Friday, January 28, 2011

How Language Shapes Thought

In the new issue of Scientific American, cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky has an article titled “How Language Shapes Thought: The languages we speak affect our perceptions of the world.”

Here are the main points, in brief:

1. People communicate using a multitude of languages that vary considerably in the information they convey.

2. Scholars have long wondered whether different languages might impart different cognitive abilities.

3. In recent years empirical evidence for this causal relation has emerged, indicating that one’s mother tongue does indeed mold the way one thinks about many aspects of the world, including space and time.

4. The latest findings also hint that language is part and parcel of many more aspects of thought than scientists had previously realized.

This is the sort of thing that has long been a part of discussions and arguments in philosophy, art, and cultural studies, and is part of the narrative of A Clockwork Orange and 1984. Change the language and you change the people. Take away the words and the thoughts disappear.

Now, of course, Boroditsky isn’t going that far with the idea, but the few research examples she describes do have larger implications, even if more subtle than the famous dystopias above.

For me, this comes back to art, specifically, poetry. Surprise surprise. But here’s the dilemma: If the poet, say, feels that the role of the poet is to reveal something about reality in the “Thing Itself” fashion, the “direct treatment of the thing” fashion, then how is that to be done when the language that that poet is using is a partial creator of the reality that the poet is experiencing?

Bruce Andrews: There is no “direct treatment” of the thing possible, except of the “things” of language.

Well, it turns out that direct treatment of the things of language is, at least in part, a direct treatment of the things of reality anyway, so where are we again?

At the simple level of communication, we have this problem, too. What we think others are understanding in what we’re saying is highly speculative. We know all this, yes. But what does that do to “clarity” in poetry? What “clarity” in poetry deals with is the social sphere of a group sharing a common perception of reality. That common perception is languaged, and extends out past language itself into depictions that are visual and experiential. What we experience is what we’re conditioned to experience by the frame of reference we were brought to through language.

All is not hopeless, thankfully. This is a tendency problem, not an absolute problem. Some language groups think the future is in front of them and some think it’s behind them. Some have no words for numbers. Some have no words for right and left. The right and left example is especially interesting, here’s Boroditsky:

“I am standing next to a five-year old girl in pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia. When I ask her to point north, she points precisely and without hesitation. My compass says she is right. Later, back in a lecture hall at Stanford University, I make the same request of an audience of distinguished scholars—winners of science medals and genius prizes. Some of them have come to this very room to hear lectures for more than 40 years. I ask them to close their eyes (so they don’t cheat) and point north. Many refuse; they do not know the answer. Those who do point take a while to think about it and then aim in all possible directions. I have repeated this exercise at Harvard and Princeton and in Moscow, London and Beijing, always with the same results.

A five-year-old in one culture can do something with ease that eminent scientists in other cultures struggle with. This is a big difference in cognitive ability.”

Turns out that ability is that in her language one can only orient oneself in relation to North South East West. Relative spatial terms (right and left) don’t exist. So people in that group become exceptionally good at orienting themselves in space, even in unfamiliar spaces, in ways that cognitive scientists didn’t think humans could manage.

Boroditsky again:

“The past decade has seen a host of ingenious demonstrations establishing that language indeed plays a causal role in shaping cognition. Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think. Teaching people new color words, for instance, changes their ability to discriminate colors. And teaching people a new way of talking about time gives them a new way of thinking about it.”

Extending that idea into the arts gives credence to the fight over reality that is common in aesthetic battles. How different ways of saying things are, literally, different ways of seeing. And there’s a politics at play in which way you choose to say things, not just in what you’re saying. We’ve said this sort of thing many times. The idea, as Boroditsky reminds us, goes back centuries. And we will continue to say such things. It’s just that now we’ve a little more empirical evidence to back us up.


At 1/28/2011 1:34 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I've often told people that you can learn almost everything about a culture by looking at its food and at its language. I will now point to this article when people want evidence (even though I thought it seemed obvious).

At 1/28/2011 2:27 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Thought I'd share this, as it's in literal (though non-professional!) relation to linguistics. I wrote it about three years back, I think. It's an attempt to argue with simplistic, "reflectionist" attitudes about language that seem still widely held (in sense of impressionistically--poets almost never speak specifically about linguistics anymore) by people within the innovative poetry community-- an amorphous resistance to, or distaste for, conventionally referential orders of language, something that is traced back to Language poetry, of course, whose early practice was importantly predicated on the assumption that grammatical and syntactical structures reflect the bigger social arrangements of power, themselves to be undermined via non-referential modes of composition, etc. I should be able to write more elegantly if I'm going to be talking about linguistics, but anyway, I'm in a hurry...

I haven't yet read what John links to, though I doubt this linguist's argument is based on such notions. But it certainly sounds like a challenge to Chomsky dogma! Which has been in retreat for some time... Well, Whorf on the comeback!

At 1/28/2011 3:12 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

And, too, while we're pondering the mysteries of language (lucky us and our leisure thanks to the surplus made by others):


At 1/29/2011 10:29 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Thanks for posting that, Kent. I'm still digesting a lot of it, but it did get me thinking about the position the Language poets now occupy. Here are just some notes and tangents off the top of my head.

Their assertion that language reflects the greater social arrangements of power makes the most sense in Lyn Hejinian's description:

"...[P]oetry after Auschwitz must indeed be barbarian; it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities."

If you define a poem as a memorable speech (for whatever reason), this still makes sense. If it was memorable, it obviously operated outside an everyday, normative use of language.

The distate for speaking in conventionally referential orders of language is mostly an attempt to resist being commodified. For all of the radical gestures of the Beats or say, Punk Rock, those involved still produced something that had marketable mass appeal. I'm not sure the Language poets have been successful at this, as a great many now operate inside academia, where official verse culture is bred. Rae Armantrout won the Pulitzer Prize. This isn't a bad thing--many do write good poems--but it does expose some desire to control the dialogue, which is basically what Ron Silliman's blog accomplishes.

As far as examples are concerned, I can see some parallels between American Imperialism and English's ability to borrow and steal from other languages, but I don't think this is what Bernstein is talking about.

At 1/30/2011 3:57 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Paul Otremba, similarly, writes this (that was just sent to me):

Recently, Lera Boroditsky and Guy Deutscher independently have provided rigorous and scientific updates to Benjamin Lee Whorf’s mid-twentieth-century contention that language constrains cognition, qualifying the force and scope of his claim. Guy Deutscher writes:

“Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: ‘Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.’ This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.”

A word I might use instead of “obliges” for how language frames our experience, a word that in the context of reading poetry puts more responsibility on the attentive reader and cooperative writer, would be “invites.” In poetry, the particular language used invites us to think about experience—to know the world—in specific ways. For poetry, this also includes the shape of the poem itself and how the individual words give themselves over in that shape. I would also go a step further and say that the conventions and traditions of poetry equally invite us to think and know in ways that are continually framed and reframed.

At 1/30/2011 4:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Starting at the top:

I agree with you completely, and it's for the reason Paul describes. Yes, it DOES seem obvious. We've known it intuitively for a long time. It's good to have some strong scientific evidence to strengthen the case.

Kent, I'm going to read your bit in a few minutes, but I want to comment on the bits Fuzz mentions (and also, apparently, "power to the military of Egypt" as well - if the reports I'm hearing are accurate).


"...[P]oetry after Auschwitz must indeed be barbarian; it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities."

I'm sympathetic to this stance, but it's made complex by the fact that say Picasso functioned in much this same way and then Guernica becomes a museum piece. The barbarity of the new must always give away to a new barbarity. And in a time like ours, when, as Jane's Addiction has it (20 years ago!), "Nothing's Shocking," barbarity - or as I would prefer it: Radical Otherness - is difficult to notice.

"CONTROL"! That's the dark side of all movements. And it must always be shown a new radical otherness. "Truth to Power" and all that. Is there even a phrase for "Truth from a Position of Power?"

At 1/30/2011 4:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Here's a link to a PDF of her Scientific American piece. It's short:

It does seem a counter to Chomsky, but NOT the counter of Language poetry. Here are your questions:

"In what sense, exactly, as Bernstein and Wallace have it, would underlying structures of grammar mirror and reinforce existing social orders? Does grammar do this at phonological, morphological, and syntactical levels? If so, how is linguistic phenomena in these areas -- the most traditional areas of grammatical study -- shaped by ideological forces? What, precisely, is the ideological source and register of such shaping? What would be a standard, reified syntactic structure, for example (to re-enter Aryanil Mukherjee's query), that could be seen as instantiating some collective expression of "false consciousness"?"

As one reads her piece, one sees a more "wired" way that different languages affect the speakers of those languages. It's not a government plot, and it seems pretty inescapable to each language. But, in subtle ways, if one is aware of this economy, one can extrapolate that different ways of using that language might also have some, different, effects. It's not Marxist. It's an ongoing process.

At 1/30/2011 4:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

One more bit on the argument itself:

It's a week-long debate. To get the various days and things said you must click on that day's link in the gray bar along the top of the page.

I won't tell you who won. The whole thing is quite fascinating.

At 1/30/2011 8:27 PM, Blogger djm said...

2 things.

1) i've been having my classes read this article for the past couple of semesters. i only link this because it argues against deutscher's work. obviously, appropriate here.

2) nice, slipping in the jane's addiction.

At 1/31/2011 4:32 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


"grammar creates cultural outlooks"

I haven't read the book by Deutscher that this article is talking about, but the above quote, from the introduction to it (the article, not the book) is just the sort of mixing of things that makes these arguments slide out the back door.

There's a big difference between a language and a grammar, first, and then to say "cultural outlooks," well, that's just ripe for the sort of "here come the thought police" that a lot of people too easily fall into.

Lera Boroditsky, on the other hand, is taking the clinical route, talking about subject studies. I'm taking a bit of a leap from that, myself, to connect it to artistic production, since no where does she make anythign near such a claim.

I agree with Paul Otremba. It is our belief in what Lera Boroditsky and others are saying that causes us to look closely at what and how we're saying what we're saying.

The Replacements: "We'll inherit the earth, but we don't tell anybody."


At 1/31/2011 4:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

That should have been:

"We'll inherit the earth, but don't tell anybody."


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