Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Through the Language Glass (Part 2) [reposted]

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.

ResearchBlogging.org
Guy Deutscher (2010). Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Metropolitan Books

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Super 8: more homework than movie

A rare non-linguistics post: Saw Super 8. Critics are spot on: it's a movie that shows how to construct a coherent narrative like they used to make. It is simple, straight forward. It makes contemporary movies like Transformers, Thor, and Pirates seem amateurish and sad. It's like a tutorial in narrative film-making.

Unfortunately, it's like a tutorial in narrative film-making ... more like homework than enjoyment. I felt like I should be taking notes. Like there'd be a quiz at the end.

One reason this is so is simple modern history. 30 years ago, good narrative films were strictly the domain of Hollywood. TV was the domain of kitsch and schmaltz. But since the 1990s, TV (largely due to HBO, and more recently Showtime, TNT, AMC...) has taken over the mantel of prime story teller. We know from good narratives. We know from good structure. We know from good plot. We know from good formula (we loved Law and Order for 20 years, after all).

So now, in 2011, the ET/Goonies routine rings a bit hollow. Like movie-plot-by-the-book; paint-by-numbers film making. Sure, it's more coherent than Thor (a truly gawdawful film), but Breaking Bad and Mad Men are still way better, and they don't cost me $11 and a special trip. Don't even get me started on how much better the revived Doctor Who is than this Hollywood trash.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

simple english wikipedia

I didn't know this existed until it was referenced briefly in an unrelated article. Simple English Wikipedia:

This is the front page of the Simple English Wikipedia. Wikipedias are places where people work together to write encyclopedias in different languages. We use Simple English words and grammar here. The Simple English Wikipedia is for everyone! That includes children and adults who are learning English.

Great idea! I perused some of the articles relating to linguistics, language, and grammar. Not bad. Under Grammar, they write:

When we speak, we use the native-person's grammar, or as near as we can. When we write, we try to write with correct usage grammar. So, speaking and writing a language each have their own style.

While one may want to quibble a little with this (I don't quite understand the "as near as we can" hedge), it's actually a nice way to explain the difference between speaking and writing to, say, a 10 year old.

NLPers: How would you characterize your linguistics background?

That was the poll question my hero Professor Emily Bender posed on Twitter March 30th. 573 tweets later, a truly epic thread had been cre...