Shellacked by Boroditsky

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Judging by the popular vote, I've done an epically inadequate job of holding up my end of the Economist's debate "This house believes that the language we speak shapes how we think": the Pro side is winning in a landslide, 78% to 22%.

Some convenient links:

Opening statements:
Robert Lane Greene (moderator), Lera Boroditsky (Pro), Mark Liberman (Con).

Robert Lane Greene (moderator), Lera Boroditsky (Pro), Mark Liberman (Con).

Robert Lane Greene (moderator), Lera Boroditsky (Pro), Mark Liberman (Con).

There are also contributions by "Featured Guests" Derek Bickerton, Dan Slobin, and Lila Gleitman.

Perhaps the most important thing about this debate, in my opinion, is the depth of popular interest that it demonstrated. One simple quantitative measure is the number of reader comments registered to the opening statements, and in terms of this metric, the Linguistic Relativity Cage Match stacks up well reasonably against the past few debates:

The language we speak shapes how we think 177
Any loss of privacy from digitising health care will be more than compensated for by the welfare gains from increased efficiency 70
America's political system is broken 205
Biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory 121
The development of computing was the most significant technological advance of the 20th century 120
Religion is a force for good 366

Someone who feels more strongly about this would probably have done a better job that I did of playing the villain's role. But I think that the wishy-washy wording of the proposition — "shapes" rather than "determines" — doomed the Con side of the argument, even if the strength of pop-Whorfianism weren't too strong to overcome.

Anyhow, that's my story, and I'm stickin' to it.

[Back in November of 2003, I saw the history of Linguistic Relativism in these terms:

In the first half of the 20th century, most linguists were friendly to the idea that different languages divide the world up in fundamentally different ways. In the second half of the 20th century, most linguists became deeply hostile to that same notion. The primary motivation in both cases was the same: respect for "the other."

For anthropologically-minded linguists after Boas, who saw language as a cultural artifact, this respect meant examining other languages and cultures carefully, on their own terms, without European preconceptions. Being open to finding out that things might be very different, in content as well as in form. Even things that look the same may be deeply different, as Whorf argued about Hopi.

For generative linguists after Chomsky, who saw language as an instinct with a universal biological substrate, this same respect led to the view that all people and all languages are basically the same. Even things that look deeply different must turn out to be the same, if you analyze them the right way. At least, anything important about language (and language use) must be that way.

So I would have guessed that today's strong popular support for Linguistic Relativism was a residue of Boasian anti-Eurocentrism. But in the comments, Olga suggests the opposite spin:

I think the problem is good old ethnocentricity. We are the best (says everyone); those that speak differently must think differently: and probably worse.

There's certainly a lot of ethnocentrism in most instances of the "no word for X" trope.  So maybe she's right, and the idea is that talking foreign gives you a foreign brain.]


  1. Olga said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

    I've noticed that when teaching. Despite my best efforts, half of the students will still leave the class thinking that I said "Language determines how we think, and people speaking other languages really think differently from us."
    To some degree, this is caused by largely monolingual and mono-cultural societies. But I think the problem is good old ethnocentricity. We are the best (says everyone); those that speak differently must think differently: and probably worse.

  2. Chris said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    FYI, of those who switched their votes mid-debate (8), the vast majority switched from yes to no (6-2). A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

  3. John Lawler said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    Quite possibly, those voting affirmative are people for whom it is true that the language they speak shapes how they think, while those voting otherwise fall somewhere else on the spectrum.
    In any case, the question is loaded, as I noted in my comment on Mark's original post.

  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    I would have guessed that today's strong popular support for Linguistic Relativism was a residue of Boasian anti-Eurocentrism. But in the comments, Olga suggests the opposite spin:

    I think the problem is good old ethnocentricity. We are the best (says everyone); those that speak differently must think differently: and probably worse.

    These explanations for the persistence of [pop] Whorfianism among non-linguists can both be true on condition that "shapes" and "determines" are taken to be roughly equivalent.

  5. Clayton Burns said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    Despite the fact that Mark seems to have been driven from the field in disarray (even if his fighting was valiant in the extreme at first), still Lila Gleitman distinguished herself by a gritty performance. It would be interesting if Language Log interviewed her to develop her comments. To a minor degree, The WSJ has managed to establish some followup with its commentaries (Matt Ridley as an example).

    Mostly, it is still a Throwaway Universe. Apparently, keeping a debate in focus is not one of the strengths of the cognitive toolkit.

    The vote was clear. The rational side won all the marbles. If all of the familiar irrationalities remain, we can just pretend not to notice. In the NYT today on the common application:

    "Considering the stakes, Max said he was left with two head-scratchers: Why can’t the Common Application be better, technologically, given the caliber of the institutions involved? And, at the very least, why can’t the nonprofit association of colleges that produces the form fix this particular problem?"

    Perhaps Lera has the answer.

  6. Adrian Bailey said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    In its latest issue, the Economist has this little gem:

    "Such skill at innovative thinking could well be rooted in the complexity of the Hungarian language, which has three levels of formality, direct and indirect conjugation of verbs, and also demands rhyming vowel harmony. Saying anything in Hungarian demands an instantaneous series of mental calculations before a sentence can be constructed and a clear meaning communicated. A Hungarian, the old joke goes, is someone who enters a revolving door behind you but comes out in front. This inbuilt skill at seeking solutions to complex problems, and a talent for quick lateral thinking, proved vital for the Magyars during centuries of foreign rule and was especially useful under Communism."

  7. D.O. said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    I would suggest a different possible explanation for the popularity of "language shapes thought" meme. There is an adage "sloppy writing means sloppy thinking" in various forms. People who take such dicta to heart are naturally inclined to think that language (here in the form of writing) shapes thought. Then it is not a big stretch to apply it to different languages.

    One part of the debate, which I find somewhat baffling, is how the mathematics vocabulary shapes mathematical thought. If some cultures do not have a concept of a precise number, or a concept of unconstrainedly large number, or a concept of zero, or a concept of negative numbers, etc. then they just did not make a mathematical discovery of this sort. It's not a problem with the language.

    [(myl) That's more or less what I meant by writing that "There is more to technical understanding than learning to say a few words, and people whose language lacks a technical term will create or borrow the needed words as they do the work required to create or learn the corresponding concepts".]

  8. GeorgeW said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    "I've done an epically inadequate job of holding up my end of the Economist's debate."

    I respectfully disagree. We don't know the mindset before the 'debate.' I suspect the percentages were even greater in favor of a strong deterministic view. Maybe, a seed of doubt has been introduced.

  9. Pedant said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    You were doomed from the start. After all, the concept that language shapes thought is so deeply engrained in our culture that we even have a word for it!

  10. Faith said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 12:04 am

    But why did you ever agree to do this ridiculous "debate" in the first place? I looked at it but can't vote because I agree with half of her and half of you–the two positions overlap and the entire thing is a ridiculous dichotomizing of something which is not black and white. Why don't you turn down requests for really silly things like this?

  11. Joe said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 5:08 am

    I have mixed feelings about the wisdom of the Economist having a "debate" on this topic to begin with. The topic is ultimately an empirical question, not one that can settled through a vote. Why topics such as "Religion is a force for good" or "America's political system is broken" might be appropriate for this kind of venue, questions concerning the relationship between "language" and "thought" are not. I wonder what the final tally would have been if only votes based upon evidence presented in the debate were counted). I imagine that even Boroditsky would admit that a lot of reasons offered from the floor in favour of the motion were illegitimate (e.g. I'm a different person when I speak French and when I speak German).

    I think Mark did a good job trying to explain to the general public how to approach these kind of issues. Unfortunately, I think people get bored with the details of how science is conducted and just want to hear the claims without caveats or qualification. Feeding that desire leads to potentially bad science (Mark Hauser, anyone?) and to the public's confusion and/or disillusionment with science when results of different studies yield contradictory results.

    That's why I was really disappointed with Boroditsky's remarks. I don't think she ever really offered evidence in favour of her position: she just presented rather contentious claims of reseachers as "empirical discoveries." In the end, I think she only contributed to popular misunderstanding not only of this particular research but scientific research more generally. At the very least, I wish she had taken some time distinguishing her research from "popular" views on the subject.

  12. Jesús Luis said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 6:54 am

    Your final debate’s statement about the price of profound changes in perspective is correct.
    My suggestion is that the sense of extended capability to understand the world -explained by some of the multilingual contributors to the debate as their personal experience- has to be more with expectations than reality. The mere fact of being learning (a different language), essential to what we are, brings us into an augmented conscience state that may underlie those personal impressions.
    On the other hand, it seemed to me that from time to time, proposer's line of reasoning stepped into the grey area of “the language” vs “different languages” what wasn’t discussed enough by the two sides.
    Finally, as it has always been, it is not only the content what is judged by “the floor” but also the appearance/”shape”: size effects and contrast power are no easy concepts to use when in the arena.
    Thanks for your clever insights on what was on stake.

  13. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    I don't think it's an empirical question, but rather a set of several interrelated theoretical and empirical questions. It all depends on what you mean by language shaping thought, and how you sort out those questions. What counts as evidence? etc… Thus I do think it is a very good question for a public forum of this sort.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    @Jonathan: So, on what basis does one vote?

  15. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    The basis would be your interpretation of the question and where you come down (or end up) after considering intelligent arguments on each side.

    Where I come down is for a weak, unromantic kind of Whorfianism, where most Whorfian claims that have some empirical support are either false (or tautological) or rather peripheral to what I think of as "thought." So if I were voting I would vote "no" or undecided.

  16. GeorgeW said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    @Jonathan: Undecided was not a choice and neither was 'both.' I voted 'no' assuming that "shape" was more deterministic than I could accept. In addition, I wished to counter what I perceive to be a strong Whorfian point of view of the general public.

  17. Urso said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    I believe Prof. Liberman was done in by his own gentlemanliness. If he was truly out to "win" this debate he would not have started his first two responses by conceding the point: "Properly interpreted, the proposition is true," and "Lera Boroditsky makes a convincing argument." If you begin your rebuttal by saying "my opponent is right" I'm going to take your word for it.

    One might say the language Prof. Liberman used shaped the way his readers thought.

  18. maidhc said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    I think that having a psychologist debate a linguist is a bit flawed in concept to start with.

    However, reading another blog, I was reminded of Orwell's 1984— that the premise of Newspeak was to make dissent impossible because there would be no words for it.

    Orwell's descriptions of the press during the Spanish Civil War are very telling, and I'm sure it was part of the inspiration for 1984. Indeed such questions could be well applied to the American press today.

    However, I think he underestimates the ability of people to develop their own vocabulary. For example in the USSR there was quite an explosion of very subtle terminology. It has yet to happen to such an extent in the US, but it may still occur, depending on future events.

    [(myl) An even more extensive proliferation of "subtle terminology" is happening on the internet in China, where certain words or phrases may be forbidden, but are quickly replaced by puns, euphemisms and other lightly-coded expedients. We can also point to the Vietnamese tradition of noi lai, as further evidence that Orwell was wrong about the effectiveness of vocabulary control as a method of suppressing dissent.]

  19. kurt said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 7:17 am

    The real proof of whether people think words shape our thinking is in our actions. And our actions come down firmly on the side that language has some impact on thought. After all, why would we need anti-defamation and anti-villification/incitement laws if we didn't think that?

    Wasn't the whole 'politically correct' thing predicated on the notion that language shapes thought?

    [(myl) I don't think you're paying attention. No one has ever doubted that words sometimes influence thinking, for goodness' sake. The question is about the overall influence of using one language rather than another. If it's defamatory in Canada for me to say that "you're an ignoramus", it's equally defamatory if I do it in French and say that "vous êtes béotien".

    (And to forestall another possible misunderstanding, the question is also not about whether different words — within or across languages — mean different things.) ]

  20. Peter said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    Interestingly, your metric “number of reader comments” seems to anti-correlate very strongly with “length of title” — the shorter titles attract fewer comments. I’m not sure where to suspect this falls between “coincidence”, “causation”, and “common effects of another cause”.

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