Rethinking Language and Culture

Edge asked a number of scientists, artists, and intellectuals to answer the question: “What have you changed your mind about?” It is a treasure trove of thought-provoking commentary by some of the leading thinkers of our time. Especially interesting is the large number of scientists who have changed their mind with regard to the very nature of scientific enquiry, although I sensed that the many Evolutionary Psychologists in the survey are noticeably less troubled by the epistemological underpinnings of their research.

Anthropologists are somewhat less well represented here, but there are a few. What caught my eye, however, were two posts about language and the mind. One by Daniel Everett, famed for his research on the Pirahã (see this round-up of discussion over at Language Log), where he discusses his own theory of scientific knowledge. Everett critiques what he calls “homeopathic bias” in science. This is the belief “scientific knowledge is built up bit by little bit as we move cumulatively towards the truth” (discussed in this earlier Savage Minds post). Everett uses the term “bias” because he thinks this incremental view of science biases scholars against non-homeopathic doses of criticism, which they see as “arrogant.” The bias works both ways, both preventing scholars from making big claims for their own research, as well as preventing them from paying attention to research which makes such claims.

Everett says he came to this conclusion because of his own work on the Pirahã:

I believed at one time that culture and language were largely independent. Yet there is a growing body of research that suggests the opposite – deep reflexes from culture are to be found in grammar.

…. So all languages need verbs and nouns. But I have been convinced by the research of others, as well as my own, that if a language has these, then the basic skeleton of the grammar largely follows. The meanings of verbs require a certain number of nouns and those nouns plus the verb make simple sentences, ordered in logically restricted ways. Other permutations of this foundational grammar follow from culture, contextual prominence, and modification of nouns and verbs. There are other components to grammar, but not all that many. Put like this, as I began to see things, there really doesn’t seem to be much need for grammar proper to be part of the human genome as it were. Perhaps there is even much less need for grammar as an independent entity than we might have once thought.

I have no idea what to make of these claims, but I like the idea of non-homeopathic criticism and I love reading stuff like this as much as Everett does.

Even more interesting to me, however, was Lera Boroditsky’s post on basic color terms. That’s because it is a subject I teach about nearly every year, and her team at Stanford seems to have produced some interesting new research on the topic. Boroditsky asks: “Do our languages shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the very way we see the world?,” to which she answers in the affirmative.

I was so sure of the fact that language couldn’t shape perception that I went ahead and designed a set of experiments to demonstrate this. In my lab we jokingly referred to this line of work as “Operation Perceptual Freedom.” Our mission: to free perception from the corrupting influences of language.

We did one experiment after another, and each time to my surprise and annoyance, we found consistent cross-linguistic differences.

You can read the paper here [direct link to PDF]. She also has a paper [PDF] on the differences between how Mandarin and English speakers think about time, which I have yet to read, but looks equally interesting.

Related: A post I wrote about Whorf way back before there was Savage Minds.