Friday, July 17, 2009

Language, Thought, and Space (III)

In the second chapter of his book, Stephen Levinson discusses a concept that has been crucial to this blog: frames of reference. (see e.g. these posts) The term as it is used today was coined by Gestalt theorists of perception in the 1920s and was used to signify the steady and constant background against which other objects could be made out and identified. It can be defined as “‘a unit or organization of units that collectively serve to identify a coordinate system with respect to which certain properties of objects, including the phenomenal self, are gauged’ (Rock 1992: 404, emphasis in Levinson 2003: 24).

Frames of references seem to be highly similar across modalities such as vision, touch, gesture, and language. Without these structural similarities (or ‘isomorphisms’) “we could not reach to what we see, or talk about what we feel with our hands, or give route descriptions in language and gesture.” (Levinson 2003: 25). There are, however, also differences: vision is viewer-centred, and touch and grasp are object-centred.

In general, frames of references can be classified by the following distinctions.
Absolute vs. Relative. Psychologically, the received view is that we organize our spatial thinking in relation to objects and ourselves. The frame of reference is thus relative to our own ego-centric bodily coordinates. An absolute frame of reference, on the other hand would consist of fixed angles with coordinates that do not depend on our personal egos as anchoring. And as we have seen, contrary to the received view, both kinds of frames of references are employed in the world’s languages. (Levinson 2003: 27f.).
Similar, but not completely identical is the differentiation between egocentric and allocentric frames of reference. This designates a difference
"between coordinate systems with origins within the subjective body frame of the organism, versus coordinate systems centred elsewhere (often unspecified).” (Levinson 2003: 28).

Our mental maps of our environment and our place are either egocentric or allocentric and landmark-based, including the relations, distances and angles between different landmarks, or allocentric and based on “fixed bearings.” These distinctions can not only be found in the world’s languages, but are also used by neuroscientists when they look at the mental map-building capacities of animals.
In studies of conceptual development it was also argued, following Jean Piaget, that for a long time ‘egocentric’ frames of reference are primary and that children switched to ego-centric frames of reference only to a much later date.

In studies of the visual system we often find a distinction between viewer-centred vs. object-centred. If we identify an object we are also able to mentally rotate it and imagine how it would look from another angle. This means that the retinal impression of the viewer gets interpreted and classified in a more abstract object-centred frame of reference during perception.
Another distinction made when looking at visual imagery and visual perception is that between orientation-bound vs. orientation-free. Orientation-bound information changes with perspective and change of location, whereas orientation-free information does not change. For example, when we rotate a d it can become a b, the information changes. But a ball looks the same from all perspectives and the information is thus orientation-free.
The most important distinction for psychology and language however, is the difference between
“viewer-centred frames, object-centred frames, and environment-centred frames of reference.Ina viewer-centred frame, objects are represented in a retinocentric, head-centric or body-centric coordinate system based on the perceiver’s perspective of the world. In an object-centred frame, objects are coded with respect to their intrinsic axes. In an environment-centred frame, objects are represented with respect to salient features of the environment, such as gravity or prominent visual landmarks. “ (Carlson-Radvansky & Irwin 1993: 224).
Levinson called these the relative, intrinsict and absolute frames of reference. (Levinson 2003: 33).

The distinctions made in various disciplines at times are quite confusing and there are many conflicting positions. However, a broad differentation such as this seems valid.
Next, we have to distinguish between three levels on which different frames of references can be constructed: perceptual, conceptual, and linguistic. There is especially much diversity on the linguistic level, which will be discussed in my next post. As I'm going home tomorrow I don't really know when I'll have access to the internet again, but I hope it wont't be too long.

Carlson-Radvansky, L.A. and Irwin, D.A. (1993): Frames of reference in vision language: Where is above? Cognition
46: 223-244

Levinson, Stephen C. (2003) Space in Language and Cognition : Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Rock, I. (1990), The frame of reference, in I. Rock (ed.), The legacy of Soloman Asch, pp. 243– 268. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Language, Thought, and Space (II)

Spatial orientation is crucial when we try to navigate the world around us. It is a fundamental domain of human experience and depends on a wide array of cognitive capacities and integrated neural subsystems. What is most important for spatial cognition however, are the frames of references we use to locate and classify ourselves, others, objects, and events.

Often, we define a landmark (say ourselves, or a tree, or the telly) and then define an object's location in relation to this landmark. (the mouse is to my right, the bike lies left of the tree, my keys have fallen behind the telly). But as it turns out, many languages are not able to express a coordinate system with the meaning of the English expression “left of.” Instead, they employ a compass-like system of orientation.

They do not use a relative frame of reference, like in the English “the cat is behind the truck” but instead use an absolute frame of reference that can be illustrated in English by sentences such as “the cat is north of the truck.” (Levinson 2003: 3). This may seem exotic for us, but for many languages it is the dominant – although often not the only – way of locating things in space.

What are the cognitive consequences of this? Levinson argues that “
the choice of a predominant frame of reference in language correlates with, and probably determines, many other aspects of cognition, from memory, to inference, to navigation, to gesture and beyond. “ (Levinson 2003: 3).

Levinson has done much work on two languages which feature absolute frames of references:
1. Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal language. Levinson recounts how a Guugu Yimithirr speaker once warned him of an army ant “north of his” foot, or how another one told him where to find the frozen fish in a store that was 45 kilometres away. He pointed to his left and Levinson, just as all speakers of Indo-European and many other languages would probably do, thought he meant that Levinson would find the frozen fish on his right-hand side when he entered the shop. But in fact, he had pointed north-east and intended to communicate to Levinson that he would find the frozen fish in the north-east corner of the shop.

Größere Kartenansicht

2. Tzeltal, a Mayan language. In Tzeltal, speakers use the hills that surround them as points of reference. If they are out of the hills, they still project their frame of reference on their environment. So a speaker asking “Is the hot water in the uphill tap?” in an unfamiliar hotel out of the hills would mean by this ‘Is the hot water in the tap that would lie in the uphill (southerly) direction if I were at home?’ (Levinson 2003: 4).

Größere Kartenansicht

Levinson was particularly impressed by a Guugu Yimithirr speaker who, when referring to a absent person, seemingly pointed at himself but in fact pointed to the place the person had lived before. For Levinson, this indicates that
“in some striking way, the ego has been reduced to an abstract point in space. (Levinson 2003: 5)”

These experiences fit perfectly into and are supported by a more thorough and experimental investigation of this matter. But they fly in the face of much of traditional western thinking on the topic, including the consensus on the nature of spatial thinking in much of cognitive science, psychology, and linguistics which held that it was organized in a relative, egocentric and anthropocentric manner. (Levinson 2003: 10f.).

And in the chapters of his book Levinson sums up a robust body of data that lend support to his thesis that spatial cognition may be differently organised in different cultures, and that the body may not be the fundamental source of our spatial concepts, neither developmentally nor cross-culturally.

However, there are still strong universal trends in cognition in the domain of space. According to Levinson the best way to accommodate all these findings is to concede that human cognition may employ several modes of internal representation and that there is no reason to assume that there is only one form of mental representation. If we accept this view, it seems much more logical to state that the internal representations accessed by and linked to language and cultural practices are in some way influenced and shaped by these linkages. (Levinson 2003: 21f.).
Levinson sums up the key issues that recur throughout his book as follows:

  • “What are the ‘natural’, pre-linguistic or innate, spatial concepts in human cognition? How abstract are they? Why does spatial thinking have a centrality in human cognition?
  • What is the role of bodily axes and coordinates in spatial cognition?
  • What is the nature of the relation between linguistic categories and non-linguistic concepts, both in general and in the spatial domain? Are there a multiplicity of underlying representations, or one multimodal representation of space? If the latter, what is its relation to spatial semantics?
  • How much linguistic diversity is there in this domain, not only in expressive form, but underlying semantic parameters? Given that there is diversity, what linguistic universals can be stated in this area?
  • Given semantic diversity, what happens to the underlying cognition? Does it remain a universal constant, translated into various restricted linguistic concepts, or does it adapt to the language it must locally support?
  • What are the general implications from the spatial domain for the relation between language and human thinking?” (Levinson 2003: 22f.)


Levinson, Stephen C. (2003) Space in Language and Cognition : Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Language, Thought, and Space (I)

I know I still haven't written my third post on Lewontin's paper in which he criticises inquiries into the evolution of language and cognition and it will be some time until I'll be able to post it as I'm going back home on Saturday and won't haven internet access for more than a month.

But in the next couple of days I want to write something about different: How different cultures speak about and conceptualize space.
In my opinion, this is a very fascinating avenue of linguistic research that gives much insight into the nature of language and cognition as well as their relationship. In addition, it also presents us with new facts and considerations when we try to study the evolution of these traits.
By studying language and cognition cross-culturally we come to the problem of language evolution from the other way so to speak.

I will focus on the work of the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands and especially on the introductory part of Stephen Levinson's (2003) book "Space in Language and Cognition." I've started reading it because I wanted to improve my knowledge of some aspects of the cognition-oriented strands of linguistics and anthropology I unfortunately know way too little about.

I’ve written about the idea of frames of references and cognitive coordinate systems before , I haven’t said much about linguistic data that bears on this question. More generally, I, following other researchers, have argued that cognition and cognitive representations of communicative interactions are to a large part spatial in nature or at least analogous to spatial thinking. But research done by the people at the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands and others has shown that there is a surprising diversity in linguistic frame of references across cultures.

What exactly does this mean for any account of cognition? What we have here is of course related to the contentious issue of the relation of language and thought. Generally there people who tend too emphasize the importance of a Language of Thought over language itself (e.g. cognitivism), with others tending toward the view that language and culture shape your cognitive style to a significant amount (e.g. linguistic relativism, linguistic determinism). These theorists can be called “lumpers” who do not see it necessary to distinguish between the semantic content of a language and underlying conceptual representations, and “splitters” who insist on this distinction. (Levinson 1997: 13f.)

The issue is often seen as a black and white matter, with Benjamin Lee Whorf being portrayed as the bad guy who had a way too extreme view. This, however, is misguided, as Whorf’s main interest was not to advocate any idea of linguistic determinism per se but instead to stress the importance of how perspectives embodied in a language influence what we pay attention to in a situation and also how we conceptualise it: “‘users of different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world’” (Whorf 1956: 221).

This is not to say that language is a prison we can’t get out of. But, as language and social practices can be said to embody certain perspectives on the world, it is reasonable to argue that a child growing up in a certain community will also learn to adopt and construe these perspectives during her cognitive development. As language is a primary source that introduces children to new ways of organizing the world around them it stands to reason that the concepts and viewpoints expressed in a language have a significant impact on cognitive representations.

Of course research on the non-linguistic cognition of infants and non-human primates has shown that their mental representations are already surprisingly sophisticated and complex. Some of these cognitive capacities are certainly specified innately or at least helped by innate biases. Others may emerge due to the nature and early imprint of cultural interaction. But some concepts, namely abstract, relational ones, seem to be absent from non-human cognition completely, and in humans seem to be provided and picked up primarily by and through language during cognitive development. In fact, research on infant and childhood cognition supports the fact that the acquisition of relational concepts with the help of language may be one of the key factors that made us “so smart” (Gentner 2003, Penn et al. 2008).

If we bear this in mind, the question then is not whether language influences or determines thought, but to clarify the interactions and relationship between innate biological propensities, the environment, language and other cultural practices. If for example, we allow for multiple modes of representation in cognitive processing we may get a much clearer view on the issue. If, as mentioned above, we see semantic representations and conceptual representations as different levels of representation we can accommodate the variety of semantic distinctions in different levels with maintaining some form of ‘psychic unity of mankind’ with shared atomic concepts across our species. (Levinson 1997)

In my next post I’ll write about how the research done by the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguists on the relationship between cross-linguistic differences in descriptions of space sheds light on this topic. I will draw on the 2003 book Space in language and cognition: explorations in cognitive diversity by Stephen C. Levinson, the director of the language and cognition group at the institute, in which he sums up much of the research that was done there over the years.

Gentner, D. (2003). Why we’re so smart. In D. Gentner and S. Goldin-Meadow (Eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought (pp.195-235). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Levinson, Stephen C. (1997) From outer to inner space: Linguistic categories and non-linguistic thinking. In E. Pederson & J. Nuyts, eds., With Language in Mind: the Relationship Between Linguistic and Conceptual Representation, 13-45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, Stephen C. (2003) Space in Language and Cognition : Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Penn, Derek C, Keith J. Holyoak. and Daniel J. Povinelli (2008): Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2): 109-130.

Whorf, B.L. (1956,) Language, thought and reality, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Links & Delay

I know I wanted to write another post on Lewontin's paper, but I'm going back to Germany in a few days and I'm caught up in packing, sending parcels, etc. etc. It's incredible how much stuff accumulates in 10 months.... I don't exactly how long it will take my to settle in back in Germany but I hope I'll be back to blogging soon.

Anyway, the recent debates about evolutionary psychology and the evolution of cognition are quite interesting to follow at the moment. In his brilliant Wednesday Round Up, Daniel Lende of has listed some very interesting post on the topic under the heading "Evolution – or Men Fighting Back against Sharon Begley vs. Other Men Just Getting on with Things".

I myself am quite critical of the sex-centred adaptationism of many evolutionary psychologists, but in general I think evolutionary considerations should be an important part of any theory of cognition.

Other takes on the issue are David Brooks' New York Times op-ed piece criticising evolutionary psychologists' simplifiyng take on human nature and Jerry Coyne's comments. Coyne was a student of Richard Lewontin and I think you can see this in his criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology.

Go check it out!