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.

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