Does language reflect/affect thought?

Jan 20, 2011 by

In a recent online debate at The Economist a question was raised as to whether the language we speak shapes how we think. Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University argued for the “pro” position, while Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania argued the “con” side. Several guest experts were featured as well: Derek Bickerton (an expert on creoles), Dan Slobin (who describes himself as “a cognitive/functional psycholinguist who explores the interfaces between child language, cognition, and linguistic typology”) and Lila Gleitman (an expert in child language acquisition). The Economist‘s Robert Lane Greene served as a moderated. Many people have participated with their “comments from the floor” and voted “pro” (78%) or “con” (22%). As you can see, the opinion of the overwhelming majority of those readers who voted is that the language we speak shapes (and doesn’t just reflect) how we think. Interestingly, Lera Boroditsky’s arguments seem to be more convincing than those of Mark Liberman, since the “pro” vote went up from 71% to 78% in the course of the 10-day debate.

What do I think of this debate? Overall, I am not a big fan of solving scientific questions in a public forum or subjecting them to — yes, subjective! — vote of people who are not experts in the matter. IMHO, it seems to be like deciding whether Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is right or wrong by a simple vote in a townhall meeting. (Actually, this is a theory of relativity of sorts, or rather of “linguistic relativism”, whose correctness is discussed in this debate).

Still, some of the arguments presented in support of both “pro” and “con” positions are interesting and worthy of careful study. Much evidence (only some of which has been touched upon in this debate) has accumulated that shows that certain aspects of language (its numeral system, words for colors or kinship relations, spatial terms, etc.) affect how the speakers of these languages perceive, remember and think about objects, cardinalities, spatial relations and events. Most of the studies (although interestingly not all, something I will talk about in future postings) tend to favor the “pro” side that Lera Boroditsky’s on.

However, most of these cross-linguistic differences that shape our ways of thinking about the world tend to involve lexical matters: what colors, numbers or spatial relationships a given language chooses to lexicalize (that is, has words for). One of the classical examples of this causal relation between language and thought is the work on color terms: for example, Russian speakers, who distinguish two different basic colors that English speakers classify as “blue” (sinij and goluboj), are better at distinguishing shades of blue. Similarly, whether a language you speak has words for numbers higher than five, or for ‘from behind’ and ‘into under’ (separate from ‘behind’, ‘into behind’ and ‘under’) affects whether you pay attention, distinguish or remember higher cardinalities or complex spatial relations.

And take those examples that Boroditsky and her colleagues cite as grammatical patterns that affect how we think: the presence and exact shape of the grammatical gender system, or the way agentive-incoative pairs (such as the English I melted the butter/The butter melted) work. They too involve the question of lexicalization. Are there separate masculine and feminine (and perhaps also neuter) morphemes in the language? Are there separate verb forms for the agentive (I melted the butter) and the inchoative (The butter melted) meanings of the verb (and no, English manages to express both meanings with the same verb).

However, deeper grammatical patterns do not seem to affect our ways of thinking. Is your language polysynthetic? Does it use agglutination or fusion? Is it head-initial or head-final? Does it track reference (who did what to whom) by means of case or agreement (or perhaps strict word order serves that function)? Unless you are a linguist, you probably can’t answer these questions even though as a child you figured them out — implicitly! Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to speak you native tongue. Moreover, recent reseach also suggests that these deep grammatical properties are acquired by children very early: some before their 2nd birthday and most before their 3rd.

Yet, most people who do not know much about linguistics tend to think of language (and consequently, of their specific language) as a collection of words and not much else. That’s why it was so easy for the non-expert public to vote in support of Lera Boroditsky’s position. For someone focused exclusively on words, whether you think of certain objects as sinij or goluboj or just as blue makes a lot of difference. The crucial point these people miss entirely is that regardless of whether you say “The dog bit the man” or “The dog the man bit” or “Bit the dog the man” or whether any of these is fine because you know who bit whom by virtue of special marking on the nouns (“man” and “dog”) or on the verb — it just does not affect how you perceive the event of the dog biting a man.

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