-to-right arrangement. This temporal arrangement seems to be influenced by writing direction, with Hebrew speakers showing the opposite right-to-left arrangement consistent with their writing direction. Mandarin speakers tend to more often use an up-down arrangement for time, consistent with their writing direction (at least sometimes and in some places, particularly in Taiwan, but more on that in a later post), and even use up-down metaphors in speech, with above being earlier and below being later. Though I’ve never seen it suggested in any of the research, I wonder if the mechanism for this kind of directionality is not so much the writing direction itself, but at least in part the arrangement of book mechanics. In English books we read the left page and then the right one, and then turn the page to the left. Even before they can read, children master the mechanics of a book, based on the pictures and the turning of the pages by whoever is reading to them, and thus they are trained into understanding narrative, and thus time, as progressing in that particular direction. Of course the arrangement of a book, left to right or right to left, is at least in part influenced by writing direction, but it seems to me to be worth researching what the effect of book direction is, looking for instance at up-down languages like Mandarin to see if there is a secondary left/right bias based on page turning direction. Furthermore, we can consider narrative conventions — in film, it seems to me, journeys out are more often depicted as going toward the right and journeys home towards the left. Look for this next time you watch a science fiction tv show or movie like Star Trek, with journeys away from earth more often depicted towards the right. And what are the cinematic conventions in other cultures?

writing directions of English, Mainland Chinese, and Taiwanese (Bergen & Lau 2012)

writing directions of English, Mainland Chinese, and Taiwanese (Bergen & Lau 2012)

An even more striking example of a different spatio-temporal arrangement can be found in languages that use absolute spatial terms, such as cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), rather than body-relative ones, as in English right and left. The Pormpuraaw languages of Australia, for instance, such as Kuuk Thaayorre, are such languages. Speakers of these languages are always aware of their absolute spatial orientation, since they always have to use these absolute terms to refer to any spatial arrangement. Essentially they would, for instance, have to refer to their north leg rather than their right leg. Furthermore they draw on this spatial reasoning for reasoning about time, always arranging pictures in temporal order east to west regardless of the orientation of their own body, clearly mirroring the course of the sun in the sky. And there are a variety of other shapes and spatial arrangements for time as well, such as concentric, near and far, up and down hill, and so forth. More on these later.

some temporal arrangements (Bergen & Lau 2012)

some temporal arrangements (Bergen & Lau 2012)

There is one last issue relating to our spatio-temporal arrangements I’d like to mention today: how movement is used to think about the passage of time. One can think of either time moving, as if you are watching a river flow towards you, for instance, as in “the holidays are approaching”, or ego-moving, as if you yourself are moving along a path, as in “we’re rapidly coming to the end of the year”. In English, both of these metaphors are available, though this isn’t necessarily true in all languages. And it turns out, you draw on spatial reasoning actively, so that if you are already predisposed to thinking of yourself moving in space, by say going on a journey, you are more likely to think of yourself moving through time. This sort of thing can affect how we interpret ambiguous phrasings such as the sentence “let’s move Wednesday’s meeting back two days”. Does this mean the meeting is now on Monday or Friday? It depends on whether you are thinking from a time-moving perspective or an ego-moving perspective.

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

So that’s a bit of an overview of some of the issues relating to how we use space to think about time. I’ll come back to a number of these examples that I’ve mentioned here and discuss them in more detail in future posts, along with some other interesting cases that I haven’t yet mentioned. The upshot of all this is that we think about time in very different ways, depending on language and a variety of other cultural influences. There seems to be great variation in human temporal cognition. Try to pay closer attention to the ways you talk about time and the kinds of metaphors or expressions you use (not necessarily just spatial ones), and don’t assume these are universal and shared by everyone. It’s endlessly fascinating.

A select bibliography because making footnotes in WordPress is irritating and I’m getting lazy (and sorry about the messiness and inconsistency here, but again I’m feeling lazy):

Bergen, Benjamin K. “Writing Direction Affects How People Map Space onto Time.” Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 3 (2012): 109. Frontiers. Web.

Boroditsky, L. “Does language shape thought? English and Mandarin speakers’ conceptions of time.” Cognitive Psychology 43.1 (2001): 1–22.

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. “Do English and Mandarin speakers think differently about time?” Cognition (2010), doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Boroditsky, L. & Gaby, A. “Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community.” Psychological Science (2010), doi:10.1177/0956797610386621

Dahl, Øyvind. “When the Future Comes from Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences for Communication.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 19.2 (1995): 197-209.

Gaby, Alice. “The Thaayorre Think of Time Like They Talk of Space.” Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 3 (2012): 300. Frontiers. Web.

Guen, Olivier Le, and Lorena Ildefonsa Pool Balam. “No Metaphorical Timeline in Gesture and Cognition Among Yucatec Mayas.” Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 3 (2012): 271. Frontiers. Web.

Hammond, Claudia. Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. Canongate Books, 2012. Print.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1980.

Núñez, Rafael E. & Sweetser, Eve. “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time.” Cognitive Science 30 (2006): 401-450.

Sinha, Chris et al. “When Time Is Not Space: The Social and Linguistic Construction of Time Intervals and Temporal Event Relations in an Amazonian Culture.” Language and Cognition 3.1 (2011): 137–169. Print.

Categories: culture and thought, linguistic relativity, linguistics, metaphor, time, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s all relative (part 2)

In my last post, I gave a brief potted history and explanation of the concept of linguistic relativity. Now I want to touch on some of the reaction to this new wave of research on linguistic relativity and talk a bit about my own take on it.

Through most of the 20th century there really wasn’t much solid evidence supporting the notion of linguistic relativity, and as I’ve said linguists were mainly focussed on looking for universals in language. So it is perhaps not surprising that in spite of the growing body of experimental evidence to support the idea, there is still considerable resistance. But in the recently burgeoning field of cognitive linguistics, linguistic relativity is starting to gain real traction again.

As Daniel Casasanto points out, most people who argue against the idea of linguistic relativity are objecting to the wrong thing.1 Most proponents of linguistic relativity don’t hold that language is the same thing as thought, just that it can influence thought. Casasanto proposes the simple (and quite elegant) mechanism of learning. Through repetition, language trains us into thinking in certain ways. Learn a new language and you are gradually trained into a new way of thinking. This is a convincing explanation that seems to fit much of the the data well. There is also evidence to suggest that we sometimes draw on language as a tool to aid thought. In some experiments, when your ability to use language is negated (by tying up your language faculties with other linguistic tasks like reciting a series of numbers), the linguistic relativistic effects lessen or disappear. Thus there may be more than one mechanism at work here. Clearly there is still much work that remains to be done to figure out the exact scope and parameters of this Whorfian effect.

Daniel Casasanto

Daniel Casasanto

It’s interesting to note that many of the people who argue against linguistic relativity tend to focus only on strong linguistic determinism or other notions, such as the idea that language is thought, that few if any still argue for, and largely ignore the more recent work in this area. It’s a bit of a straw man argument really. Or they’ll focus solely on the false claims made in popular media on the topic. See for instance this very revealing debate on linguistic relativity from a few years ago. There certainly are a great deal of misleading and downright incorrect claims popularly made about linguistic relativity which is quite rightly deserving of criticism, but the popular media has a long history of misrepresenting the ideas of scientists and other academics, and none of this really reflective of the merits of the real argument itself. I do think that the weight of opinion will gradually shift as more research is done. I’m certainly convinced that at least some of what is claimed about linguistic relativity is true and valid, and well supported by the evidence that I’ve seen, but much of this research is still on the cutting edge of the fields of linguistics and cognitive science, so time will tell.

For my own part, it seems to me that we frequently ask the wrong questions when debating the validity of linguistic relativity. Does language influence thought, or does thought influence language? Well it’s likely both. And clearly there are external factors on both, what we might refer to as culture.2 It is perhaps best to think of a complex three-way relationship between language, thought, and culture, in which each influences the other two, which may lead to feedback loops with language, thought, and culture reinforcing each other back and forth. Furthermore, it is not at all surprising that often real-world evidence of Whorfian effects seem hazy, as one would expect multiple, often conflicting, linguistic influences on thought as well as multiple cultural influence. Rarely if ever would it be the case that an element of language is the only thing that influences some aspect of the way one thinks or behaves. But just because the Whorfian effect is frequently cancelled out or overruled doesn’t mean it isn’t operating beneath the surface. In highly controlled experimental situations, such as those Boroditsky creates, it is often possible to isolate a Whorfian effect, but it is such a complex system that practically speaking these effects may be hard to see clearly in the real world, though sometimes it seems to come out in startling ways. Again, even if the effects aren’t clearly visible, it doesn’t mean that the influences are not there. Human behaviour is complex and not easily reducible or predictable. See also my previous comments on interconnectivity — it’s the complex nature of the connections that’s really interesting here.

Language, Thought & Culture

Language, Thought & Culture

I’m not myself concerned with isolating these influences or devising some kind of predictive theory about behaviour, though those lines of research are certainly important themselves. Since I come more from the humanities side of things rather than the sciences or social sciences, I’m more concerned with interpreting rather than predicting, so my main interest is seeing what linguistic relativity can tell us about the complex interrelationship between language, thought, and culture over time through the course of history. And as I’ve said, I see all these elements influencing each other. The (admittedly imperfect analogy) I like to think of is that even though the gravitational effect of a pebble on the earth is tiny compared to the effect of the earth on the pebble,that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, and if enough pebbles start pulling in the same direction, metaphorically speaking, the effects can add up. Of course the tendencies of individuals may in many cases be far more variable than any Whorfian effect. The Whorfian effects might be the tipping point in an otherwise evenly balanced situation, or might only be noticeable in isolation or in the aggregate; but if they line up with other cultural influences the outcome might be profound, with the kind of feedback loop effect I alluded to earlier.

Gravity action-reaction (Wikipedia)

Gravity action-reaction (Wikipedia)

In any case, I’ve waffled on about this topic no doubt to the point of boring any casual reader into giving up on this post several paragraghs ago, so I’ll stop now, though it’s likely that the topic will come up again in future posts.

1 See Casasanto’s excellent and wonderfully titled article “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic Differences in Temporal Language and Thought”. [back]

2 See Dan Everett’s fascinating work on the cultural constraints on language. Based on his research on the fascinatingly different language Piraha, Everett rejects the notion of universal grammar and concludes that language is constrained by culture and is in fact a cultural tool, an invention by human beings, not an innate instinct. See also Everett’s more popularly targeted book Language: The Cultural Tool. I’ll be writing more about these topics in the future, particularly as they relate to time in language and thought. [back]

Categories: linguistic relativity | 2 Comments

It’s all relative (part 1)

This is the last of the background posts I had planned (for the time being anyway). In the others, I have written about cognitive philology, interdisciplinarity, and interconnectivity. Here I wish to briefly state my position on linguistic relativity. I’ve touched on the topic before in a number of other posts, and it was the focus of a conference paper I mentioned, but I thought it was worth briefly summarising in one post what exactly linguistic relativity means (to me in any case), and what position I take on this often controversial topic. I’ll break it into two posts to keep it from being too long, so expect the second part to follow shortly. I’ve briefly explained linguistic relativity before, but here in more detail is the summary I originally wrote (in slightly modified form) for a conference paper, with special focus on some recent research on the topic by Lera Boroditsky.

Linguistic Relativity Thesis

Linguistic Relativity Thesis

The idea of a relationship between language and thought was touched on to some extent by such early 20th century anthropologists as Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, but is was really due to the systematic treatment by Benjamin Lee Whorf, a student of Sapir, that it became a focus of attention. Though Sapir himself never directly argued for a strong causal link between language and thought, Whorf’s bold claims about such a connection have led to the idea being often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Simply put, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that differences in linguistic features (and that could be anything from words to the kinds of grammatical information expressed in a language, like verb tense, to syntactical structures used) from one language to the next determine or at least influence the ways in which speakers of those languages think about the world. For instance, Whorf made the observation (largely incorrectly as it turns out) that “the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time,’ or to past, present, or future” (57) and thus he concluded that it was “gratuitous to assume that Hopi thinking contains any such notion as the supposed intuitively felt flowing of ‘time’” (58).1 There have come to be two versions of this hypothesis, the strong and weak versions, sometimes distinguished as linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. The strong determinism version maintains that the particular linguistic categories available to a speaker determine and constrain what the speaker is able to think, whereas the weak relativity version states only that language differences can lead to differences in thought. While few scholars still hold to the strong formulation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the weak version has remained an open question.

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf

For much of the latter half of the 20th century, this notion fell out of favour and has been strongly rejected, especially after Noam Chomsky first proposed the notion of a universal grammar, which has since become the mainstream position. Chomsky specifically rejected Whorf’s idea of linguistic determinism, and instead held that language differences were surface-level only, and that all humans shared a common grammar driven by a common faculty of language acquisition. More recently, Steven Pinker states unequivocally that the theory is “wrong, all wrong”, and instead argues for an underlying language common to all people, which he calls ‘mentalese’, and further proposes that humans possess an innate instinct for language which has evolved through natural selection.2 Indeed the mainstream view for the past half century has been to search for universals in human language, and to assume that human cognition too is universal regardless of linguistic differences. As Whorf’s linguistic observations had fallen through, and in the absence of much real evidence in support of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the notion of linguistic relativity remained either a fringe view or one of mistaken popular conception only.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

However, in more recent years, perhaps only the past decade or a little more, many of these mainstream notions in linguistics have been challenged. For one thing, linguists are more and more starting to challenge the idea of a universal grammar,3 especially in the light of cognitive linguistics which seeks to explain linguistic phenomena on the basis of general cognitive principles rather than specialised language mechanisms. Furthermore, new experimental evidence in support of linguistic relativity is being generated by a number of cognitive scientists, most notably Lera Boroditsky, along with her various collaborators and other researchers working along similar lines.

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky

Boroditsky’s research is based mainly on experimental procedures, often involving cross-linguistic evidence, generated by conducting controlled lab experiments on native speakers and measured by very quantitative results such as response times. She has conducted research on such phenomena as colour perception, demonstrating that possessing particular colour categories in one’s language improves one’s performance in non-linguistic colour discrimination tasks. Thus Russian speakers can more quickly distinguish between two distinct and mutually exclusive shades of blue, goluboy ‘light blue’ and siniy ‘dark blue’, than English speakers, who collapse all such shades under the one umbrella term blue. Boroditsky has also shown the effect of agentive language on eye-witness memory, with speakers of languages that grammatically require an agent even for accidental events having better memory of the agent involved in an action which they have witnessed; this is the case with English, which uses more agentive language, as opposed to Japanese or Spanish, which use less agentive language, for instance. The quantity of agentive language also correlates with the assignment of blame and even harshness of penalties, both in laboratory experimentation and in analysis of court transcripts. Boroditsky has also demonstrated that grammatical gender has an impact on how we think about objects, assigning gendered qualities to them and influencing how abstract concepts are allegorised in art, a result that will be of little surprise to most art historians.

goluboy & siniy

goluboy & siniy

Boroditsky has also done a considerable amount of work on time cognition, particularly the use of spatial metaphor for describing and reasoning about time. She has demonstrated, for instance, that different languages use different spatial metaphors, front/back in English, and up/down in Mandarin. It turns out that people use these varying spatial-temporal metaphors even in non-linguistic cognitive tasks, and thus think about time in different ways. Also in terms of spatiotemporal metaphor, one can think of either time moving, as if you are watching a river flow towards you, for instance, as in “the holidays are approaching”, or ego-moving, as if you yourself are moving along a path “we’re rapidly coming to the end of term”. And it turns out you draw on spatial reasoning actively, and being primed with one spatial arrangement or another can affect your performance of temporal reasoning. Furthermore, whether you conceive of time as moving left to right, as English speakers do, or right to left, as Hebrew speakers do, seems to be dependent on the writing direction in your language; as well, different languages conceive of the future either in the front, as in English, or behind, as in Aymara. And in reversing the perspective, ego-moving or time moving, we also reverse the directionality, such as front/back. Thus, in ambiguous statements such as “We moved the meeting forward a day”, forward can be taken to mean more in the future or less in the future. Perhaps most striking are the differences between languages which use body-relative indications of space, as in right and left in English, and languages which use only absolute directions such as cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). The Pormpuraaw languages of Australia, such as Kuuk Thaayorre, are such languages. Speakers of these languages are always aware of their absolute spatial orientation, and furthermore draw on this spatial reasoning for reasoning about time, always arranging pictures in temporal order east to west regardless of the orientation of their own body. Differences in metaphors used for duration of time are also cognitively significant, such as with linear distance in English as in “a long time” and amount in Greek “poli ora” or “much time”.

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

With many of these effects, Boroditsky has demonstrated that not only does the brain seem to use language online for non-linguistic tasks, which can be demonstrated by running language interference tasks which disable one’s ability to use language in the moment, but also that the effects of language differences are also long-term. Thus bilingual speakers perform differently depending on the linguistic context – they essentially think differently depending on which language they are using. But also, learning a new language can change your cognitive performance even when you are currently using your old language, and can even change how you speak your own language, and thus speakers of languages in which tense-marking is optional have been shown to mark for tense more often if they speak another language which requires tense marking. Of course Lera Boroditsky is not the only scholar working on the question of linguistic relativity, but I mention her work in detail since much of it focusses on language and temporal reasoning, which is of particular interest to me.4

In the next post I’ll touch on some of the more recent reactions to this research and talk a bit about my own take on it.

1 Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought & Reality (MIT Press, 1956). [back]

2 Pinker’s book The Language Instinct was so persuasive to me, in spite of the fact that I now think he is in many ways fundamentally wrong on this, that I think I was rather too timid in the position I took in my doctoral dissertation. [back]

3 A very broad debate that I can’t go into here but see this article for a thorough treatment of the topic. [back]

4 There is of course much I’ve left out here, such as the “thinking for speaking” model of Dan Slobin, but I wanted to focus mainly on the aspects that are most relevant to my own interests. If you want more information on this topic, you would also be well advised to read Boroditsky’s entry on linguistic relativity in the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, as well as this more detailed and somewhat more critical account from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In future posts I’ll also go into a bit more detail about Boroditsky’s work on time which I’ve summarised above. [back]

Categories: linguistic relativity | 1 Comment

Kalamazoo Time

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Between end-of-term grading and preparing a conference paper, I haven’t had much time. But speaking about time…



I’ll be attending the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. It’s the biggest specifically medieval academic conference. I don’t have time to write much more about it now, but here’s a summary of my paper, titled “Linguistic Relativity Revisited: Language and Thought in Old English”:

Ever since Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that there was a connection between language, thought, and culture, the concept of linguistic relativity has been a highly controversial topic. The famous (or notorious) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposed that differences in linguistic categories from one language to the next determine or at least influence the ways in which speakers of those languages think about the world. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, this notion fell out of favour and has been strongly rejected. For instance, Steven Pinker states unequivocally that the theory is “wrong, all wrong”, and instead argues for an underlying language common to all people, which he calls ‘mentalese’. However, in the past decade new evidence has come to light, pioneered in particular by cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, that reopens the debate on linguistic relativity. Boroditsky’s research, bolstered by extensive experimental data, suggests that language differences can have profound differences on the way speakers think about the world.

This paper will explore the implications of this research for the understanding of Old English language and thought. In particular, I will focus on linguistic categories involving time and tense, including the use of spatiotemporal terms for time. Old English speakers were powerfully influenced by the very different language and culture of the Latin speaking Christian missionaries. I argue that exploring the differences between these languages helps explain the development of the language, literature, and culture of the Anglo-Saxons.

In the paper, I’ll not only be drawing on Boroditsky’s work, I’ll also mention the recent controversial paper by M. Keith Chen which I’ve blogged about before (here and here), and looking back at an old book by Ernst Bauschatz on Germanic notions of time. So though short on time, I’ll be speaking mostly about time.

Categories: cognitive, culture and thought, linguistic relativity, linguistics | 3 Comments

Cognitive Philology and the History of Linguistics: A Personal View

I’ve been asked before what I mean by cognitive philology. I perhaps mean something slightly different, or at least something more specific, by it than what’s described in the Wikipedia entry. My background training has been largely in literary studies and traditional philology, with some formal training in more theoretical areas of structural linguistics, generative grammar, and so forth, though recently I’ve taken to the cognitive school of linguistics with all the fervor of a new convert. So I thought I’d write a bit of a potted history of linguistics to show where I’m coming from. I must admit this is highly subjective, as I’ve focused on the areas of linguistics that have influenced me the most, and so I’m leaving out all kinds of stuff that is important and influential generally, but just not to me personally, and I’ve chosen often to focus on particular linguists who are interesting and/or influential. I’m also grossly oversimplifying things as it suits my purposes, so take it all with a bit of a grain of salt. This post is mainly intended for those with an interest in language, but not much background knowledge; actual linguists need not read any further.1

from Wikipedia: "Figure illustrating the fields that contributed to the birth of cognitive science, including linguistics, education, neuroscience, artificial Intelligence, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology. Adapted from Miller, George A (2003). "The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective". TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 7."

Cognitive Science Heptagram

In traditional philology one studies the history of languages by looking at old texts. So for instance one studies history of the English language by analysing old texts such as, lets say, medieval poems like Beowulf. By looking at texts from different time periods, from different regions or dialects, and by comparing related languages, such as Old English with various related Germanic languages such as Old Norse or Old Saxon, one can make pronouncements about how the language has changed over time and some of the forces that may have driven these changes. A philologist records and reports on the evidence found in historical texts. This approach to the study of language is a very old one, dating back to the 19th century (and earlier) with such founding fathers as Jacob Grimm (yes that Jacob Grimm of the the Brothers Grimm). In addition to collecting folktales, Grimm pioneered the field of comparative philology, devising Grimm’s Law, which described the relationship between certain consonant sounds in various Indo-European languages and how they came into Germanic languages like English.2 Indeed many scholars of the 19th century and earlier, such as Franz Bopp, Thomas Young, Sir William Jones, theorised about the relationship between the various languages which have now become known as the Indo-European language family, and at least as far back as the 16th century comments had been made about such similarities.3 This interest in Indo-European comparative philology kicked off a whole cottage industry in comparative studies in Indo-European (and other) cultures, such as comparative mythology and folklore, which included Grimm’s other great work, the collection of folktales/fairytales he compiled with his brother Wilhelm. Grimm’s Law was one of the first systematic expressions of this correspondence. As for philology, Grimm and his contemporaries were some of the first to take a truly scientific approach to language, focusing largely on phonology (the sounds of language) and language change. Another term for this sort of study is historical linguistics.4

Jacob Grimm

Jacob Grimm

Incidentally, in addition to Grimm, I could have listed here any number of philologists who were important to the study of Old English in particular and the history of the English language in general. For instance Karl Verner who formulated Verner’s Law which explained the seeming exceptions to Grimm’s Law, or the many lexicographers from Samuel Johnson to James Murray, famed editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, which revolutionized how dictionaries are made and used, and many editors of various early editions, such as those involved in the Early English Text Society. One in particular worthy of at least brief mention is Henry Sweet, who in addition to writing various works on Germanic philology, including A Student’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, was the model for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.5 All of these 19th century philologists pushed forward our understanding of language and its history during an explosively productive time.

James Murray

James Murray

Aside from historical linguistics, the study of language throughout the 20th century and into the 21st has become highly theoretical, and often focuses on the spoken language of living speakers, who can be test subjects in the lab. Linguists started to theorise how language worked at some deeper level, rather than just describing it and its history in great detail.6 To a large extent the late 19th and early 20th century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is responsible for the theoretical and structural approach to language. Saussure, for instance, hit upon the distinction between the theoretical system and its actual practice of language, what he termed langue and parole. Saussure is often regarded as the founder of modern linguistics.7

Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure

Perhaps one of the most important and influential linguistic ideas of the 20th century, which comes out of this structural approach, is the idea of the universal grammar, proposed by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky.8 This theory holds that all human languages share a basic universal structure which is hard-wired into the human brain, and the differences between languages are mostly surface level, and not indicative of the deeper structure of language. This also presupposes that there is a special language centre of the brain and that language is a specialised function of the brain. Furthermore, this internal grammar is said to be generative, in that it is a set of basic rules through which a theoretically infinite number of expressions can generated.9 This is the difference between human language and the forms of communication that animals use. While human language is infinitely flexible and can generate new expressions and ideas, animal communication is limited to a certain number of fixed expressions. Animals, as far as we know, have no syntax or generative grammar with which to produce novel expressions. They simply repeat the same few messages as required by the circumstance. Followers of Chomsky have sought to define how this universal and generative grammar works, and how we acquire this ability. This approach to language is often referred to as generative linguistics or formal linguistics.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

There have certainly been alternate opinions, such as the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, associated with Edward Sapir10 and Benjamin Lee Whorf,11 which argues for linguistic relativity, that language difference is indicative of different ways of thinking, and that the language you speak can influence the way you perceive and think about the world.12 Linguistic relativity too has its foundations in Saussure’s ideas, particularly the relationship between thought and language and Saussure’s notions of linguistic signs and the concepts they signify. But the universal grammar model came to be the mainstream of linguistics.13 In the latter half of the 20th century the idea of linguistic relativity has fallen out of favour, and is even now not the mainstream opinion.

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Also quite influential in the 20th century has been the field of sociolinguistics, which examines language in the context of society — how language is used in different social contexts, such as in different social and socioeconomic groups, and how society effects language. A notable linguist in this field is William Labov, who is widely know for his study of Black English Vernacular (BEV). Labov argued that BEV should not be thought of as substandard, but was in fact remarkably expressive and grammatically consistent, and worthy of academic study.14 This is part of a larger trend in linguistics of the 20th century away from prescriptivism (instructing people about the so-called ‘correct’ way to speak and write) and towards descriptivism (studying how language is actually used in the real world rather than in theoretical and abstract grammar books, without value judgement). A related field is pragmatics, which studies context-dependent meaning, and seeks to uncover the elements of meaning that can’t be explained by the study of the structure of language in formal linguistics. Thus for instance the utterance “It’s cold in here” when said to someone sitting next to an open window is a request to close the window. It is the context of the discourse that determines the meaning. William Labov engaged in this kind of discourse analysis, which has led to my own interest in examining discourse markers (such supposedly meaningless, though actually significant and meaningful, filler phrases such as “so”, “you know”, “I mean”, and “actually”) and their use in medieval narrative.15

William Labov

William Labov

More recently, a new branch of linguistics has developed called cognitive linguistics, which attempts to explain language by drawing on more general theories of human cognition developed by cognitive scientists and cognitive psychologists. Simply put, according to the cognitive approach, language is explained with reference to the same basic principles that govern human cognition generally, as illuminated by the research being done by cognitive scientists. Thus cognitive linguistics can often stray into areas of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Instead of seeing language as the product of a specialised language organ in the brain, as per the universal grammar model, in cognitive linguistics language is intricately linked to human conceptualisation generally. It’s almost as if language is a by-product of human cognition. And so general principles of human cognition, as explored by cognitive scientists, must be able to account for the way language works as much as possible. Thus cognitive linguistics is a necessarily interdisciplinary field, just as cognitive science is, incorporating areas such as neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy.16

George Lakoff

George Lakoff

One of the most well-known and influential ideas to come out of the cognitive linguistic approach is the emphasis on metaphor, which George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explore in Metaphors We Live By. The argument is that metaphor is fundamental to all language, and indeed to all thought. We use metaphors as a way of thinking about and talking about abstract things by relating them to more concrete things. Thus when we say we are “in trouble” we are metaphorically conceiving of trouble as a container.17 Or when you say you “spend time” doing something you are drawing on the “time is money” metaphor. Some other significant scholars working in these kinds of areas include Mark Turner and Rafael E. Núñez.

Mark Turner

Mark Turner

Along with the greater focus on the cognition of speech has very recently come a resurgence in interest in the linguistic relativity question. In particular, over the past decade cognitive scientists such as Lera Boroditsky have been exploring the ways in which language shapes thought. No longer holding to the hard-line strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that claimed that language determined thought and thus that language was some kind of limiting factor, the argument now is that language can be a factor in shaping habitual thought.18

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky

Thus finally we come back to my use of the term cognitive philology. I suppose what I’m driving at is the literary and philological implications of cognitive linguistics. Of course there are other literary scholars who have sought to apply the ideas of cognitive science, and cognitive linguistics in particular, to the study of literature, and this has led to a field often referred to as cognitive poetics. Frequently, for instance, such scholarship examines the use of conceptual metaphor in literary texts, and how that contributes to the meaning of literature.19 But what I’m aiming at is perhaps somewhat broader than just cognitive poetics, involving the intersection of language, thought, history and culture.20 Language is an entry point into the mind, and a particularly useful one when studying historical periods, as the people themselves are long dead. All human culture is the product of human cognition, and can thus not really be understood without the lens of cognitive science; and if language is intimately linked with cognition, it is an important window into the human cognitive process and therefore human culture. Through the study of language, we can study the history of human thought and culture, and I hope to be able to show, in a small way at least, why this is interesting and important for everyone to understand. Language is the monument of thousands of years of human culture.

Cognitive Science Hexagram

Cognitive Science Hexagram

So writing this post has served a double purpose — it explains some of the theoretical background to what I want to blog about, especially important if you don’t already have a background in languages or linguistics, but it’s also an opportunity for me to think out loud a bit. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! As a reward, here’s a sketch by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie discussing language, which picks up on notions of Saussurian lange and parole, Chomskian generative grammar, the relationship between language and culture, pragmatics, and the formulaic nature of language. See how much funnier it is now that you’ve read all that?21

1 Indeed it might actually infuriate you to read this post if you’re an actual linguist, so you may as well stop now. Still here? Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you! [back]

2 For instance the Germanic f in English words such as foot, father, and fish corresponds predictably with p in other IE languages, such as Latin pes/pedis, pater, and piscis (and also with Greek πούς and πατηρ, for that matter — feel free to find correspondences in other languages, or consider other basic words like numbers (one, two, three, etc.) in as many languages as you know. It’s fun! [back]

3 An interesting side note, the Danish philologist Rasmus Christian Rask more or less came up with the same idea as Grimm, and Grimm initially credited him with this, hence it’s sometimes referred to as Rask’s-Grimm’s Rule. [back]

4 At least that’s what linguists working in linguistics departments would call it. Today, scholars focusing on language in literary fields, such as my own medieval studies, still tend to use the term philology. [back]

5 Sweet, not known for a sweet disposition but instead something of an irascible figure — the prefaces to his various works make for quite entertaining reading — was somewhat embittered that he did not receive a university professorship position as he thought he deserved. I’ve often felt quite a kinship with Sweet, and have often said, though I wouldn’t have wanted to live in the middle ages, I would love to have been a Victorian medieval philologist. [back]

6 This also brings up the distinction between diachronic linguistics, which is another term for historical linguistics (that is the way language changes over time), and synchronic linguistics, the study of language at one point in time. [back]

7 Saussure’s work also kicked off the field of semiotics, which has become significant in the literary critical world. [back]

8 Interestingly, I suspect as many people know of Chomsky for his political commentary as for his linguistics work. I guess politics is more flashy than linguistics. However, in a future post I’d like to explore how politics is really all about language anyway. [back]

9 Chomsky devised the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, demonstrating among other things that the generative grammar can produce a syntactically well-formed sentence even if it was semantically nonsense. Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky” achieves much the same effect. [back]

10 Sapir is known for developing the anthropological approach to linguistics, looking at how language and culture interact, a topic I’m much interested in. As a personal side note, Sapir lived for a time in my hometown Ottawa (Canada), working for the Geological Survey of Canada. That’s a connection I’d really like to look more into. [back]

11 Whorf has often been criticised as a dilettante, as he was originally trained as a chemical engineer, and only came to the study of linguistics later in life. However, the strengths and weaknesses of his work should stand for themselves. [back]

12 Essentially the claim is that language can affect the way you think in very fundamental ways; language differences can lead to differences in cognition. The original strong version of this theory, linguistic determinism, claimed that the language you spoke determined the way you were able to think about the world. The more recent versions of this idea claim that language can have an effect on the way you think but is not an absolute determiner of it. You can read more about linguistic relativity on Wikipedia or even better in this easily approachable and very well explained entry by Lera Boroditsky in the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. [back]

13 Linguistic relativity is a complex topic that I’ve already briefly touched on, and I’ll come back to in more detail in an upcoming post. [back]

14 BEV is now more commonly referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. For an interesting discussion of this topic, have a listen to episode 4 of Slate’s excellent language podcast Lexicon Valley. [back]

15 A number of medievalists, such as Suzanne Fleischman, Laurel J. Brinton, and Peter Richardson,  have focused on pragmatics and discourse markers, and they’ve been big influences on me as well. I’ll probably write a fuller post on this topic in another post, as pragmatics and discourse markers were the focus of my research for the first five years or so after completing my doctorate. [back]

16 This interdisciplinarity is what lies behind the graphics I’ve included at the beginning and end of this post. The graphics use the hexagram and heptagram to show the interrelated nature of these fields in cognitive science, an image which also lies behind the name of this blog — the endless knot is a phrase from the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and refers to the emblem of the pentangle or pentagram which Gawain has emblazoned on his shield. It is an image of the interconnectedness of things. Interconnectivity and interdisciplinarity are at the very heart of what I’m doing, and I’ll be blogging much more about them soon. [back]

17 Children learn the basic conceptual schema of “container” when they spend hours putting things in and then taking them out of a box or other container. It seems to fascinate them endlessly to repeat this simple act, which later becomes fundamental to their thinking about the world in later life. [back]

18 Boroditsky’s work has been particularly influential for me lately. I’ve written a bit about this already, and will post a fuller discussion of linguistic relativity later. In the meantime, have a look at Boroditsky’s website, which includes both her scholarly publications and more popular articles, and check out this public lecture, which is a very approachable and entertaining introduction to the subject of linguistic relativity. [back]

19 That certainly is part of what I’m trying to do on this blog. See for instance my post on the seafaring metaphor. [back]

20 Mark Turner has an interesting article along these lines called “The Cognitive Study of Art, Language, and Literature” Poetics Today 23.1 (2002): 9-20. [back]

21 Yes, this whole post has been in part an attempt to show why this sketch is so funny. [back]

Categories: cognitive, Interdisciplinarity, linguistic relativity, linguistics, metaphor, philology | 9 Comments

Back to the Future

A quick update to my previous post about the correlation between the way languages mark future tim reference and future-oriented behaviour. Kieth Chen has written a guest post on Language Log explaining his working paper, and responding to the critiques by Language Loggers Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman. He specifically addresses two concerns, that there is some linguistic imprecision in the classification of of strong FTR languages, and that the statistical correlation may be due to cultural co-diffusion, and I must say that I find his responses valid and persuasive, though clearly considerably more research needs to be done in this area.

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The Ant and the Grasshopper

In response to Chen’s response, another Language Logger, Julie Sedivy, has written an interesting post. Her main point, that additional linguistic experimentation needs to be conducted to really get at what is going on here, is an excellent suggestion, and I do hope that someone goes about this. However, I’m still troubled by some of the objections Sedivy raises. She again brings up this notion of cultural co-diffusion, that families in the same countries who choose to speak a particular language at home will also choose to hold to certain cultural values that are coincidentally associated with that language group, and that there is no causal relation between language and behaviour. This might explain away the behaviour in any one country, but if I understand correctly, Chen’s data is drawn from a wide range of countries which don’t necessarily have cultural connections. But again, perhaps I’m missing something here.

What really troubles me is the extent to which Chen’s data is being dismissed primarily on the grounds that the prevailing model shouldn’t allow. Surely the data should come first, even if it conflicts with the prevailing models. Certainly experimental evidence will be needed to corroborate Chen’s statistical correlation in order to establish a solid case for a causal relation. But Sedivy’s attitude is that such a result would be surprising (albeit interesting). There is, however, mounting evidence that such causal relationships exist, as demonstrated for instance by the research by Lera Boroditsky. Many linguists get uncomfortable when confronted by such evidence, since it can’t simply be dismissed, and yet it supports the notion of linguistic relativity, to which they do not hold. Perhaps we need Boroditsky to conduct such experimentation which Sedivy describes, and maybe then the notion of linguistic relativity will not be so cavalierly dismissed.

In any case, if you’re interested in the topic, have a look at these two new posts. I am glad that this topic is getting some attention, and I’m quite enjoying this ongoing discussion on Language Log. I will eventually post about my own research on the topic of linguistic relativity, and very soon I’ll post the rather long entry I’ve been working on about philology and cognitive linguistics.

Categories: cognitive, linguistic relativity | 4 Comments

Saving for the Future

Another quick post today relating to a recently reported story about a working paper by M. Keith Chen, an economics prof at Yale, which claims a correlation between tense marking and behaviour.1 I was originally going to hold off for a longer post on the topic of linguistic relativity, but instead I decided to post right away as this topic has been making waves on the web due to Chen’s paper.2

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The Ant and the Grasshopper

Essentially, Chen points out a statistical correlation between languages that do not strongly mark a distinction between present and future time, and people who provision for the future, for instance by saving money or engaging in behaviour that is beneficial to long term health like diet and exercise. The crux of it seems to be that if your language makes a strong distinction between present and future time, you don’t take note of future consequences as much as someone who speaks a language which lumps together present and future — when the future is the present, the future is really a present concern, but if you linguistically isolate the future you can put it out of mind more easily, so the theory goes. Thus on average, speakers of languages without a distinct future tense save more money and live healthier lives than those who speak languages with separate future tenses. The abstract from Chen’s paper summarises his findings and reasoning:

Languages differ dramatically in how much they require their speakers to mark the timing of events when speaking. In this paper I test the hypothesis that being required to speak differently about future events (what linguists call strongly grammaticalized future-time reference) leads speakers to treat the future as more distant, and to take fewer future-oriented actions. Consistent with this hypothesis I find that in every major region of the world, speakers of strong-FTR languages save less per year, hold less retirement wealth, smoke more, are more likely to be obese, and suffer from worse long-run health. This holds true even after extensive controls that compare only demographically similar individuals born and living in the same country. While not dispositive, the evidence does not seem to support the most obvious forms of common causation. Implications of these findings for theories of intertemporal choice are discussed.

I first heard about this research a while ago, and it’s being widely reported on the web in the past few days (see here and here) as the discussion paper (not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal) has recently been made available online. For a rather more negative appraisal of this research see this post, and for a critique of the statistical analysis see this post,5 both at Language Log.

What lies behind this sort of argument is the concept of linguistic relativity, which you can read about on Wikipedia or even better in this easily approachable and very well explained entry by Lera Boroditsky in the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, available along with much other research on the topic on her excellent website.3 Indeed, Boroditsky is doing some of the most compelling and convincing work on the issue of linguistic relativity. Essentially the claim is that language can affect the way you think in very fundamental ways; language differences can lead to differences in cognition. The idea originally came out of the research of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and is thus also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.4 The original strong version of this theory, linguistic determinism, claimed that the language you spoke determined the way you were able to think about the world. The more recent versions of this idea claim that language can have an effect on the way you think but is not an absolute determiner of it.6

I first encountered the concept of linguistic relativity when working on my dissertation, which examined the development of future tense constructions, such as “I shall” or “you will”, in Old English texts. English did not originally have a future tense in the same way that it had a present and a past tense (“I walk” and “I walked”). You could (and still can in some circumstances) use the present tense with an adverb (“I walk to the doctor’s office tomorrow”) to indicate future time, or you can use some sort of auxiliary with the verb (“I will walk” or “I am going to walk”). Latin, on the other hand, does have a series of simple ending you can tack onto the end of verbs to indicate future time, just like English adds “-ed” to verbs to show past time. I was curious how Old English translators of Latin texts handled these Latin future tense forms when English at that time did not have a regularised system for marking future time. It was a straightforward philological topic. But from there I branched out into all kinds of conceptual areas like anthropology and philosophy, and literary areas, such as the construction of narrative. For instance, particularly relevant is the effect Christianization had on the Anglo-Saxons, Christianity having a well developed notion of the future and Latin, the language that Christianity was transmitted in, having a future tense. It was in the conceptual area that I first encountered cognitive science, how we conceptualise future time. I briefly discussed these issues and the issue of linguistic relativity, and then filed them away for a later date as an interesting topic that might be worth another look, and am now coming back to the issue of linguistic relativity in a conference paper I’m preparing for the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo in May. Chen’s reseach has obvious parallels to all of this. I’ll post a fuller account of these implications later as I continue to work on my conference paper.

Full disclosure: my position on all of this is that I support the notion of linguistic relativity, at least in its weaker formulation. I am convinced by the evidence of Boroditsky and others that language does have a profound and deep influence on the way you think. It is not, however, the only factor, and the more complex the human behaviour you’re looking at, the harder it is to ascribe it to one simple linguistic feature. Other linguistic and non-linguistic factors influencing cognition come into play. That being said, Chen’s methodology would, at first glance, seem to deal with these limitations, as he controls for these variables, and given that he is showing large-scale statistical influences, individual exceptions aren’t a big problem for his conclusions. Future time marking may well be a powerful factor influencing your behaviour, though not the only factor. Other personal and large-scale cultural factors all have a role to play in this complex behaviour, but in the aggregate, your language may well have a profound effect on your long-tem planning. I’ll write more about this research when I’ve had a chance to go over it in more detail, as well as about linguistic relativity, which underlies much of the thinking behind the ideas I’m writing about on this blog.

If you do not think about the future, you cannot have one.
—John Galsworthy, Swan Song

1 Well, it was going to be a brief post, but it ended up as a rather long one. The topic of linguistic relativity is very much on my mind at the moment…[back]
2 I will soon get back to the post I was writing to explain cognitive linguistics and philology, I promise.[back]
3 For a good introduction to her research have a look at the popular press essays, such as the Scientific American article, and the Economist debate with Language Logger Mark Liberman on the topic of linguistic relativity. Also a good introduction is this public lecture given by Boroditsky, which is also available through iTunes.[back]
4 See for instance E. Sapir, Language (1921), Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture, a Study in Method (1926), Culture, Language and Personality (1957); Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought & Reality (1956).[back]
5 I’m a little confused by Mark Liberman’s complaint here. From his comments, he seems to be implying that due to cultural diffusion, any number of factors will be exchanged by geographically adjacent cultures, and so having a linguistic feature and a cultural feature in common doesn’t imply a connection between the two. Fair enough, but isn’t that the point? Germanic and Romance languages are geographically very close together, and yet linguistically different, and strong-FTR languages around the world may happen to have that one linguistic trait in common, in spite of the languages being completely unrelated, and yet Chen is reporting a statistical correlation between this linguistic trait and the economic one. But perhaps I’m missing something here. The Language Loggers frequently complain about the lack of basic statistical knowledge in the general public, and they are no doubt correct; however, given the complexity of the statistical analysis under discussion, one would wish that he could explain it more clearly for someone who doesn’t have that level of statistical knowledge.[back]
6 For counter arguments to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, see for instance the very approachable and well written book The Language Instinct (1994) by Steven Pinker, and various Language Log posts on the topic such as this one.[back]

Categories: cognitive, linguistic relativity | 10 Comments

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