Friday, August 14, 2009

Language, Thought, and Space: (IV) Comparing Different Cultures.

I wanted to continue posting on Stephen Levinson’s 2003 book, but unfortunately, I only have very limited access to the internet right now, and as my year abroad at the University of Nottingham is over, I don’t have access to the e-book version anymore (The Library at the University of Heidelberg has a copy of the book but I’m currently at home and can’t get it from there either).

Instead, I’ll post about a fascinating study done by people from the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics (Nijmegen, Netherlands) and people from the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) that pretty much blew me away (quite literally so: it pretty much destroyed a central assumption of the received theory of cognitive perspective that I wanted to work on).

As I already said, work done by Stephen Levinson and others on how different cultures talk about and conceptualise space has shown that not all of them employ a bodily, egocentric frame of reference or coordinate system as their dominant organizing principle for their experiences and thoughts. Speakers of “several indigenous languages of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Nepal, and south West Africa,” in contrast, organize the axes of their dominant coordinate system by absolute principles such as fixed landmarks (e.g. uphill vs. downhill) or cardinal directions (e.g. move the chair to the north). In addition, there are also languages that primarily use “intrinsic,” object-centred Frames of References, such as in “The dog is at the front of the library.”
In a set of clever experiments Levinson and his colleagues have also shown that speakers of relative and absolute languages differ in how they solve non-linguistic spatial tasks. For example, in the “motion-maze task” (Pederson & Schmitt 1993) participants see a toy move on a table. They are then rotated 180° and asked to recognize, on a table with a maze-like diagram, the “the path traversed from within a maze-like diagram containing both absolute and relative possibilities“ (Levinson et al. 2002).

Interestingly, speakers of relative languages such as Dutch or Japanese recognize the path based on the relative frame of reference they employ in their language whereas speakers of absolute languages such as the Australian Aboriginal language Arrernte or Tzeltal recognize the path based on their absolute frame of reference (Levinson et al. 2002, Levinson 2003).
Results like this were achieved on a wide array of space-based tasks, so the overall findings that relative speakers prefer relative FoR in spatial tasks and that absolute speakers prefer absolute FoRs seems to be quite robust. (Haun et al. 2006).
In a recent set of experiments Haun et al. (2006) tested how soon a cognitive bias in spatial cognition manifests itself. They tested 7-11 age year old children from a Dutch village, who mainly use an egocentric FoR) and from a Khoisan hunter–gatherer community in Namibia called =/= Akhoe Hai||om (to be honest, I don’t have any idea how to pronounce this), who almost always use absolute spatial descriptions.
They also tested adults of both cultures “to see whether differences were not only initial variations of an emerging cognitive skill but were actually stable across the life span.”
What they did was the following: The subject was placed in front of a table on which there were five identical cups in a “five dice”-constellation:
(X = Cups | = Screen E= Experimenter O=Hidden Object)

They were then shown the location of an object that was hidden under one of the cups.

In the next step, the Subject was turned 180° and brought to an identical table behind the screen:

Then, and this is the crucial bit, they were asked to indicate the spot where they thought the object was hidden this time. In the experiment, there were three conditions. First, an egocentric one: if the object was hidden to the left of the subject, it was also hidden to the subject’s left after she was rotated to her new position.

Secondly, there was an object-centred condition in which the “hiding and finding cups maintained position in relation to a salient landmark between the two tables, namely the screen or the experimenter” (Haun et al. 2006 : 17659).

And finally, there was a geocentric condition where, if the hiding cup was to the north-west, it would also be the to the north-west in the rotated position.

After repeated trials on all the conditions the following picture emerged: Hai||om children and adults were faster to learn and made the fewest errors in the absolute condition and Dutch children and adults were best in the egocentric condition.
“This correlation is fully robust by age 8 and persists into adulthood. In sum, Dutch and Hai||om subjects varied in their preferred cognitive strategy to solve a spatial relational learning task, and their preference matched the preferred mode of description in their respective language” (Haun et al. 2006 : 17570).

Although it is quite difficult to interpret these results in terms of the relationship between language and thought (see e.g. Pederson 2007, Palmer 2007: 1059ff.), the results are certainly thrilling and give rise to a further question: which of these frames of reference is the primary and basic one that infants have? Is there a cognitive default setting that we and the other great apes inherited from our last common ancestor which is only later overridden by cultural factors?
I’ll return to this question in my next post tomorrow.


Haun, Daniel B. M., Christian J. Rapold, Josep Call, Gabriele Janzen, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2006. “Cognitive Cladistics and Cultural Override in Hominid Spatial Cognition.” In: PNAS 103: 17568–17573.

Levinson, Stephen C. 2003. Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, Stephen C., Sotaro Kita, Daniel B.M. Haun, Björn H. Rasch. 2002. “Returning the Tables: Language Affects Spatial Reasoning.” In: Cognition 84: 155–188.

Palmer, Gary B. 2007. “Cognitive Linguistics and Anthropological Linguistics.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1045-1073.

Pederson, Eric. 2007. “Cognitive Linguistics and Linguistic Relativity.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1012-1044.

Pederson, Eric & B. Schmitt 1993. Eric’s maze task. In Cognition and Space Kit Version 1.0 (pp. 73–76).Nijmegen: Cognitive Anthropology Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

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