Language, Thought, Culture: A Reassessment

Dec 11, 2014 by

For the past ten weeks or so, my students in “Language & Mind” course and I have investigated the links between language, thought, and culture. In the first half of the course, we have re-examined the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis by reviewing the old and recent literature that addresses the question whether a language one speaks determines one’s thinking and interactions with the world. We have found that language in general provides a helpful “crutch” to cognitive process such as perception, categorization, and memory, yet there is no solid evidence that having a sex-based gender system in a language makes its speakers treat women differently, or that not having a future tense makes speakers more likely to provide for their future. In the second half of the course, we have explored the Principles and Parameters theory and have learned that although variation across languages is not unbound and is subject to universal principles, languages still vary in deep structural ways. For example, some languages place the object before the verb and others place it after. Neither word order pattern, however, confers any advantage to the speakers, which begs the question why there are significant structural differences across languages at all. Why some languages have gender or future tense and others do not? Why some languages structure their sentences a certain way and others do it differently? Would it not be more advantageous to the humankind in general if we all spoke structurally the same language, perhaps adorned here and there by local vocabulary (aquavit and gravlax in Norway, banana and coconut in the tropics, etc.)? While language in general confers us humans the advantage of being able to transmit complex information between individuals and even between generations, some of these positive effects seem to be undone by the fact that so many different languages are spoken by different people around the world. Why would a system like this have evolved?

OV_languagesThese questions have been addressed in the work of Mark Baker, who has examined various potential explanations for the existence of multiple languages differing from each other in deep structural ways. The most obvious biological explanation in terms of adaptability clearly does not work: linguistic typology does not correlate with environmental or social/cultural factors in any obvious way. For example, languages that place their objects before verbs are found in different physical environments ranging from the steppes of Central Asia to the mountainous Andes of South America and from the temperate Basque Country to tropical jungle of Papua New Guinea. Moreover, languages in the neighboring, climatically identical locales may differ with respect to their linguistic patterns: for instance, in coastal Papua New Guinea one finds languages with either Subject-Object-Verb, Subject-Verb-Object, or Verb-Subject-Object order. Patterns of lifestyle, social organization, or technological advancement are equally haphazardly distributed with respect to linguistic typology. For example, what do Evenki-speaking reindeer pastoralists, hunter-gatherers speaking Guugu Yimidhirr, and Japanese-speaking high-tech workers, whose languages all have the Subject-Object-Verb order, have in common socially or culturally? Or salmon-fishing speakers of Halkomelem and cow-herding speakers of Maasai, whose languages exhibit a more rare Verb-Subject-Order pattern? Many more examples can be brought to buttress this argument.

Baker also considers a couple of other explanations couched in evolutionary biological terms. One possibility is that enzymes that regulate the building of the knowledge structures of human language in the brain (including the built-in variation across languages) are biochemically necessary for some reason. In other words, perhaps both Universal Grammar as conceived in the Chomskian framework and the attendant variation are a side-effect of something else that is biologically relevant? This possibility, however, seems extremely far-fetched as it is not clear what that biologically relevant outcome might be. A second possibility is that the diversity of languages evolved from some property of earlier conceptual/communication system (say, also found in apes). In other words, cross-linguistic variation is an atavism, like human appendix. But again, it is unclear what that property of primate conceptual system could be. This hypothesis does not answer the question why languages differ, but simply pushes it back one step on the evolutionary scale.

Having examined a number of possibilities without finding a satisfactory answer, Baker ends up re-examining the assumptions that led to the question of why languages differ in the first place. Language variation as it exists only appears bizarre, Baker notes, if we assume that language exists solely as a means of communication. But what if that often-made assumption is wrong? “Our language faculty could have the purpose of communicating complex propositional information to members of our group while concealing it from members of other groups”, he writes. In the 2003 article, Baker considers in detail what elements of natural language are comparable to cryptographic techniques. For example, the use of different sound systems is comparable to letter for letter substitution cyphers, whereas word order variation (mentioned above) compares to transposition cyphers.

But what would be the evolutionary advantage of hiding rather than transmitting information between individuals and groups? Baker’s answer is that the sheer possibility of defining human groups on the basis of such easily recognizable factor as language has an evolutionary advantage. Linguistic groups (which we often think of in terms of ethnic or tribal groups) serve to define who one mates with and who one fights with. In other words, language is an easily identifiable marker of who is or is not “our people”. (Note that this does not imply that people mate only with those speaking the same language; for example, Australian aborigines have a complex system of rules as to who can marry who across linguistically-defined tribes.) Thus, diversity of languages helps divide humankind into smaller teams; such relatively isolated ethno-linguistic groups can evolve biologically and culturally in different ways, thus diversifying our survival portfolio as a species. Moreover, it allows to create “group solidarity” which in turn promotes altruistic behavior towards people who share our genes.

If Baker is right, the existence of gender systems, future tense markers, or certain word order patterns in some languages but not in others does not serve any useful purpose in and of itself. If your language obsesses about evidentiality, spatial relations, or classifiers, that alone does not make you interact with the world in a better way. But the fact that the next language over “obsesses” about some other seemingly unnecessary quirk of grammar makes us all be on our toes. All in all, perhaps it is not the sheer existence of language but the built-in possibility of it varying from one group to the next that allowed our species to make the most gigantic technological leap of any biological species, from stone scrapers to iPads.




Baker, Mark C. (2001) The Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar. Basic Books.

Baker, Mark C. (2003) Linguistic differences and language design. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 7(8): 349-353.

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