Rescued debate

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Yesterday Sharon Klein wrote to ask about the 2010 debate on Language and Thought hosted by The Economist:

Some colleagues in other departments (notably in philosophy) have been asking to talk about the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, and the actual research around the issues. While I can (and have begun to) collect relevant papers for a casual reading group (a good way to reach out…), I remembered that the debate provided a very helpful clearinghouse for the discussion that had developed in this area.

But she found that the Economist's intro page on this debate  leads only to an debate archive site that doesn't include this one; and the links in old LLOG posts are now redirected to the same unhelpful location.

A source at the magazine explained:

We vastly over-designed the debate platform (and over-thought it generally, in various ways), and when we stopped running the debates that way, we stopped running that bit of the website. The old debates are now unavailable online.

A bit of poking around at the Internet Archive turned up a copy:

Opening statements (with Derek Bickerton as "Featured guest")

Rebuttal statements (with Dan Slobin as "Featured guest")

Closing statements (with Lila Gleitman as "Featured guest")

As I noted at the time ("Shellacked by Boroditsky", 12/22/2010), the voting audience overwhelmingly supported Lera Boroditsky's argument that "the language we speak shapes how we think".

I've always been fond of Lane Greene's assessment:

If I had to sum up in plain English my conclusion would be not "language shapes thought" (much less "language restricts thought"), but probably "language nudges thought" (in certain circumstances).

Lane's final zinger in that comment:

What if silly Whorfian thinking were something we were innately prone to? Wouldn't that just blow [Lera Boroditsky's] and Steven Pinker's minds at the same time?

Or, as Lila Gleitman likes to put it, less speculatively, "Empiricism is innate".

See also "Never mind the conclusions, what's the evidence?", 8/30/2010 , and if you have a robust appetite for quasi-Whorfian explorations, the whole "'No word for X' archive".

There's a relevant (Whorf-skeptical) review article by Lila Gleitman and Anna Papafragou in the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology, "Relations Between Language and Thought" (preprint here). And for a deep dive into language and space, see Peggy Li et al., "Spatial Reasoning in Tenejapan Mayans", Cognition 2011.




  1. john burke said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 10:04 am

    Another entry in the No Word For [X] collection:

    "Culture and education leave permanent marks. Individual assertion against the group is mandated or discouraged by language, among other factors: ‘The word identity is alien to us, and I still don’t know precisely how to translate it into Chinese. I can approximate it by stringing together several terms, each covering a part of the English word, like sameness and distinctiveness and status, but there’s no real equivalent.’ Danlin speculates that the absence of this concept from the language indicates a deficiency in the awareness of self. Chinese also lacks a word for ‘solitude’ as distinct from ‘loneliness’, as if there were no positive aspect to being separate from the group."

    from Adam Mars-Jones, reviewing Ha Jin's "The Boat Rocker," London Review of Books Vol. 39 No. 13 (7/13/17)

  2. David L said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 11:33 am

    This may be a naive question, but here goes anyway: regardless of what one thinks of the "no name for X" idea, it seems to arise only when X is some sort of abstract concept. I was reading about the topic once (perhaps one of the earlier LLog posts) and there popped into my head the recollection of a small device my grandmother had in her kitchen — something I have never seen since. I can picture it clearly in mind, I can describe what it looked like and what it was used for — but I have no name for it. If I wanted to find out whether such things still exist I would have to come up with some wordy description of it that google might or might not make sense of.

    So I'm curious — how do such instances (which surely can't be uncommon) square with the 'no word for X' position?

  3. Cervantes said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

    It would help this discussion a lot to parse out cause and effect. Obviously, a language will probably not have a word for a kind of object or phenomenon which is never encountered in the time and place where it was used. Hebrew was reinvented in the 20th Century and they had to make up all sorts of words for things that didn't exist in ancient times. But the reason that, say, anthropologists and rock music didn't exist in ancient Palestine is not because they didn't have words for them.

    On the other hand cultural proclivities may be reflected in language and may be somewhat reinforced by it. For example, if a Spanish-speaking mother's child takes ill, she will likely say "Se me enfermó" which is not strictly translatable. It says that the event — the child's illness — befell both child and mother. You cannot say "He got sick me" in English, and "He got sick on me" obviously has a very different meaning. Some might argue that this reflects a less individualistic culture than typical anglophone cultures, and that the familial or communitarian habit of thought is reinforced by this feature of the Spanish language. (The same locution can extend to any sort of relationship.) But that seems speculative to me.

  4. Guy said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 3:32 pm


    "He got sick on me" seems like a reasonable translation. I assume the different meaning you have in mind is the one involving "get sick"="vomit"? That's another possible meaning to be determined by context but it doesn't exclude "It befell me that my child got sick". It is true, though, that this sort of construction is more natural and less marked in Spanish, where anticausative reflexives are a basic feature of the language, so it will not always be a suitable translation.

  5. Juanma Barranquero said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 5:19 pm


    «if a Spanish-speaking mother's child takes ill, she will likely say "Se me enfermó" which is not strictly translatable. It says that the event — the child's illness — befell both child and mother.»

    "Se me enfermó" does not mean that the event befell both child and mother, as "El niño no me come" does say nothing about whether the mother eats or not.

    These are uses of the so-called sympathetic dative, which implies a personal connection, usually affect, between the subject and the speaker. It says that the speaker is affected by the event mentioned in the sentence, but not in the sense that the event affects the subject and the speaker in similar ways. "Se me murió el perro" certainly reflects a very different effect of that death on the dog and the speaker.

  6. David Marjanović said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 5:48 pm

    I agree on the sympathetic dative – German has it, too.

    Chinese also lacks a word for ‘solitude’ as distinct from ‘loneliness’, as if there were no positive aspect to being separate from the group.

    Ah. I didn't know somebody had interpreted a distinction into these two words. German doesn't have one either.

  7. Geoff said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 5:51 pm

    @John Burke
    A three thousand year old culture in which one of the most enduring images is of the philosopher poet contemplating bird flower mountain water. And someone thinks they're deficient in the concept of 'not unpleasant being aloneness' just because there is no single word for it?? Just like there's no single word for it in English.

  8. Rubrick said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 7:06 pm

    Refreshing candor on the part of the magazine source, compared with the usual "We've made our debate platform even better!" BS.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 8:07 pm

    I agree with Guy on "get sick on me". Google Books shows both meanings of the phrase. "You are all right, aren't you? Don't get sick on me. I couldn't stand it if something happened to you.”

    Juanma Barranquero's example of "El niño no me come" is much harder to translate concisely including the "me". "The kid stopped eating on me"? We'd probably just say "The kid isn't eating" or "My kid/son/daughter/etc. isn't eating."

    "Se me murió el perro" comes out just fine, colloquially, as "The dog died on me."

  10. Bathrobe said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 4:50 am

    Can Spanish express the sense of "Don't go and get sick on me"? Or "The dog went and died on me"?

    "Go and" expresses criticism of the action. "On me" expresses that the speaker is a victim.

  11. Juanma Barranquero said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 5:59 am


    "Don't go and get sick on me" would be "No te me pongas enfermo" or "No te me vayas a poner enfermo". For more emphasis, you could add "ahora" (now): "No te me vayas a poner enfermo ahora". Again, that "me" is a sympathetic dative, expressing close relationship or affection. Like "on me", in the sense that the speaker is an indirect victim (it's not ill, just worried).

    "The dog went and died on me" is "Se me murió el perro". If you don't intend to express affection you would likely say "Se murió mi perro".

  12. Juanma Barranquero said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 6:04 am


    Strictly speaking, "The dog went and died on me" would be "Va el perro y se me muere" (the same sentence in past tense, "Fue el perro y se me murió", would be less common). That expresses a bit of reproach, or perhaps surprise.

  13. Geoff said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 7:13 am

    David L: look around any moderately thing-rich environment such as the interior of a house or car, and see how long it takes to find something that there's no word for. You'll be surprised by how easy it is.

  14. David L said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 8:58 am

    @Geoff: I know — that's exactly my point. But there seem to be people who think you can't conceive of X unless you have a name for X. My question is, what kinds of X is the proposition supposed to apply to?

  15. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 9:59 am

    "The kid stopped eating on me" sounds like perfectly understandable colloquial English to me, although a little affected.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 10:38 am

    Geoff and David L: I'd have no trouble finding things in my house or car that Idon't know the word for, especially if I took things apart. But I'll bet I'd have a lot of trouble finding things English has no word for. Unless you mean things like "knot shaped like the Great Red Spot in the arm of the sofa".

  17. boynamedsue said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 11:04 am

    EFL teachers are all Whorfians. The thousandth time you've faced an the blank faces of a class of Spanish speakers as you try and explain what "look forward to" means, and why it's not desear and not tener ganas, you automatically become one.

  18. David L said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Sure, I agree. But my point is that there are clearly plenty of things that I, personally, can conceive of in a perfectly straightforward way even though I, personally, have no word for them, and for which I might well have trouble coming even with a multi-word description that would make sense to someone else.

    How do the "no word for X" people deal with such situations, or do they simply ignore them?

  19. Cervantes said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

    Obviously I didn't say the event befell mother and child in the same way, just that it affected them both. Which is exactly what my would-be critics are saying. My whole point was, it expresses the connection between mother and child in a way which does not come naturally in English. Y'all agree with me.

  20. Juanma Barranquero said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 2:43 pm


    I'm not trying to disagree with you, but I think you're focusing in the "event" part, when the sympathetic dative only says that the speaker is emotionally invested in the *subject*, not necessarily what happens. "Juan se me puso a cantar" only expresses a certain (emotional and, at that point in time, spatial) closeness between the speaker and Juan, but it is absolutely neutral about the speaker's opinion on Juan's singing. At most, it could imply some mild surprise.

    As for your original example, where it is common for a Spanish-speaking mother to say "Se me enfermó"? I think it is uncommon in Spain, where it is much more likely "Se me puso enfermo" or "Se me puso malo" (or, in both, "ha puesto" instead of "puso").

  21. Juanma Barranquero said,

    July 21, 2017 @ 2:48 pm


    Hmm… I wouldn't say that "I'm looking forward to" cannot be translated as "Deseo" o "Tengo [muchas] ganas"… It's just that there's no 1-to-1 translation, depending on context one of these, or "Lo estoy deseando", "Estaré encantado de", or similar idioms could be better. But, that's true for most linguistic elements (nouns, verbs, idioms, etc) in a translation, isn't it? What's so special in "I'm looking forward to"?

  22. Site deaths where you least expect them said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 4:34 am

    […] Log — a useful site I really enjoy — recently wrote again about the big debate on whether language shapes, constrains or otherwise has any effect …. But that's not why I'm noting it here. Instead, there's the reason why they're talking about it […]

  23. boynamedsue said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 5:03 am

    Well, for me, it's a question of mental reinforcement of emotions with language.

    "look forward to" is the feeling of happy anticipation for an event that is definitely going to happen. I suspect that the fact we have a name for this and therefore repeatedly utter and formulate thoughts to describe this emotion reinforces our tendency to feel it. The fact that the similar phrases in Spanish all have wider semantic fields, including events that may not happen or require action that may not occur (tener ganas, deseear) or prediction about a future reaction rather than their current emotional state (Estaré encantado de) reduces the importance given to this feeling and may eliminate the individual's ability to differentiate between it and similar emotions.

    Certainly monolingual Spanish speakers are tortured by "look forward to" and sometimes deny the existence of such a feeling in class. On the other hand, I'd say I'm a near bilingual in English and Spanish, and I can not reliably distinguish between the sensations of "tener suenyo" and "estar cansado", they are simply the same thing for me due to my dialect only differentiating between grade of tiredness (tired/knackered) rather than type. I know what the difference between tener suenyo/estar cansado is, I just don't feel it.

  24. Juanma Barranquero said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 5:57 am


    That's interesting. I wouldn't have thought that "I'm looking forward to" includes the idea that the event "is definitely going to happen". Don't English speakers have exchanges like "We should meet more often." "I'm looking forward to it."?

    As for "Estaré encantado de", "me encantaría" as a response to some proposition, I don't think they refer to future reactions (or, they do, morphologically, but semantically they also convey the idea that the speaker's feelings are positive *now*).

    I'm puzzled by your example of "tener sueño" and "estar cansado". So, in your dialect, when it's 2am after a long, hard day, your eyes are closing and your yawns could put an hippopotamus to shame, you don't say "I'm sleepy" , but "I'm knackered" or something like that? That's weird and interesting.

  25. boynamedsue said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 6:40 am


    Interesting case. I'd say that to answer "looking forward to it" in that situation implies a promise that this will happen, or even an imprecation to the speaker who has used "should" to put their money where their mouth is.

    Yeah, we'd never say "sleepy" to an adult. It is sometimes used with children though, but perhaps this is influenced by books and TV? There was a lively debate in my Spanish class at aged 16 about whether there was a "natural" difference between cansado/suenyo, some said there was, others didn't. In the case you described I'd definitely say "I'm knackered".

  26. Nica said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 6:51 am

    @David Marjanović

    I tend to disagree regarding the distinction between loneliness and solitude in German. Although there are no two words that correspond exactly to the two English words, there are several words that can be used depending on context. For example, the solitude of a hermit would often be called "Abgeschiedenheit" or "Zurückgezogenheit", which is not negative. Or someone deliberately staying at home instead of going to a party could colloquially say he needs some time "alleine" (instead of "einsam").

  27. Juanma Barranquero said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 7:58 am


    I wasn't aware of that implication in "looking forward to". So, thanks! I just learnt something today.

    Hmm.. I cannot even imagine how could be argued that there is *no* difference between tired and sleepy (or cansado vs con sueño). If I get out of bed in the morning, and then run ten miles, I feel cansado, but most definitely I don't have sueño (I wouldn't want to go to the bed, and if I went, I quite likely wouldn't be able to sleep). So it's unusual, and quite interesting, to know about a language/dialect that doesn't mark that distinction.

  28. boynamedsue said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 10:55 am


    It is very strange indeed. This is why I lean away from Chomsky on most non-political questions :) I'm not arguing that there is no difference in the sensation, BTW, but that I don't perceive it very strongly and genuinely categorised the two sensations as the same thing until I started speaking Spanish

    I'd say the tired/sleepy thing is not very strongly marked in standard English, "tired" can be used for both cansado/suenyo, "sleepy" only for having "suenyo". It's a natural progression to either extend the partial synonym or eliminate it in general use. If I think about it, "sleepy" is sometimes used in our dialect in situations where somebody wants to sleep at the wrong time of day, the afternoon for example, but it would unusual to use it at the end of the day.

    I think the tendency to identify "no word for" as being automatically false as multiword synonyms exist is flawed. The presence or absence of a frequently-used expression must influence the patterns of thought of the users. It is well-established that, for example, racist or dehumanising language can affect opinion, so why would other patterns of usage not shape thought?

  29. boynamedsue said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 11:16 am


    re "me encantare' de"/ "me encantari'a". Are they not both possible in situations that are hypothetical, or that may not happen? The second surely is, my Spanish is probably not subtle enough to be sure about the first.

    I'd say that even if there is an exact expression that translates "I'm looking forward to it"* specifically, the fact that other phrases are used that have additional meanings shapes the feelings of the speaker.

    *Me siento entusiasmado, satisfecho o contento cuando pienso en este acontecimiento futuro. That's my translation :)

  30. Juanma Barranquero said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 9:23 pm


    "The presence or absence of a frequently-used expression must influence the patterns of thought of the users."

    I'm still unconvinced. There's not a word for schadenfreude in Spanish, but certainly we feel it even if we never assigned a word to it. Once you explain the meaning of "looking forward to", it's not a feeling that I've never felt, just not had the need to express it so concisely. Your tired/sleepy example is a bit stronger, but still, as you say yourself, is not that you cannot understand instantly the difference we mark in Spanish, just that it isn't usually overtly marked in English. If that's all Sapir-Whorf says, ok, I could agree, but it isn't really saying much.

    "me encantaré de" isn't grammatical, at least not in Castilian Spanish. "Me encantaría" is possible in hypothetical situations, of course. "Estaré encantado de" sort of implies more of a compromise. But, as ever, context is everything.

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