Analytical Essay 4: Thoughts and Language
Language Cannot be Disentangled from Culture
Benjamin Whorf’s novel proposal that suggests a causal relationship between language and thoughts has been critically analyzed by linguists for the last 70 years. Whorf’s idea of linguistics determination has been opted for a less uncompromising stance called linguistic relativity. Recent studies have indicated that there is an extent to which language affects thoughts in respect to spatial representation (Levinson, 1997) and numbers (Daehaene et al., 2011). Linguists refer to these studies as validation that there exists an causal relationship of language and perception. However, this postulation is only true if we regard language as its own demarcated entity, sheltered from external influence. In reality, language is a core component of culture “…part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture’ ( Brown, 1994, p.165). Because language and culture are inseparable, we cannot extricate culture and leave only language as a sole influencer of thought. As demonstrated by Figure 1, it could very well be that (2) culture affects language which in turn influences thought or like (3) where thought and language do not share a causal relationship, rather, they both share a separate causal relationship with culture.
Figure 1: The relationship among culture, language, and thought
In spatial recognition studies used to validate linguistic relativity, researchers would examine the speakers’ preference for the three types of spatial representation: absolute (geocentric) frame of reference which consists of using cardinal directions to describe spatial location, intrinsic (object-centric) frame consists of the spatial location relative to the object, and lastly a relative (egocentric) frame uses spatial location relative to the person’s location (Wolff and Holmes, 2011). Cross-cultured research done by Majid and other colleagues suggests that speakers of the 10 languages he studied (Arrernte, Balinese, Japanese, Tamil, etc…) show preference toward a certain type of spatial frame of reference. However, he also found preferential differences among those who speak the same language. Specifically, Majid claims that “living in an urban environment is associated with using a Relative FoR and living in a rural environment with using an Absolute FoR” (2004). He does not have a conclusion as to why there is this statistically significant distinction, but the fact that it exists shows that it is possible that an external source influences the choice in frame of reference among those who speak the same language.
Linguists and cognitive scientists have categorized the understanding of numbers in a similar framework as spatial representation. The number domain is split into three systems: the first one allows humans to recognize small quantity (≤4) instantaneously, the second one allows humans to recognize large quantity, also instantaneously, and the third system requires humans to count in order to arrive at an exact quantity (Wolff and Holmes, 2011). The Piraha language of the community in the Amazon rainforest possesses the one-two-many counting system has no exact words for numbers; they only have three terms, hoi(falling tone) for anything less than 6, hoi (rising tone) for any quantity between 6 ant 10, and baagi for any quantity between 7 and 10. An examination of the Piraha speakers shows that the speakers were unable to accurately perform tasks that required exact numerical knowledge, and the variation increases as the number required by the task increases. While this seems to show a direct link between language and thought, it can also be interpreted as a direct link between culture and thought as demonstrated point (3) in figure 1. Could it be that it is just not culturally significant for the Piraha community?
In 2008, Butterworth and colleagues published a study that highly suggests the Piraha’s restrictive number vocabularies is not the inhibitor of understanding numbers, but rather it is their culture. Butterworth studied native children speakers from two indigenous communities in Australia that possess the same one-two-many numbering system. The results indicate that these children perform comparable to those of native English speaking children on tasks that required exact numbering (Gellman and Butterworth). Daniel Everett, the first linguist to study Piraha, claims that the reason for this difference lies in the Piraha’s values of “living in the present” and that it is not important for their culture to distinguish exact numbers (Everett, 2012). Whether Everett’s exact claim regarding the “living in the present” mentality is true or not, the fact that other one-two-many language speakers are capable of performing just as well as English speakers with exact number system eliminates the claim of causal relationship of language and thoughts.
There are other ways of looking at causal relationships. More can be written on the possibility of language affecting culture as opposed to the other way around or whether thoughts affecting both language and culture. I’ve explored other ways of interpreting data that at first seem to show conclusively that language affects thoughts.
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Brown, H. D. (1994). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (3rd edn). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.
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Dehaene, S. (2011). The number sense: How the mind creates mathematics. OUP USA.
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Levinson, S. C. (1997). From outer to inner space: linguistic categories and non-linguistic thinking. Language and conceptualization, 13-45.
Majid, A., Bowerman, M., Kita, S., Haun, D. B., & Levinson, S. C. (2004). Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in cognitive sciences, 8(3), 108-114.
Wolff, P., & Holmes, K. J. (2011). Linguistic relativity. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 2(3), 253-265.