The tools of language and the craft of understanding

Stanford Magazine has a fascinating article on how speakers of different languages think differently about the world.

The piece focuses on the work of psychologist Lera Boroditsky and covers many of her completely intriguing studies about how the conceptual tools embedded within languages shape how we think.

“In English,” she says, moving her hand toward the cup, “if I knock this cup off the table, even accidentally, you would likely say, ‘She broke the cup.'” However, in Japanese or Spanish, she explains, intent matters.

If one deliberately knocks the cup, there is a verb form to indicate as much. But if the act were an accident, Boroditsky explains, a smile dancing across her lips as she translates from Spanish, the speaker would essentially say, “The cup broke itself.”…

She has shown that speakers of languages that use “non-agentive” verb forms‚Äîthose that don’t indicate an animate actor‚Äîare less likely to remember who was involved in an incident. In one experiment [pdf], native Spanish speakers are shown videos of several kinds of acts that can be classified as either accidental or intentional, such as an egg breaking or paper tearing. In one, for example, a man sitting at a table clearly and deliberately sticks a pin into the balloon. In another variation, the same man moves his hand toward the balloon and appears surprised when it pops.

The Spanish speakers tend to remember the person who deliberately punctured the balloon, but they do not as easily recall the person who witnesses the pop but did not deliberately cause it. English speakers tend to remember the individual in both the videos equally; they don’t pay more or less attention based on the intention of the person in the video.

The article has an element of Stanford University blowing their own trumpet, but it is also full of delightful examples of how language and understanding interact.

The piece discusses the work in terms of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which originally claimed that language categories reflected or constrained the categories of the mind but is generally used more widely to suggest that people think differently about concepts in different languages.

Not being a linguist, I never understood why this idea was controversial in the first place, as it seems obvious to me that people are limited or enabled by the conceptual tools available to them through language.

The irony that psychology itself seems limited by the conceptual language of computation seems to have been widely missed by all concerned.

Link to ‘You Say Up, I Say Yesterday’.

5 Comments

  1. Posted June 30, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    That’s fascinating and it makes me
    wonder about some of the grammatical
    mistakes that kids make. Could some of
    them be an effort to express what
    the language isn’t structured for–like
    intent?

  2. gaddeswarup
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Related:
    New Nicaraguan sign language shows how language affects thought

  3. Georg Kj√∏ll
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    This article discusses some problems with the NSL data and the Sapir-Whorf stuff in general:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2415

  4. schrokit
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Great read, thanks!
    I’ve long had an interest in this subject, especially as a polyglot, having lived in other cultures/languages (and the inherent head-banging that come with it). Naively leaving out thoughts of cultural superiority for the sake of argument – for me, this research evokes the question of whether or not there is an ideal language (and if so which) for optimal cognitive ability.

  5. Bob
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Double plus good post!


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