Friday, January 21, 2011

How Language Shapes Thought

Just received my issue of Scientific American and came across an article by Lera Boroditsky.
It was one of the rare articles where I had this urge to say "Enough! I must say you are completely wrong." Well ! Couldn't help myself and I am saying it - Here.

Being a computer engineer, I have worked on couple of compilers/parser myself and when I was in dreamy early years of my engineering I was attracted to AI and natural language processing. One thing lead to another and I started reading a good deal about linguistics - Enough to begin to understand stuff like X bar theory, Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar, Interlanguage Grammar, Markedness and likes.

Personally I am fluent in 3 languages.  English (8 out of 10), Hindi (9 out of 10) and Marathi (10 out of 10 being my mother tongue).
I also learned Sanskrit for 3 years when I was in high school. For last few years I think I am getting better with my Spanish.
There are over 6000 human languages and they often differ along many dimensions. Word order, whether you can drop the pronoun, agreement rules for gender and number, use of cases stress accent/mora timed and many others. For some time,  people used to think that structure of your language affects the way you think and perceive the world. It is called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It seems to suggest that if you 'control' the structure of language then you can control how people view the world. The article says they now have stronger argument.

I disagree - choice of words may affect analysis of abstract conceptual things but not the concrete perception of every day reality.

Here is a Counter Argument - sort of paragraph for paragraph.

1.  Lera' Article: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is gaining credibility
Response : Both weak and strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf are empty, meaningless and circular. In my view

  • Our ability to experience the world, recall and analyze it remains independent of language. 
  • However our ability to express and articulate that experience precisely and accurately does depend on the medium (the langauge), acts of coding/ decoding and shared meaning between sender and receiver.
Claiming that knowledge transfer is influenced by the communication is sort of meaningless and empty. That fact is derived from the definition. More importantly it can NOT make any claims on how the cognition itself is affected especially while person is experiencing or recalling or analyzing it. We are not talking about how he communicates or is expected to communicate or while he is "understanding" the words coming out of someone else's mouth. But how his own cognition works for himself.

2. Lera's Article: Languages differ in their treatment of gender, tense, aspect and so on ...
So what? Amongst the many choices people have, the actual choice of vocabulary and grammar for particular language depends on what works best in the cultural context. It has evolved through survival of the fittest amid the need for brevity, precision, cultural significance and sometimes following the shared convention instead of reinventing the wheel.
She talks about how in some languages distinction between maternal and paternal relatives is important. I think she is putting the cart before the horse.
For example: In a traditional Indian patriarchal society the social structure required different powers/influence depending on whether relative is paternal or maternal. Traditional roles and responsibilities differed too. Hence the different words. Person knows by experience that maternal/paternal are different. What does language has to do with it ? Beyond labeling a 'class of objects' that have different properties? It is their cultural reality that must be reflected in the language.
I imagine it may be similar to solders being sensitive to the rank of the other and especially attentive to such details.
The variety of languages just means that some concepts/categories/nuances are better expressed in one language than other. That does not mean it can not expressed at all in other language or is somehow inaccessible or hard to understand to non-natives. All things being equal, all languages can convey any human experience conceivable. 

3. Lera's Article: Pormpuraaw people don't have idea of right /left.
Story is that some aboriginal people don't have words for right or left so they must tell 'side' using true north/south. They have honed the directional sense to become human compass. But they have no 'conception' of right or left.
This is laughable. Gravity dictates  people understand up and down.There is one side you are constantly pulled. There is a clear idea of front and back. You can see only infront of you - same side your mouth and nose is and where you can easily travel/run/walk. Now most people are either right handed or left handed. You know the side on which your are "power"-handed. Most people have heart and stomach on left. You know on what what side you heart races and which side your acid reflux hurts. No matter what you call - left, bad side, down side or weak side , heart side you know what you are talking about.
I am almost certain that those people will have some real word for the right/left. But culturally required to   drag reference to some hill or something when giving directions. Every now and then,the communication is totally broken when my wife calls me and says "I am at the stop sign, near Sears and I want to go to JC penny which turn should I take - Right or left?" Well I need more info - Which direction she is going north/south? She doesn't know - well then on which street ? Away/towards Starbucks? While I'm thinking she says "Sorry I was in the wrong lane so had to take left turn and but i did the smart thing  I pulled into Les Schwab complex. Can you now tell me should I take right or left?" I am lost.  
I wish we had a system of "towards mt. Rainier /away from Cascades" like those Pormpuraaw!

4. Lera's Article: People seem not to understand flow of time or how they describe it. 
People seem to map time to space directions (top, left, front) in many different ways. But it is ridiculous to even think that some people can not comprehend concepts like growing etc. Everyone knows that the sun sets and rises again and again. Past is history and tomorrow is mystery.
Any teenager who has his memory intact knows that he was a kid in the past, will be looking forward to meeting a nice girl in future and knows after a long in the future he will be a grandfather. 
People have written top to down, left to right,right to left, like a plough, spirally. People drive on left side/right side of the road. SOV, SVO. Prefix/Postfix. We need to order things and we pick one of the possible directions. Physical things happen in space-time. Even crazy 11 Dimensional string theory needs a notions of "distance"- near/far. Here is a funny thing - Don't we draw the syntax "tree" upside down? Instead of calling it "tree with branches and leaf" why not call it "root system". It seems arbitrary. Now: Yes - poetics , rhetorics and similes,puns won't work if past is "up" and you ask someone to look forward to go up and up (say the corporate ladder) within his job rank.  But it is coincidence. In cultures where moon is 'she'. You can clearly say moon is a beautiful fair lady.(That too only if you care about being fair).  It is just the coincident caused by convention. 

5. Lera's Article: Details like whether language is accusative/ergative etc can affect understanding of who did what to whom.
First I thought this might be actually true. But even seemingly fundamental differences seem to be "artificial".  My language Marathi (and Hindi) is mixed ergative. But I totally know when dog bites the man and why man should not bite the dog. Also my language has similar structure like spanish me gusta la flora . Instead of I like flower. But it would have been foolish of me to think that a flower can potentially like me.(unless I am being poetic.)
Here are some counter example of categories English lacks yet english speakers have a very clear cognition of underlying idea.

  • You all : English does not have plural second person pronoun but that does not mean english speakers can't address to the crowd.
  • Inclusive/Exclusive We: My language has different words for "we including you" and "we excluding you." But english speakers know which one is meant given the context. Imagine- On negotiating table our needs are different than your needs but we (all) need to make a deal.  
  • Spanish has words for here, there and 'over there'. Well we have a phrase 'over there'.
Multi lingual people may still have some rough edges in their "inter language". But they very well guess and know who is doing what to whom , where, how etc they may  misunderstand but that is because it is lost in the translation. Some times the translation is not loss less. Okay the passive voice can be used strategically to obscure the facts or emphasize different aspacts.

Each language seems to creates its own set of potential ambiguities. 
Eg. What does the english 'you' mean? - just you OR you and your family?What does 'We' mean?
That only means that people need to use extra word or two to clarify when context requires so.
But Lera is wrong - at least that is what I thought based on her article.

posted by Sachin Joshi

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