Danziger Plenary

Eve Danziger, University of Virginia

Calming the Kaleidoscope:
How Language Structures Thought

Linguistic relativity (Whorf 1956 [1940]) proposes that the structures of different languages help to bring order to the “kaleidoscopic flux of impressions” that would otherwise constitute human experience. Results from empirical investigation have recently moved scholarly attitudes from blanket denial of this possibility to cautious acceptance. Perhaps particularly influential has been the finding (Pederson et al. 1998) that habitual use of Allocentric (e.g. ‘north/ south’) rather than Egocentric (e.g. ‘left/ right’) terminology correlates across populations with a preference for Allocentric rather than for Egocentric solutions to non-linguistic spatial problems. But the current wide range of unordered observations, in domains ranging from colour classification through numeracy and the nature of material objects to spatial cognition, has also now itself become slightly kaleidoscopic. I propose that we can bring some order to this kaleidoscope of results by noting that they can be organized into two general types: Both recent colour term research (Roberson et al. 2000, Winawer et al. 2007), and work that focuses on the location of the count/mass nominal boundary (Lucy 1996, Imai and Gentner 1997), quite readily come under the rubric of “categorical perception” in cognitive science, in which it is well known (Harnard 1987), that imposing an arbitrary boundary onto a perceptual continuum creates phenomenological results such that stimuli are experienced as perceptually closer to one another if they are on the same side of the boundary, and perceptually further apart if they are on different sides. These effects have obvious affinities with the Whorfian proposal (1956 [1940]: 213) that languages “cut up” universal perceptual experience in alternative ways. On the other hand, results from research into spatial conceptualization (Pederson et al. 1998) or numeracy (Everett & Madora 2012) across languages come closer to showing the effects of “conceptual tools” as proposed in Vygotsky’s (1986 [1934]) writings. Such tools do not offer alternative means of “cutting up” universal experiences. Rather, they must be learned, on a culturally particular and often contingent basis. As an example, I draw on my own work in Mopan (Mayan), an indigenous language of Eastern Central America, to show how it is only in some -- not in all—languages that adults learn to apply “projective” (Piaget and Inhelder 1963 [1948]) conventions to Egocentric spatial locutions. Once learned, conceptual tools create and organize new cognitive experiences when compared to the experience of those who have never learned to use the tool. Research in child development, education and literacy will offer the most fruitful avenues for exploring this set of linguistic relativity results. I conclude by demonstrating how distinguishing between the sets of effects in linguistic relativity not only helps us to orient fruitfully toward different areas of research within cognitive science and cognitive semiotics, but also should help us to avoid making the kinds of errors that have arisen (Li & Gleitman 2002, Levinson et al. 2002) when one of these two types of linguistic relativity effect has been mistaken for the other. I illustrate this final point by describing a new case of such misunderstanding (Li et al. 2011), in which Egocentric problem-solving was observed even in a canonically Allocentric language-using group.

Everett, Caleb & Keren Madora 2012. Quantity Recognition among speakers of an anumeric language. Cognitive Science 36(1): 130-141.

Harnard, Stevan 1987. Categorical Perception: The Groundwork of Everett, Caleb & Keren Madora 2012. Quantity Recognition among speakers of an anumeric language. Cognitive Science 36(1): 130-141.

Harnard, Stevan 1987. Categorical Perception: The Groundwork of Cognition. Cambridge: University Press.

Imai, Mutsumi and Dedre Gentner 1997. A cross-linguistic study of early word meaning: Universal ontology and linguistic influence. Cognition 62: 169-200.

Kay, Paul & Willett Kempton 1984. What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? American Anthropologist 86: 65-79.

Levinson, S.C., Kita, S., Haun D.B.M., Rasch, B.H., 2002. Returning the tables: language affects spatial reasoning. Cognition 84, 155–188.

Li, P., and Gleitman, L., 2002. Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning. Cognition 83, 265–294.

Li, Peggy, Linda Arbabanell, Lila Gleitman and Anna Papafragou . 2011. Spatial Reasoning in Tenejapan Mayans. Cognition 120: 33-53.

Lucy, John A. 1996. Grammatical Categories and Cognition: A Case Study of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge: University Press.

Pederson, E., Danziger, E., Levinson, S.C., Kita, S., Senft, G., Wilkins, D.P. 1998. Semantic typology and spatial conceptualization. Language 74 (3), 557–589.

Piaget, Jean and B. Inhelder. 1963 [1948] The Child’s Conception of Space. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Roberson, Debi, Ian Davies and Jules Davidoff. 2000. Color Categories are not Universal: Replications and New Evidence from a Stone Age Culture. Journal of Experimental Pychology 129(3): 369-98.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1986[1934]) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956 [1940]. Science and Linguistics. In Language Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, John B. Carroll (ed). NY: MIT Press Pp. 207-19.

Winawer, Jonathan, Nathan Witthoft, Michael C. Frank, Lisa Wu, Alex R. Wade and Lera Boroditsky 2007. Russian Blues Reveal Effects of Language on Color Discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(19): 7780-7785.