Bloggingheads: Language and Thought

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A few weeks after John McWhorter and I participated in a "diavlog" on Bloggingheads, the site is hosting another language-y conversation between Joshua Knobe of Yale and Lera Boroditsky of Stanford. Whereas the previous diavlog touched briefly on neo-Whorfian arguments about the culturally determined relations of language to thought (responding to a New York Times Magazine article by Guy Deutscher), this one is a full-on Whorf-o-rama, delving into Boroditsky's research on language and cognition (see her Wall Street Journal article, "Lost in Translation," for more).

In related news, there was a bit of controversy recently about whether Deutscher should have explicitly cited Boroditsky's work in his Times Magazine article. The new public editor at the Times, Arthur S. Brisbane, devoted his Oct. 3 column to the dispute, and Deutscher's response subsequently appeared on the public editor's blog. (Further responses were posted here.)


  1. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    I was struck at minute 16 where she said that even teaching people new linguistic distinctions could improve their performance on perceptual tasks. This entails a Whorfianism that is very easily manipulable and malleable rather than one that is deep-seated in cognitive wiring. Given that adults learn language with difficulty, it seems surprising that you could simply teach someone a few new words and their cognition would improve.

  2. J Lee said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    "Patterns in language offer a window on a culture's dispositions and priorities. For example, English sentence structures focus on agents, and in our criminal-justice system, justice has been done when we've found the transgressor and punished him or her accordingly (rather than finding the victims and restituting appropriately, an alternative approach to justice). So does the language shape cultural values, or does the influence go the other way, or both?"

    This was submitted to one of the most widely read periodicals in the world? Does she really think there's even a loose metaphorical connection between our concept of justice and a syntactic preference for explicit subjects? Maybe Carmen San Diego here can someday hop in a time machine, go back to when English was pro-drop or something, and ask whether they think a CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM (her words) is geared more towards the detention and rehabilitation of criminals or toward "finding" victims, whose filing of criminal charges is generally necessary before even talking about justice.

  3. aqilluqqaaq said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

    The discussion is vitiated from the outset by the presupposition that intentionality is a transitive relation.

  4. Dane said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

    Speaking of Joshua Knobe, has any linguist looked into the Knobe Effect? ( The questionnaire findings are always passed off as evidence for some special philosophical character inherent in certain concepts like intentionality or happiness. I'd be interested in a linguist's take. If I had to guess, I'd say the experimenters have merely found some (elegant and) subtle polysemic distinctions that some words have. As in, 'intend' could mean different things depending on whether the questionnaire-taker believes blameworthiness or praiseworthiness to be the salient question. Or 'happy' could mean 'glad' in one context but 'wholesome' in another, etc…

    Even if I'm completely wrong about the Knobe Effect, there are other examples of polysemy-induced confusion in academia. In "An Agony in Five Fits" from The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins teases apart five distinct meanings of the word 'gene' that people tend to smear together without realizing it; and more recently, in her review of The Price of Altruism, (, Sissela Bok references a tendency for the author to interchange the technical biological concepts of 'altruism' and 'cooperation' with their more everyday meanings.

  5. john riemann soong said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

    "Given that adults learn language with difficulty, it seems surprising that you could simply teach someone a few new words and their cognition would improve."

    Not that surprising.

    I can't remember what the technique is, but Lieberman once pointed out a technique (like high-frequency something I can't remember) where you basically took a non-native speaker's errors (once they had been making for decades) and pointed them out, and correct them intensively. They actually disappear.

  6. john riemann soong said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    *ones they have been making for decades.


  7. Rubrick said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 12:49 am

    @Dane: 'In "An Agony in Five Fits" from The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins teases apart five distinct meanings of the word 'gene' that people tend to smear together without realizing it.'

    Actually, Dawkins teases apart five meanings of the word "fitness"; hence the chapter title. (Elsewhere, especially in The Selfish Gene, he does try to elucidate different usages of "gene", his own being rather idiosyncratic.)

  8. ronmurp said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 4:03 am

    If modes of speaking within the same language alter how we think it's not surprising that different languages would. And for different languages to what extent can you separate the influence of cultural history – which evolved along with the language in some state of isolation. And, to what extent is the globalisation of language changing all this.

    I don't see in the Categories on this blog anything about religious language, which is essentially different from day to day language, even though it's the same language, such as English.

    Specifically there are modes of speaking, what many call mystical language, where the language used seems to influence how the speaker thinks, and conversely, how they think determines how they interpret language.

    So, how does religious language 'rewire' or 'meddle' in the perceptual process?

    Here's an example. This might be easier to look at because it differs from common religious language in many ways:
    (click the link "Why the New Atheists don’t go far enough" for the MP3)

    One particular technique used seems to cause confusion by affirmative contradictions:

    Death is a mode of living.

    Christianity is atheism

    If you don't believe then by that act, you do.

    Letting go of God in order to find God.

    That mystery that we participate in materially.

    I don't know if I believe in God but God believes in me.

    A community of …including atheists…all affirming God.

    Life is difficult even when it's not.

    Even beauty is marked by tragedy.

    I don't need to believe and our beliefs are then natural.

    I don't need to believe in God, but God is why I do.

    Christian leadership is the refusal to lead.

    I this is straying too far off topic I hope you'll be able to adddress religious language at some point.

  9. Dane said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    @Rubrick: Whoops! Yes, 'fitness' is what I meant. Thanks for setting me straight.

  10. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    The Italian police is feminine and even carry little white handbags, but somehow I still don't feel like messing with them ;-)

  11. George said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

    @Ben Hemmens: In Arabic, 'police' is feminine as well. But, I rather doubt that people think of them in stereotypical feminine terms.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    I'm waiting for claims of the form "language X has no words for 'Whorfian(ism),' 'neo-Whorfian(ism),' or even 'Whorf-o-rama, therefore . . . ."

  13. J Lee said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    That may be in MSA, but in Egyptian there is indeed no feminine form in use for the same noun (عسكرى)which describes enlisted soldiers and low-level police officers like traffic cops.

  14. Pavel said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    @Zimmer The Deutscher response in the Times was somewhat unfortunate as far as Boroditsky goes.

    Since no one seems to have read it… Boroditsky called out Deutscher for not citing her in his recent essay on linguistic relativity. But Deutscher was quick back on the retort, pointing out that the study she was referring to was actually originally done by a doctoral candidate in the early 90's – Konishi. Deutscher's (admittedly harsh) implication was that Boroditsky's work was little more than an unvetted replication of Konishi.

    The irony here isn't subtle. Boroditsky was calling out Deutscher for not citing her on work that she's not been citing Konishi on for the better part of the last decade.

    The proof is in the absence. That gender study is one of Boroditsky's go-to examples in interviews and in her popular essays. Yet somehow, in the many public spaces in which she's discussed this work, she never once refers to Konishi. Weirder still, a quick glance over the two papers reveals that Boroditsky's preferred examples (bridge and key) aren't even part of her materials. They're straight out of the Konishi paper; Boroditsky used a slightly modified set that didn't include these.

    Not clear what conclusions we should draw from this. How about – the pot shouldn't be calling the kettle black. Particularly when the pot is now subject to this much media scrutiny. Maybe in future pot should also choose better interview partners? (One can dare to dream…)

  15. George said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    @J Lee: Yes, you are correct, 'shurtah' (fem.) is a little formal (MSA). In Egypt, they also use 'buliis' (which is masc.). And, a police officer would be a 'zaabit' (also masc.).

  16. maidhc said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 5:31 am

    Let me add my little bit about different viewpoints in different languages. As a native English speaker, grammatical gender has always seemed a little strange. But I had a breakthrough when I realized that there are are remnants of it in English. Referrring to a ship as "she". And other things, mostly of a mechanical nature–"She'll do for now".

    The color words are different in English and Irish. In English, color has solely to do with hue. In Irish, saturation is just as important.

    The "has no word for" and "has 100 words for" memes are seriously overworked. But there are characteristics of language that are different.

    I noticed that when dealing with Japanese that they have difficulty with determining whether "please" or "thank you" is the appropriate thing to say. This is not a problem with people who speak a European language, because it is much the same for all. But that doesn't map well on to the Japanese way of doing things.

    In some Asian languages your speech structure is determined by who you are talking to. I think Vietnamese has about 8 categories, that can map to "brother", "cousin", "uncle", "grandmother", etc. These are things that the Vietnamese could say "English has no word for …".

    The anti-Whorfian argument can be extended to say "Therefore, everyone should learn English". I believe that every language should be preserved, because it provides a different insight on to the world. Not only different, but one that has been selected for, over the course of many generations.

    Every little nuance in every minority language can potentially provide insight to the language scholar.

  17. tpr said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    A few observations on the dialogue:

    01:35 Joshua Knobe says "If it really were the case that a rose by any other name would really smell just as sweet, then the amount that we spend in advertising budgets hiring firms to figure out what the rose should be named would be completely misplaced. It seem like at least the people engaging in this activity think that the rose would actually smell a little sweeter if it has just the right name."

    I don't think the people engaging in marketing need to believe that "the rose would actually smell a little sweeter if it has just the right name". The name may appeal for various reasons that have nothing to do with smell, but even if smell were the only factor, it would be enough that customers buy it on the basis of an expectation of it smelling sweeter, whether it actually meets that expectation or not.

    04:55 Lera Boroditsky says "In some languages like Indonesian or Mandarin, the verb never changes to mark tense, so you'd always use the same form of the verb."

    This sounds much more exotic than it actually is. As I understand it, speakers of Indonesian and Mandarin will express the past in essentially the way it's done in Italian or spoken German and which corresponds to the perfective aspect in English, so using the equivalent of HAVE in conjunction with the main verb.

    32:35 Lera Boroditsky says "Piraha don't have exact number words… If you have number words in your language, like in English, chances are … pretty close to a hundred percent, that you will be able to count and you will be able to keep track of exact numbers. If your language doesn't have number words, chances are pretty good … that you won't be able to count, that you won't be able to keep track of exact quantities."

    I would be inclined to think that people who have a lot of technical terms for gymnastic manoeuvres in their vocabularies would be better at performing them too, but it's most likely their experience of gymnastics that has given them both the skill and the vocabulary. I don't know why we should expect that to be different for mathematical ability.

    Also, I'm not sure where we should say natural language ends and mathematical or other formalisms like programming languages begin. Computers are very good with numbers, but I wouldn't be comfortable saying that this ability is built on a linguistic competence with number words. Perhaps number words are better regarded alongside the symbols of mathematics and formal programming languages, which can also be pronounced, but aren't part of what we call natural language per se.

  18. David Fried said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    This was an interesting discussion, but the reference to "a rose by any other name" was as tedious as any snowclone. It's a cliche of literary criticism that "Shakespeare, " as opposed to his characters, says nothing and believes nothing. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" is not Shakespeare's considered opinion on an epistemological question, but a bit of naive sophistry by which a 14-year-old attempts to persuade herself that it doesn't matter if her lover is a Montague or a Capulet–they're just "names." A rose by any other name not only would, but does, smell as sweet, as common experience teaches us; social constructs like tribes are quite another story. Juliet, of course, will be dead within days because of this misunderstanding.

  19. seth edenbaum said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 1:44 am

    "This was submitted to one of the most widely read periodicals in the world? Does she really think there's even a loose metaphorical connection between our concept of justice and a syntactic preference for explicit subjects?"

    If she thinks language is the cause that would be silly. If she thinks there's a connection between the structure of a language and the society that manifests it, then that's a given. But it's a pity she began with Shakespeare as she did. He was a writer and every writer knows that translation is only transliteration. He knew he wasn't a French playwright and he wouldn't try.

    You can't translate Mallarmé into english or Pushkin in to french, or any other language. You end up constructing as close a parallel as you can.

    Finally, language is defined not in isolation but in it's use. The "Knobe effect" is one more example of an expert dismissing general knowledge and inventing a phenomenon by naming it, like Big Pharma discovering nonexistent diseases so that it can sell us the cure. In the one case it makes no sense for people/society to praise someone for something he did not actively intend to do. And for the second, as we've codified in law : "Ignorance is no excuse". Intention is irrelevant, you did the deed. You are responsible. And here we have another example of the interaction of language and society (or chicken and egg)

    I'd like to say that linguists are to language what car mechanics are to driving. But mechanics play a more important role.

  20. Private Zydeco said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 2:38 am

    As roses go, is it not true that certain cultivars produce, because of their heredity, a more perceptibly and, ergo, objectively saccharine scent than that produced by the Nx10^? + others thus far known and enumerated, to which they may be compared? When the anomaly is uincovered, when the two are as sweet, but named differently, or when the odd-duck turns out to be a show stealer, the presupposition is challenged, and paradigms readjust.

    As Knobe makes a point of demonstrating in that research which ultimately led to his establishing a namesake theory (of distinctly Whorfian species and characteristics), it is BIAS (i.e. stereotyping)
    which, however it may have come to be, influences poll-takers'
    submitted responses, and, we can "safely" assume, votes, shopping habits, left and right turns, etc.

  21. Private Zydeco said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 2:39 am

    That said, THERE IS NO CEO…….

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