Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thoughtful and lucid on language and thought: Guy Deutscher ‘Through the Language Glass’

“Ever heard of es-tchay-den-frood?” asked the husband. “No, what is it?” un-answered the wife. “‘Relishing someone else’s misfortune’,” quoted back the husband. “It’s in this article that says how the language you speak affects how you think.” “Yeah, I’d have thought that,” thoughtfully responded the wife. I almost choked on my breakfast.

I doubt this blog has much of a readership, and I hardly expect to be influencing the august editors of International Herald Tribune (yet), but the timing was pretty vexing nonetheless: first Behavioural and Brain Sciences (article, response), then the Wall Street Journal (article, response), now this. The myth-peddling assault on sensible research into language rolls on unabated. So, I quickly left the breakfast room, retrieved our complimentary paper, and checked the article out. Sure enough, the title promised a parade of the usual errors: “Same planet, different worlds: Languages shaping reality”. And on the front page. The heart sinks, the brain revs.

The article (link), by Guy Deutscher (webpage), turns out to be a pleasant surprise, however (the title, perhaps, an editor’s addition): a deft and elegant style, facts simply not simplistically communicated, and, most importantly, avoidance of the array of errors that usual besmirch discussion of the link between language and thought. Deutscher identifies straightaway that the connection is one of tracks, not traps. That is, speaking Hopi doesn’t leave you trapped in a mindset that forever prevents you from learning to use the English word ‘time’. Rather, as speakers of English, or other languages, we get into the habit of thinking along certain tracks: we pay attention to some aspects of situations and fail to attend to others, because competent use of our day-to-day language has set us up with certain habits of expression and, hence, foci of attention, and, hence, patterns of thought. For the rest of the article, Deutscher illustrates this with two examples:
  • Speakers of, say, Spanish and German are inclined to describe bridges (amongst other things) in different ways, e.g., ‘strong’ versus ‘slender’. The choices they make may, plausibly, reflect differences in grammatical gender: for Spaniards, bridges are masculine, for Germans, feminine, and strength is a masculine property, slenderness a female one.
  • Speakers of Guugu Yimithirr—a language of northern Queensland, that eschews terms like ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’ for ‘to the north’, ‘to the south’, etc.—use and can recall details of cardinal directions in a way that the average city-bound English speaker can’t.
In both cases, it isn’t that Spanish speakers have thoughts about bridges unthinkable to Germans, or Guugu Yimithirr speakers have thoughts involving locations unthinkable to English speakers. Rather, it’s that there are certain thoughts that are more likely to occur to Spaniards than Germans, or Guugu Yimithirr than English speakers, in virtue of their respective languages.

My liking of the article notwithstanding, I’m unsure of what Deutscher thinks that these two examples are meant to show us. To me, they seem to show that society affects how people act, and, as action includes using language in an socially appropriate fashion, it affects how they speak and how they get ready to speak, that is, how they think. So, I don’t think either example shows us much about how language, alone, influences thought. Rather, they show how society influences thought—a conclusion that is surely unsurprising.

To make this clearer, consider first Spanish versus German. I question whether any association that speakers have between bridges and manliness/womanliness arises spontaneously, simply from using their native tongue, rather than from being put through an education system that tells them to think of nouns in terms of masculinity/femininity. The dichotomy between the genders is a socially central and salient one. Plausibly, it works its way, via grammatical terminology inculcated in the educational system, through to speakers’ conceptions of these objects. To be sure that it is language (a linguistic fact), rather than how society teaches people to think about their language (a social fact), that is at work in the ‘bridge effect’, we would want to look at Spanish and German speakers who are so far removed from formal education that they do not know anything about traditional grammatical gender terminology (such speakers might be found in rural parts of Latin America and, just possibly, amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch, or like communities). If they describe bridges in sex-biased terms, then we might have something to explain. If not, then we should conclude that how society tells people to think about their languages affects how people think about their languages down even to the level of the common noun—an interesting conclusion, but hardly compelling evidence of language influencing thought independent of ambient social facts.

And an incident from my time doing fieldwork makes me question Deutscher’s second example. When I’ve asked for directions from one place to the next, those directions have most often been in the form of cardinal directions: “Head south for two miles, then turn west, then ...”. I found this somewhat irritating at first (“Why can’t they just left-and-right me?”, I used to wonder). However, once the directions cease to involve roads but cross fields and follow rivers, it becomes pretty obvious. If you have to “turn left at the next road”, then it doesn’t matter whether than road is at 30 degrees to your current road, or at 60, or 113: following the road takes care of that. Try telling someone without a compass to turn left by 113 degrees and you soon appreciate that “head south for two miles, then turn west, then ...” is the superior system, once you’ve learned to use it. The crucial fact, however, is that I wasn’t off in the extremities of Australia, but smack in the middle of rural Oklahoma, and the people giving me directions were, more often than not, monolingual English speakers, sometimes just as white as me.

Obviously, Guugu Yimithirr culture and language have evolved in a world of without a grid of tarmacked roads leading you at just the right angle to get you where you want to go to. And, as a child, you don’t just learn the grammar of a language, or its lexicon, you learn what to talk about in day-to-day life and how to talk about it too. For objective reasons, cardinal directions play a prominent role in Guugu Yimithirr culture and, as a cultural fact, when you speak Guugu Yimithirr, you adorn your description of an event, it seems, with facts about these directions. In a similar vein, I remember the first time I read Warlpiri story, from a different part of Australia. It basically said that there was a group of people who headed in this direction, then that direction, then off in another, and ended, I think, with them being back where they started: no comment on why they left, what they found, what they did, or what it was like to get back again. (“Yep, that sounds about right,” said Ken Hale and Norvin Richards, who have, respectively, superabundant and abundant experience documenting Australian languages.) If Guugu Yimithirr culture is anything like the Warlpiris’ in this respect, then directions matter to the extent that recounting them is enough to create a story of interest.

As with Spanish and German, it seems to me that what makes Guugu Yimithirr different from English is not a linguistic fact (a case of language guiding thought), but a set of social facts that appear linguistic because they are bound up with language use:
  • It is a social fact that the world you live in and the life you lead there are better served by cardinal directions than by lefts and rights.
  • Whether your language has ‘left’ and ‘right’ is a linguistic fact, but how much your community expects you to mention directions when retelling events is a social fact. (Guugu Yimithirr could, one imagines, adopt ‘left’ and ‘right’ from English but use these only for humans, maintain a social preference for locating objects and events in terms of norths and souths.)
  • And whether sequences of directions alone suffice to make a story worth telling is certainly a social fact.
Deutscher wonders, with admirable tentativeness, “how geographic languages [like Guugu Yimithirr] affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation—whether they influence the speaker’s sense of identity, for instance, or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life”. However, these questions strike me as premature: we still don’t have good reason for thinking that it is language, rather than social facts about language use, that are at play here.

It is an open, and probably prickly, question as to how one should tease apart purely linguistic influence on thought from social influence, mediated by patterns of language use, on thought. My suspicion, in part confirmed by Deutscher’s article, is that what is advertised as the former is in reality more often the latter. What the cases Deutscher considers probably show therefore is that society and socialisation influence how and what people think about (no surprise there) and that this influence infiltrates down to the level of quite subtle facts about language. In principle, the latter finding is not so surprising, but the precise details doubtless will be intriguing. I suspect that we are still far from knowing whether language itself, abstracted away from the society that speaks it, can influence thought and I doubt that the experiments devised to test the hypothesis are in principle capable of speaking to the issue. However, given how well Deutscher’s article frames the question and presents key research, I think his forthcoming book (link) will be an excellent way to confirm or disconfirm such suspicions.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Does thought influence language? Well, at times, ...

The extent to which language influences thought is an old and ongoing debate in cognitive science. I wish that the debate would show equal concern for letting thought influence language. In a recent article (Wall Street Journal), Lera Boroditsky (cool website) outlines some recent research in her field: it is imaginative and fascinating and there’s no doubt in my mind it makes substantial and significant contributions. However, I was struck by Boroditsky’s attempt to situate her work against the purported failure of Chomsky’s approach to language. Tying one’s work to one of the central figures of cognitive science adds caché, especially if one is overturning what that figure has said. But what the article presents reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what language is and which aspects of it generative linguistics attempts to study.

Boroditsky writes: “Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages essentially, that languages don’t really differ from one another in significant ways. And because languages didn’t differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking. // The search for linguistic universals yielded interesting data on languages, but after decades of work, not a single proposed universal has withstood scrutiny.” This not only misrepresents universal grammar and its investigation but also misconceives which aspects of language Chomsky et al’s versus Boroditsky’s et al’s research relates to.

Chomsky’s proposal is that languages do not significantly differ from each other in terms of narrow syntax, that is, in terms of syntactic algorithms and the set of primitives over which those algorithms operate. The kinds of universals that arise with this approach are statements like:
  • All branching is maximally binary.
  • Extraction is only possible from phase edges.
  • Minimality of attraction is relativized to particular features.
What Boroditsky has in mind (I’m willing to bet) are universals of the form:
  • Any language with head-internal relative clauses permits null subjects.
  • Any language that is verb-initial has construct states.
  • All languages have pronouns.
The difference between these two types of universals is massive: one concerns the deep infrastructure of language, the other, the superficial description of its output. (This misunderstanding also afflicts a much discussed paper by Evans and Levinson, BBS, and I wonder whether it represents a prevalent misapprehension.) However, to anyone who understands what generative linguistics is concerned with, it is wholly obvious that the entire research program of universal grammar could be successfully completed without there being a single universal of the latter (superficial) variety. Universals of output simply aren’t the universals that universal grammar is concerned with and unless Boroditsky knows something surprising about binary branching, long-distance extraction, and relativised minimality, her claim that no universals have “withstood scrutiny” “after decades of research” is simply untrue.

That said, although universal grammar does not require superficial universals, it should be emphasised that universals derived from the nature of the primitives over which syntax operates (rather than from the syntactic algorithms themselves) remain in good health “after decades of research”: feature systems with a dual still differentiate singular from plural, and those with a trial still differentiate singular, plural and dual; feature systems with a three-way person contrast still conflate first inclusive with first exclusive, not with second person; and there is still no choric-hearer or choric-speaker feature system. So, universal grammar doesn’t need superficial universals, but it has them anyway.

Yet, even if Boroditsky’s motivational critique of Chomsky is wrong, that hardly means her work is without motivation. The domains of study of the two approaches are substantially without overlap. Consider some of Boroditsky’s examples.
  • English, Hebrew and Pormpuraaw speakers may arrange pictures differently to reflect chronological sequence, but this tell us nothing about how narrow syntax works, because representation of chronological sequence has nothing to do with binary branching, extraction, etc. The irrelevance of this data is underlined by Boroditsky’s own observation that the Hebrew versus English orderings reflect the directions in which the two languages are written: writing systems are means of representing the output of universal grammar, parametrized to a given language, after it has passed through the morphological, phonological and phonetic systems; they are very distant from the study of universal grammar itself.

  • Lexical facts—such as whether Russian speakers, who lack a cover term for sky blue and navy blue, are more attuned to different shades of these colours than are English speakers to whom they are both blue—are also irrelevant to how syntax may construct long-distance dependencies or whether syntactic branching is binary. Much variation in the lexicon fails to impact on syntax: elks are nothing like elephants, but one struggles to find syntactic ramifications of this fact.

  • English and Japanese both have constructions that identify and ignore agency, but their different rates of usage represents a sociological fact about language usage, not anything to do with differences in the narrow syntax. If your society generally expects you to impute agency when speaking whatever language it uses, then, it turns out that you are more attuned to agency. This is not overly surprising: when my lifestyle includes a lot of violin playing, my intolerance for others’ off-key playing increases. Speaking English is part of my lifestyle, so why should the set of distinctions that being a member of an English-speaking society routinely makes me make not be just like having perfect pitch? The propensity of English speakers to identify causes reflects a sociolinguistic fact, not something that universal grammar is concerned with.

It is irritating that such errors of logic and such misrepresentations of generative linguistics should have been made in so public a forum as the Wall Street Journal. What’s more worrying to me, however, is the persistent gap in understanding by other cognitive scientists as to what universal grammar is about, what evidence could falsify it, and how other research enterprises may pertain to language and yet be orthogonal to it.