Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Through the Language Glass (Part 2)

This is part 2 of my review of Guy Deutscher's new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. This covers The Language Lens (129-249). Part 1 is here. This review will cover the scientific evidence that Deutscher reviews suggesting that language affects thought, and will end with a shocking proposal.

To sum up my review of part one: meh. Okay, we've established that culture can influence language. This is a lot less controversial than Deutscher makes it seem and he spent a large amount of text defending that position. Okay, whatever, time to move on. In part 2 he again begins with historical review explaining why he thinks Whorf was a con man, but also why he thinks the core insights of early linguist relativity deserve closer, honest investigation. He complains that based his Hopi claims on just one lonely informant (p142). We'll see later that Deutscher himself falls for the same trap. He replaces Whorf with the Boas-Jakobson principle that languages differ in what they must convey, not what they may convey” (151). I respect Deutscher for making this a central theme in his book because I think he's right. To parrot his own recitation of Humbolt: any thought can be expressed in any language. It is what our native language forces us to foreground that makes linguistic relativity an interesting topic.

Deutscher spends most of the second part of the book reviewing three areas of language that have provided evidence that language affects thought: spatial coordinates, grammatical gender, and color terms (familiar from part 1). The general point I want to make about his evidence is that it is far weaker than he maintains. But is is interesting. A brief set of reactions:

Spatial Coordinates -- everything is embodied
Most of his argumentation about the affect of spacial coordinate terms on thought stems from Levinson's evidence from speakers of the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr which is famous for giving us the word “kangaroo.” Speakers of GY do not generally use ego-centric terms like "right" and "left" but rather use cardinal direction terms like "east" and "west." As a result, Deutscher claims, they remember information about situations differently than speakers of English. They have, so the argument goes, a perfect pitch for direction and they are always attuned to where north is. Deutscher's claim is that only the linguistic repetition of such terms can possibly account for this. Hence, their language affects what they pay attention to and what they remember, hence language affects thought.

I've never found this line of research all that convincing regarding linguistic relativity and Deutscher does not really add much to the debate. Like Deutscher's complaint above regarding Whorf's one lonely Hopi speaker, it turns out there are not many native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr left and haven't been for a while. These experiments on directional language involve very few speakers, and most of them have both cardinal direction and ego-centric direction in their dialect. If we're going to complain about Whorf's restricted subject pool, we must complain about Levinson's too.

But more to the point, I believe all direction terms are ultimately ego-centric insofar as they are embodied. The terms "north" and "south" are not magically universal. They are based on a human being's body and orientation (i.e., ego-centric). Don't believe me, ask yourself, what does "north" mean in space? What does "north" mean to an amoeba? Mostly what Deutscher does in his discussions of direction terms is reiterate the point he belabored in Part 1: culture affects language. Yeah, we got that already.

The rise of similarity judgments
That is until he discusses the table experiments. These experiments show subjects tables with objects on them and ask them to arrange them in accordance with a target. Basically, they ask for similarity judgement. How can you make this table arrangement similar to the previous table. This methodological paradigm has become prominent in psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics, especially studies testing linguistic relativity. In fact, all of the studies Deutscher discusses are similarity judgment studies of one sort or another. The point is that I show you one target thing, then two test things and ask, which test is MORE SIMILAR to the target than the other? Ultimately Deutscher himself problematizes spatial coordinate terms so much, they fall flat and remain unconvincing as a base of evidence for linguistic relativity.

Grammatical Gender
Most languages have terms for classifying things. Some languages have more elaborate classifier systems than others. In German, the term for the fork is die Gabel, marked by feminine die. Ultimately, most languages with elaborate classifiers have systems that can be described as incoherent in so far as most things given one classification have no inherent properties that signify that classification (there is nothing inherently feminine about a fork). However, Deutscher provides evidence that speakers of languages with grammatical gender will evoke properties of things in keeping with their gender classifier, suggesting that the classifier is causing them to imagine a fork would speak with a female voice, for example. But these experiments mainly test vague associations of imagination, not linguistic causality, as Deutscher admits.

Color Terms
It is not until chapter 9 Russian Blues that Deutscher really delivers the goods. It is this chapter which provides the most interesting evidence for the effect of language on thought. Pity it is only about 15 pages of the book. The whole book should have been more like this. The facts he discusses involve the basic point that the brain sees what it wants to see. It turns out our perception of color has little to do with any objective feature of the thing we're looking at (he explains this fact brilliantly in the Appendix which I highly recommend, and frankly, should have been the first chapter, not relegated to the attic of an appendix). The point is that our brains change the input. As our eyes take in objective photons, our brain photoshops the input (a great analogy from Deutscher which really brings the point home).

The experimental results Deutscher discusses involve more similarity judgements, albeit with a twist. Instead of relying solely on the similarity judgments, researchers studied the more objective reaction time. They showed people different color patches and asked them to judge the sameness. Despite the various and clever variations on this theme, they all relied on subjective judgements of similarity. And this is where they fail to extricate themselves from the problem of strategizing.

Unfortunately they all share the critical flaw that making a similarity judgment is a logical reason act and may be mitigated by strategizing. Deutscher discusses this fact, but doesn't realize that none of the fixes work. A similarity judgment is always a logical process susceptible to the effects of strategizing. This will be a major issue in my Shocking Proposal at the end. You see, regardless of how clever the test, as long as you are basically asking a subject to make a similarity judgment, you are asking them to reason about the task. So your results will be tinged by the strategizing of human subjects as they logically try to game the system. This is well known in psycholinguistics and difficult to avoid. So how do you objectively test what colors a person considers blue?

A Shocking Proposal
The paradigm already exists. How can you objectively prove that English speakers really do consider aspirated /kh/ and unaspirated /k/ both the same phoneme? You condition them to fear aspirated /kh/ by shocking them every time they hear it (measuring their galvanic skin response). Once they are conditioned, you then play them unaspirated /k/ (with no shock) and check to see if you get the same GSR spike (in anticipation).

Okay, now apply this to color terms. Condition subjects to fear center of the category blue, then show them gradations. What causes the GSR spike? That's what they consider blue. now do that with speakers of 40 different languages.

If the hippies on the human subjects review board let you do it, there's your dissertation.
Guy Deutscher (2010). Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Metropolitan Books


KasparsM said...

I didn't really understand how you are going to compare the perception of "blue" among speakers of 40 languages if there isn't exact equivalency of this word between languages?

Possibly you could teach the subjects by showing them the range of colors that are blue (in English sense of the word) and shocking them when you tell that it is blue color. But it would only prove how good or bad learners they are and how different languages interfere with the learning process.

Chris said...

Kaspars, it's a fair question given how poorly I described the experiment I envision. In this experiment, there is no test of language at all. We only test perception of color categorization using color swatches. The linguistics is only factored in after the data has been collected when we ask "do speakers of English react to shades of blue differently than speakers of Tzetzal?"

KasparsM said...

Or you could just show two colors that are actually different but only so little that majority can't tell any difference. And see if Russians are better telling them apart.

I just read the chapter about Russian blues and there were no indications that Russians were better in distinguishing different blue shades, only faster. It is practically the same as asking to compare pictures of different number of objects. Those who have learned to count will do it faster than those who haven't. Each learned word works as a specific (and often unconscious) habit of the mind, so no wonder that Broca area was involved.

I would like to see the "gray banana" experiment performed with different language speakers. How far into blue spectrum each of them would go to see “neutral” gray color?

I believe that the story about Japanese blue traffic lights is incorrect. Even in the modern Japanese aoi generally refers to the whole blue-green spectrum and the traffic light makers would have no reason to avoid making them completely green (in the English sense). Midori, as one native Japanese speaker explained me some time ago, is only a specific type of green, as of grass and leaves, while the English green spectrum. Loanwords buruu and guriin are also widely used when specificity is required. The middle part of traffic lights generally are not exactly yellow but more like orange.

KasparsM said...

Correction: ..while the English green covers more spectrum.

Lauren said...

Errm... It appears I'm becoming the wacko who likes to link to papers on spatial cognition in the comments section - but if you're worried there aren't enough speakers of GY for Levinson to work with then they're always Aymara, which takes things a step further by abstracting their spatial perceptions into temporal metaphors.

Thanks for the review - you've saved me reading the book!

Chris said...

Kaspars, good points. One of the problems with these kinds of studies is that they are fraught with sloppy methodology and generous interpretation.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

"North" and "south" have nothing to do with a human body's orientation; the only aspect of human-ness relevant to the cardinal directions is that of being located on a small enough part of a rotating sphere, which applies equally to, yes, amoebas, and every other organism on Earth. (Obviously, from the observer's perspective it's the sky that's rotating.) The difference in question is between a coordinate system based on the observer's body's orientation and one based on the orientation of his/her environment (his planet for cardinal directions, the slope of the ground for "uphill/downhill", etc.) The term "ego-centric" may or may not be the most apt way to describe this difference, but the difference is clear.

Chris said...

Lameen, I respectfully disagree that "north" and "south" are not fundamentally human concepts. They are concepts, hence they are filtered by our cognitive system, vulnerable to all the strange and wonderful biases and alterations that systems bears on all concepts.

So what is so human about north? Well, what is north? It's a direction away from me, right? One can never be at north. There is always a north of north (except in the rare case of standing atop the exact north pole, but that doesn't seem relevant).

But that alone doesn't make it human. Imagine a GY speaker were as big as the sun (this is a thought experiment, so reality means nothing, haha). Would saying that a tree is north of a river mean anything? the scale would be too small. Imagine a GY speaker said that an electron was north of a nucleus. Imagine a GY speaker said that the tree was to the Pacific Ocean of the river. Would any of those uses cardinal directions make sense?

No, because the scale would make them incoherent. The direction concepts north and south are determined, at least in part, by our human scale, hence embodied. we conceptualize them as point, somewhere far off in the distance, and we can point to them. But this is an embodied conceptualization.

I believe there's more than just human scale at work too, but I don't have enough time to get into it right now, but i think this is a worthwhile topic.

Dominik Lukeš said...

All the points are well made and well taken. I'd still argue that this is an important book because of its popular appeal to counter the antirelativist nonsense peddled by the likes of Pinker. I wish it had been fairer to Whorf.

BTW: The last paragraph really had me laughing out loud (for some seconds). LOL

Unknown said...

considering this book, Can you comment on the facts that make a language grow easier? This will be my exam question and I don't have enough time to read the book. I'll be appreciated If you answer my question.
Thank you

Unknown said...

Considering this book, can you comment on the facts that make a language 'grow easier' ?

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