Thursday, September 2, 2010

What actually affects thought?

Guy Deutscher's recent NYT article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? is getting  a lot of buzz on Twitter and blogs. I already posted a review of some linguistic relativity research here, and Mark Liberman has promised to discuss Deutscher's article at length and Greg Downey has posted a thoughtful review as well, so I don't want to milk this too much, but I just read the article and have a few comments worth airing.

First, when I started becoming a linguist over ten years ago, I was not a fan of linguistic relativity,
though I only had a passing understanding of what it actually meant. I'm a bit more sympathetic these days in much the same way Deutscher appears to be. He makes the point that language can affect "habits of mind" (though he clearly dismisses the strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis; you can read Whorf's original paper here, pdf). This is reminiscent of Lane Greene's comment that language "nudges thought."

But what both Deutscher and Greene get at remains unsolved: exactly what is affecting what? How is nudging thought different than shaping it? It's a battle of metaphors and I don't think Deutscher wins (or loses) with his habits of mind phrase. It's still unclear what's going on and our metaphors are just muddying the waters more, not less.

Lay people have a tendency to light up at the question "does language shape/affect how you think" in a way they wouldn't if it were "does vision shape/affect how you think?" or "does math shape/affect how you think?"

The pattern I see in the literature is to show that language evokes associations between concepts. Well, duh. How groundbreaking of a claim is that? A strong wind evokes associations between concepts. That's just how the brain works. I can't walk into a Chinese restaurant without the smells evoking memories of my summer near Hong Kong ten years ago. How much funding can I get to study how soy sauce shapes thought? Are evoking associations and shaping thought the same thing? I honestly don't know.

That said, here are a few somewhat random reactions to Deutscher's article:
  • His anecdote about French and German "compelling" their speaker's to inform about sex of a neighbor simply because the word for neighbor has a gender is a bit disingenuous because those same languages provide multiple constructions for referring to people (as does English, see Pullum's latest rant on singular they). This would be a nice corpus study idea: What is the frequency of gender neutral referring expressions in natural conversations in French and German compared to gendered expressions?
  • He makes a good point that a language can force a speaker to attend to certain features, but then again so can other things. The broader question is 'what causes salience?' Language? Yes. Experience? Yes. Vision? Yes...
  • I think this is a gross overstatement: "Languages that treat an inanimate object as a he or a she force their speakers to talk about such an object as if it were a man or a woman." This sounds like strong personification and I just don't see evidence that it's true.
  • I find this incoherent: “She” stays feminine all the way from the lungs up to the glottis and is neutered only when she reaches the tip of the tongue."
  • For some interesting research on German gender and classification see Metonymic pathways to neuter-gender human nominals in German:  Klaus-Michael Kopcke and David A. Zubin. 2003?. The researchers propose more of a conceptual structure analysis of the facts than a neo-Whorfian might  (i.e., how we conceptualize categories influences how we speak about them rather than the other way around), but I haven't had time to read the paper in depth.
  • Deutscher's anecdote about hotel rooms rang hallow. I happen to travel a lot (I mean A LOT) and I almost always stay in a particular brand of hotel because my company gets a deal. So I experience this mirror-image hotel room phenomenon often. Sometimes multiple times a week. But I never feel like I'm seeing "the same room twice." If I move to a mirror-image room, believe me, I notice it immediately and it's clearly disorienting. And I'm no speaker of Guugu Yimithirr.
  • The anecdote about the Guugu Yimithirr speaker who pointed to his chest to indicate the direction behind him was just weird. He wouldn't just turn and point? He actually points to himself? I'll need videographic evidence please. I worry that Deutscher is pulling a Hauser (...too soon?).
  • Factoid alert! 1 in 10 words in Guugu Yimithirr are cardinal direction words north, south, east, west. Really! Really? Really. I'll need evidence please. I kinda doubt this.
This list comes across as more negative than it should. I enjoyed Deutscher's article. Also, this was a short, general audience review of complicated linguistic issues (that I hope he addresses more fully in his forthcoming book).

Full disclosure: I was contacted on Aug 30th by Deutscher's publisher, Henry Holt And Company, via email and offered a review copy of his forthcoming book Through The Language Glass. I responded with my mailing address and hope to receive a copy soon, but I have not received any confirmation one way or the other. My discussion of his article above has nothing do with the offer of a review copy of his book.

Guy Deutscher (2010). Does Your Language Shape How You Think? New York Times


Michael said...

Thnaks for the interesting comments on Deutscher's article. I have to say that, as a native speaker of German, I'm very sceptical of Boroditsky's work on gender-induced association biases that he discusses.
I don't feel in any way that a bridge ("die Brücke") is somehow more "feminine" than "masculine." What is more, basically every other German native speaker I told about these experiments had the same "What the Hell?"-reaction, if I remember correctly. It may well be that gender may affect, or better, 'prime', my description of a bridge in a test, but I can't imagine it affecting my thought in any significant way when it's not in an artifial context focussed on purely linguistic description.

Lauren said...

Hi Chris,

The research Guy Deutscher mentions regarding Guugu Yimithirr was conducted by John Haviland:

Pointing, gesture spaces, and mental maps. Language and gesture: Window into thought and action. D. McNeill. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 13-46.

It's a very well known and regarded paper in gesture research areas, which is where I first came across it.

Regarding mirrored hotel rooms - it's in reference to the now famous experiments done regarding spatial typology and cognition. Deutscher perhaps didn't explain these experiments too well; it's hard to without pictures. Basically say you're looking at a table with three toy cars on it, a red one, yellow one and blue one. Then you're spun around 180 degrees. If you're an English speaker you'll line them up again as red, yellow and blue because English has a relative space system. If you were a GY speaker you would line them up as blue, yellow, red because you speak an absolute space language so you're thinking in the cardinal points regardless of where you're facing.

This experiment is great because it's not linguistic, but tapping into habits shaped by the language we speak. You can find lots of articles on this topic at Steve Levinson's page (

There's lots of other really great research that only gets a passing reference in the Deutscher article. That is the problem with pop science articles - they're never referenced!


Chris said...

Lauren, thanks for the thoughtful feedback. I'll look into Levinson's work this weekend (read some of it back in grad school, but the memory is fuzzy...too much beer, or not enough, haha.)

Michael said...

The anecdote about the Guugu Yimithirr speaker pointing to his chest to indicate the direction behind him that Deutscher mentions can be found in Levinsons 2003 book Space in Language and Cognition (p. 5f.). It is describeds as one "of the small experiences that drove home to me personally the simple message that human spatial cognition is not fixed,b ut culturally variable:" (p.5) "5. Jack Bambi,Guugu Yimithirr master story-teller,talking about a
man who used to live nearby points directly at himself – no,there’s no connection to himself,he’ s pointing south-east,to where the man used to live,through his body as if it was invisible. Years later,I have the same immediate misinterpretations looking at Tzeltal speakers,and realize this is the same phenomenon: in some striking way,the ego has been reduced to an abstract point in space." (p.6)

Chris said...

Michael, thanks for the citation. I'll try to track it down. Still sounds like a random occurrence rather than a crucial data point, but I'll keep my mind open.

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