Tag: linguistic relativity

Possible evidence for the linguistic relativity hypothesis

I’ve been researching–or attempting to research–any academic work that’s been done on semantic representation (i.e. intensions/extensions) AND linguistic relativity.  My search so far has proved unsuccessful.

Oppositely, I’ve found a wealth of information concerning the empirical justification for linguistic relativity.  Undressmerobot.com offers an informative review of the issues concerning linguistic relativity, but mostly from the standpoint of social psychology.

That said, I find this evidence particularly favorable for linguistic relativity:

One of the most telling tests was one that dealt with the duplication of lines on a piece of paper. Gordon drew single and multiple lines on a piece of paper and asked the Pirahã members to copy those lines. For one, two, and three lines, the Pirahã had no difficulty completing the task. As the number of lines increased, the discrepancy between the number of lines and number of copied lines also increased. For instance, many only reproduced three lines when shown four (Holden).

Of course, in order to justify the strongest version of the hypothesis, the researchers (Holden, and I’m not sure who else) would have to show that the task itself was completely non-linguistic.  Surely we think of simple copying tasks as non-linguistic, but the description above is obviously a summary and therefore incomplete.

Nevertheless, interesting evidence.

Problems with testing the ‘linguistic relativity’ position

I’m currently enrolled in a course that has focused mostly on the linguistic relativity position as it exists in contemporary cognitive psychology (and to some extent, anthropology).

In a very basic sense, the linguistic relativity position says that the language a person uses determines how he or she thinks about the world in the sense that users of distinct linguistic communities actually encode (i.e. represent) the world (or an aspect of it) quite differently.

There are a number of problems characteristically cited in contemporary discussions that I’d like to review.  I’ll present these simply as obstacles to an objective treatment of this view.

  • Significance of the way the instructions of a task are presented (especially relevant in bilingual and/or cross-linguistic experimental designs)
  • Domain vs. Structural-centered approaches
  • Cultural vs. Linguistic effects on cognition
  • Population representation: the samples of these studies rarely (if ever) can be said to be representative of the “linguistic community” that they are purportedly members of
  • Insufficient description and/or knowledge of cultural differences within a particular “linguistic community”

Another I’d like to add to the list is:

  • Conflation and/or imprecise use of the term “language” and/or “linguistic community”

The latter could be rephrased as “issues concerning the projectability (in the sense that Nelson Goodman attributes to that term) of ‘linguistic effects’

To put it in a much better way: even if an experiment (and its interpretation) purport and do a good job of showing a correspondence between a linguistic difference and a cognitive difference between two communities, its uncertain whether the conclusion(s) is projectible to “language in general”–or, to emulate Heidegger’s treatment of ‘being vs. Being’–Language.

So for instance, let’s say that users of Language A actually do differ in their experience of ‘space” (i.e. in their spatial cognition) as compared to users of Language B, does it then follow that

  1. “linguistic relativity is true” because it was shown that members of one linguistic community manifested distinct cognitive patterns as compared to the cognitive patterns manifest for members of another linguistic community….OR
  2. “linguistic relativity is true” because Language (i.e. “language itself”) determines the cognitive differences observed in different linguistic communities (that is, “different linguistic communities IN GENERAL” and not merely “differences among particular linguistic communities”)

Long story short is that depending on how a conclusion regarding the relationship between “language users” and “thought” (i.e. cognition of a nonlinguistic type) is projected, you’ll see very different takes on the “stakes” of the claim.  In the first case the cognitive difference is due to language-effects between one particular linguistic community and another particular linguistic community.  In the second case, the cognitive difference (i.e. the difference in thought) is taken to indicate a general effect of language itself, that is, Language…otherwise known as “the capacity for language”.

In a very short time observed cognitive differences between distinct linguistic communities becomes explainable via recourse to “the capacity for language”–a description in close proximity to something an advocate of Chomsky’s positions might say.  The irony is, of course, that proponents of the linguistic relativity position are OPPOSED to Chomsky’s program, to the whole edifice upon which the “universal grammar” conception is built.