Thursday, February 7, 2013

Louder Than Words - Book Review Part 3: Ch 5-7

I've finished the next chunk of Ben Bergen's embodied cognitive linguistics book Louder Than Words, putting me just about 2/3rds of the way through. I'll be putting together a single, overview review that is more linear that these interim posts, but I want to share a few thoughts before then.

  • This middle section of the book has finally gotten more deep into the weeds of cognitive linguistics  and is more satisfying to me than the earlier, more intro stuff.
  • He does a nice job of making the case that constructions like "She Verbed the box to her friend" can add semantics beyond what the verb adds. Good for him. I like a good construction.
  •  He tends to go on and on describing one experimental paradigm after another, factory-like. Even for a methodology geek like myself, I found it a bit tiresome. It's easy to lose the big picture.
  • He cites a very tightly connected set of researchers. They all agree with each other and pat each other on the back. The Chomskyeans are famous for this. It is not a lead I recommend following  Bergen never really addresses serious critics. He does play the devil's advocate game, but only as a segue into his next presentation of 16 experimental methodologies, one after another (occasionally he give us a crudely drawn picture or Excel graph).
  • Chapter 7 switches gears a bit because he begins to discuss ways in which highly specialized experiences might affect cognitive processes. Do hockey players process input differently than non-hockey players because of their hockey experience? He presents data suggesting that they do (though he's quick to point out that this is all very preliminary). This struck me as laying the groundwork for the inevitable neo-Whorfian, linguistic relativism argument that language affects thought. I have blogged about this myself, with some constructive skepticism. Bergen has worked with Lera Boroditsky, the queen of neo-Whorfianism, so it's easy to predict that he was gonna get around to that sooner or later.
My main critique is that Bergen has set himself up for an audience nightmare. Who is he writing for? Sometimes he writes for me, a person with advanced cognitive linguistics training who loves experimental methodologies. At other times, he's talking to my 90 year old grandmother. Every now and again, he whispers an aside to 1980s pop culture aficionados. The problem is, that none of us are satisfied. I grant that this topic is inherently difficult to write for because it blends detailed scientific methodology with freaky, unexpected mental behaviors. But that is Bergen's challenge. He asked for it.

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