Language, Thought, Culture: A Reassessment
If Eskimos have several words for snow, do they perceive it differently from us? Are the Piraha, a tribe in the Amazon rainforest whose language lacks number words, not able to keep track of exact quantities? And do speakers of Australian aboriginal languages, who say north, south, east, and west rather than left and right, have better spatial orientation than English speakers? In short, does our language affect how we think and perceive the world? Or are there universal aspects of human language and cognition that transcend linguistic divisions?
In this course, we will discuss some of the most hotly debated and fundamental issues concerning language and thought; examine important theories of language and its relationship to thought and culture (such as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis and Noam Chomsky’s parametric theory of language); and scrutinize current research on both culture-specific and universal aspects of human languages. We will read and discuss Guy Deutcher’s Through the Language Glass, which claims that “different languages can lead their speakers to different thoughts” and John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax, which argues that the idea that “the language we speak shapes the way we perceive the world” is plainly wrong. Our overarching goal is to gain a better understanding of human nature through what the philosopher Leibniz called “the best mirror of the human mind”—our language.
On ‘you’ words
On Eskimo snow vocabulary
Languages of the former Yugoslavia
TED article: How language can affect the way we think
Gender and Time:
More on gender stereotypes: How Google Translates Gender
And more on grammatical gender and translation
Keith Chen’s study and critique: You save what you speak?
Why are languages so different?
Does language reflect/affect thought?