Thursday, 26 May 2016

Linguistic Determinism as a testable hypothesis

Linguistic Determinism as a testable hypothesis

Broadly speaking LD is the claim, quoting (De Cruz, 2009)-“that language shapes the way we see the world, and that as a result, speakers of different languages conceptualize reality differently”. The strong version claims that language determines thought entirely. If this were the case, we would have to confront the possibility of incommensurable linguistic communities. The weaker form claims that language influences cognition to an important extent. Many cognitive scientists would reject LD outright citing evidence of high-level cognition e.g. categorisation, that is independent of language. In this view language is necessary for communication but once the information has been passed on cognition is predominantly non-linguistic. Psycholinguists like Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, 1994)(How the Mind Works, 1997) would argue that language is crucial for thought but that it is, following Chomksy (1965), the general syntactic structure shared by all people throughout the world, a ‘Universal Grammar’, that pre-empts language acquisition, which fundamentally shapes thought. This is against the blank slate view of the person favoured by social constructivists (Social Constructivism). Despite the prevalence of this view in cognitive science LD has persisted in some form or other. 

One means by which the argument may be put to rest is to subject it to empirical testing. LD makes the prediction that:

If language determines or at the very least influences cognition, we expect speakers of different languages to have divergent conceptualisations of the world-as the linguist Whorf (1956, 213) put it ‘We dissect nature along lines laid out by our native language’”.

This is a stronger variant of LD that has been the source of much research and controversy. Whorf claimed that speakers of Hopi (a Native American language) had a perception of time and space that differed fundamentally from speakers of Indo-European language. Whorf based this entirely on the grammatical structure of the Hopi, rather than whether the Hopi acted in a way that reflected a differing perception of space and time. De Cruz rightfully claims that LD may not be empirically testable, precisely because it has not been possible, and it is hard to see how it will be, to disentangle cognitive effects which follow from linguistic factors, and those that do not. Some of the argumentation supporting LD, especially that of the Whorfian variant is circular. It does not follow that linguistic differences in grammar, sortal concepts, numeracy etc., have a causal relationship to differences in cognition. Instead of being bogged down in this debate over whether LD is empirically testable, it might be more useful to think through an example of a linguistic community, that uses language in a way that is rather distinct from uses we may be used to. There is still room for the weaker claim of LD and this is worth keeping in mind. We cannot get outside language, and we are shaped to an extent by the languages we speak. That we can learn others and translate (though nuance may be lost in translation) from one language to another, with varying degrees of success, may point to a weaker version of LD. 

Wisdom Sits in Places

"Knowledge of places is closely linked to know of the self, to grasping one's position in the larger scheme of things, including one's own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person." (Keith H. Basso, 1996)

I argue that it might be more fruitful to think with an example from the ethnographic literature. I concede that it is an anthropological bias to seek out exotic examples (my reason for including the Gary Larson cartoon below), but these examples are useful for establishing commonalities between peoples across the world, as well as demonstrating the need to attend to the particulars of cultural expression. 

The problem with the early anthropological perspective
Anthropologist Keith H. Basso (Keith H. Basso, 1996) presents a compelling and beautifully written ethnography, centred principally around four key persons, in his book 'Wisdom Sits in Places' (I will leave it to your interest to follow up on this book). He conducted his fieldwork in Cibecue, Arizona, amongst the Western Apache. Their principally oral way of life led him to emphasise the relationship between language, place and culture, in forming a people's way of life in the world. Place is a key feature of how this group of Apache organise themselves socially, see and move in the world, and record history i.e. through oral histories, with reiteration of place names, playing a key role for memorisation. In this case metalanguage e.g. using a place-name to index a story related to that place, which the Western Apache call 'arrows' of language, which invoke a moral or instructive lesson, toponymy i.e. place-names, and physical places in their environment, form an integral part of memory, and more broadly social identity for this group. One older Apache speaks of this:

"I think of that mountain called Tsee Ligai Da Sidile (White Rocks Lie Above in a Compact Cluster) as if it were my maternal grandmother. I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain's name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself. (Benson Lewis, age 64, 1979)"
(Basso, 1996, p. 38)

Cibecue, Arizona

Basso captures what place means to the Western Apache and its relation to language and storytelling below:

"Nothing is more basic to the telling of a Western Apache story than identifying the geographical locations at which events in the story unfold. For unless Apache listeners are able to picture a physical setting for narrated events -- unless, as one of my consultants said, 'your mind can travel to that place and really see it" -- the events themselves will be difficult to imagine. This is because events in the narrative will seem to happen nowhere, and such an idea, Apaches assert, is preposterous and disquieting. Placeless events are an impossibility; everything that happens must happen somewhere. The location of an event is an integral aspect of the event itself, and identifying the event's location is therefore essential to properly depicting -- effectively picturing -- the event's occurrence. For these reasons, placeless stories simply do not get told. Instead, all Apache narratives are verbally anchored to points upon the land with precise depictions of specific locations. And what these depictions are accomplished with -- what the primary spatial anchors of Apache narratives almost always turn out to be -- are place-names."
(p. 86-87)

In this case forms of cultural memory are extended here to language, specifically metalanguage, and the physical environment. There is evidently a dynamic relationship between the members of this group, and their environments, made possible by particular patterns of social interaction and linguistic convention. The way in which this group orients themselves is both expressed, perpetuated and enabled by the linguistic forms they use. Determining whether it is the form of language that shapes their relationship with place and memory, or the reverse, may not be possible but the example is illustrative nonetheless. This example does not answer the problem of determining the exact relationship between language and cognition, but it does merit close attention to the conventions of a people's language, and its relationship with how they relate to the world, if a full understanding is desired. What universal grammarians miss in their emphasis on the underlying syntactic structure, is the rich nuance of the languages that people use to move in and relate to the world. 

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