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    Language Does Not Shape Thought
    By Samuel Kenyon | May 18th 2013 01:59 AM | 20 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Samuel

    Software engineer, AI researcher, interaction designer (IxD), actor, writer, atheist transhumanist. My blog will attempt to synthesize concepts...

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    Cognition causes language, not the other way around. Correlations between changes in thought with changes in language abound. But the arguments are very weak for causality from language to cognition in this context.

    What do People Mean by Language Shapes Thought?



    Lera Boroditsky likes to spread the meme language shapes thought. Others have used it too when talking about Whorfian matters.

    Previously I explored what "shaping" means in this context and how it might be a metaphor. It certainly matters--why not just say language controls thought or language causes thought? I think the reason is that people want to allow thought to control language as well. Indeed this is the weak form of Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, i.e. linguistic relativity.

    So shaping means a partial control or cause which does not prevent control or cause in the other direction. Furthermore it seems that language shaping thought is not about the parts of the mind which are dedicated to language itself--those parts have to be partially language-defined in order to be able to produce utterances in that particular language.

    Here we'll look at various reasons why people might believe that language shapes thought.

    Thinking in Language?



    One argument might be that the language of thought (mentalese) is:

    1. The same type of language that is uttered by humans.

    2. The same instance as the language of utterances.

    The reason I specified #2 is because one could posit that the language of thought is the same type but a difference instance, for example thinking in Russian but speaking in Mandarin.

    I suppose it's easy to assume this given the notion of "internal dialog". But there's a big difference between mentalese and conscious imagined or remembered linguistic memories. It's a matter of abstraction levels. Mentalese is a lower level.

    Thinking in language has another problem. It implies that every language you learn must be translated back into the mental mother "tongue", such as English in my case. But what about computer languages and other language-like things? What about mathematics? What about non-linguistic concepts? How would those get translated into the mother tongue (e.g. English)?

    The argument that we think with language flies in the face of the computational theory of mind, which is fundamental to most of cognitive science.

    As P. Schlenker [1] points out (echoing Steven Pinker):
    we do not literally 'think in words': if we did, patients with a language deficit should automatically have a deficit in thought as well, which does not appear to be the case. Thus verbal language and thought should in principle be taken to be distinct.
    Mentalese is symbolic and generative, but it doesn't have to be a spoken or written language. The symbols are not words or characters, they are arbitrary computational patterns which we can think of as symbols in the context of the computational theory of mind.

    Counter argument: Daniel Casasanto has argued that not thinking in language does not entail that language shaping thought is false [2]. Thus this logical statement is invalid, where O is We think in language and W is Language shapes thought:


    Logically, Casasanto is correct. But from a mind-software architectural approach, one wonders what the interfaces are for high level abstractions of language to define and/or influence thought. And where is the evidence of principle causes of language affecting thought? Casasanto only provides a hypothesis that the frequencies of phrases in a language can reinforce the already existing mental concepts in preference to certain others. So we have a possible weak form...of the weak form of Whorfianism.

    Development



    Another argument is that since human babies epigenetically and ontogenetically develop language skills and linguistic knowledge at the same time and in concert with other mental faculties, then language and thought shaped each other.

    This baby-context weak Whorfianism seems like it must be true to some degree, but then again perhaps most of the language functionality is built off of other capabilities. Don't children have vision capabilities before speaking capabilities? Regardless, even if there is a lot of cross-dependencies during development, what does that say about adults?

    If development is the only opportunity for language to influence thought, then we still have no support for adults who claim to have cognitive changes due to learning new languages (dependent on the new language itself).

    Metaphors


    I'm not quite sure about this, but I am starting to suspect that people might be confusing linguistic metaphors with conceptual metaphors in the context of linguistic relativity.

    For example, Boroditsky wrote in a 2001 paper [3]:
    But how does language affect thought? Let us again consider the domain of time. How do spatiotemporal metaphors affect thinking about time? Spatial metaphors can provide relational structure to those aspects of time where the structure may not be obvious from world experience (Boroditsky, 2000). In the case of space and time, using spatial metaphors to describe time encourages structural alignment between the two domains and may cause relational structure to be imported from space to time
    And it's not just the people in support of language shapes thought--the opposition also might be misconstruing metaphors. In his essay "The pernicious persistence of the 'language shapes thought' theory", John McWhorter says that Whorfianism is "insulting" to half of the world [4]:
    If language creates thought, the Chinese aren’t exactly quick on the uptake--nor are speakers of countless languages in Southeast Asia and Africa. In Japanese, to say I like Bob you just say, roughly, “Bob likeability,” with no I or anything else.
    But, on metaphors, he doesn't make a distinction between linguistic and conceptual when mentioning George Lakoff. But perhaps that is really a Lakoff problem, what with all his words and phrases that politicians use to activate different metaphors in voters' brains. But isn't that activation just that--not a change in thought by the language itself, but a conceptual metaphor issue? The same conceptual metaphor could be activated with any language.

    Multilingual



    When people say things like this [5]:
    Perhaps the earliest clue that words themselves can at least subtly alter experience comes from learning a second language and appreciating that the same object can be represented by a completely different string of syllables that actually brings out a different quality of it. The word 'rain' for example is 'brishti' in my mother tongue Bengali – and to my ear all the drama of a tropical storm is present within the word 'brishti' and not so much of it in the somewhat curt 'rain'.
    I think that they are conflating anything learned during the process of learning a new language with the new language itself affected my thought. The quote I chose is particularly ridiculous as the author claims that a more onomatopoetic word changes how one thinks. On the other hand, perhaps aesthetics is some backdoor route to influencing, at least temporarily, one's thoughts. But as I mentioned before, isn't language just instrumental--not principle--in such things?

    References
    [1] P. Schlenker, Introduction to Language - Lecture Notes 2B: Language and Thought. UCLA, Winter 2006.
    [2] D. Casasanto, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic Differences in Temporal Language and Thought. Language Learning. 58:Suppl. 1, December 2008, pp. 63–79
    [3] L. Boroditsky, Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time. Cognitive Psychology 43, 1–22 (2001).
    [4] J. McWhorter, The pernicious persistence of the "language shapes thought" theory. New Republic, Feb 4, 2013.
    [5] S. Gupta, The Relationship Between Language and Thought. Lecture delivered in Melbourne in 2005.

    Image credits
    1. SIT
    2. A-GC
    3. Nagao et al. (2008) J. Cell Biol. 183:1243-1257.
    4. Jini, Ramblings of a disturbed mind

    Comments

    vongehr
    So you shaped your language so that "language does not shape thought" is supported. Fine, and so is the opposite. However, given that the whole body of known philosophy (surely, philosophy has to do with thought) is mainly concerned with pseudo-questions based on language gone wrong, and given that advanced thought is always (seldom sufficiently though) concerned with finding consistent terminology (hey - look at your own post here), I think your claim is silly (Perhaps you just like to provoke? Well done.). Also, those spending much effort in crafting news reports about our wars laugh and thank you for your supporting the deception about that language does not shape thought!
    Language and thought co-evolve, and giving primacy to one of two closely co-evolving phenomena is misleading, even when defining "thought" to be more general (i.e. as associative play).

    BTW:
    McWhorter says that Whorfianism is "insulting" to half of the world [4]:
    If language creates thought, the Chinese aren’t exactly quick on the uptake
    He is insulting, because often the Chinese way to think is precisely not leading to the pseudo questions that thinkers of other languages get into due to the superfluous gramatical structures pretending there to be what cannot be reasonably defined.
    Bravissimo!, Sascha.

    SynapticNulship
    Language and thought co-evolve, and giving primacy to one of two closely co-evolving phenomena is misleading
    If you mean co-evolve in terms of genetic evolution, then that is irrelevant. Language shaping thought is about runtime--during an individual's life. But perhaps you meant co-evolving in the execution of mental software, which as I mentioned may be true at least during babyhood/childhood. I think it's more likely that language is a small part, and the faculty of language a larger part, of a somewhat externalist-friendly social interactive system that develops the minds of babies.
    vongehr
    By co-evolving I include even the cultural side of language and thought; one example would be how we, via language, split into physical and mental and how that makes our thought dualistic in the Cartesian sense - one of the hurdles in fundamental physics (quantum worlds is same as many minds) and understanding of consciousness etc.
    Language shaping thought is about runtime--during an individual's life.
    If this includes the 'individual' life of a social structure in general, I agree (so I don't really agree).

    I also agree with the stressing of the social/intersubjective as having internal (my mental software evolving in myself, especially as baby) aspects. Language/meaning is always social, even if inside the society of my mind (Society of mind, neural Darwinism, perhaps this is also what the late Wittgenstein wanted to include).

    Actually, I could even possibly support
    Cognition causes language, not the other way around
    , but that is not the same as the title of your article ("Language Does Not Shape Thought").

    No idea why they call you angry! They call me angry all the time - it happens if you clearly outline your position. ;-)
    Stellare
    Again, I wholeheartedly disagree with you! :-) And I only have to use myself as an example, speaking 8 languages.

    Sascha puts it quite well here: Language and thought co-evolve, and giving primacy to one of two closely co-evolving phenomena is misleading

    And why are you so angry? No need to be angry when reflecting - even if you are wrong. ;-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    SynapticNulship
    And why are you so angry? No need to be angry when reflecting - even if you are wrong. ;-)
    I'm not angry at all. I don't have an investment in either side except of course that this blog post could be wrong, but I'd be happy to write another post with a different conclusion. All you have to do is explain how a language itself changed your cognition during your life as opposed to the modification and generation of mental symbols and relationships during the process of language learning.
    May be he is angry because the other guy called his post silly and accused him of trolling ("Perhaps you just like to provoke?")

    Perhaps, you posed the right question to the wrong guy?

    BTW, co-evolved? That's neither here nor there. Which one evolved first is what we are trying to solve here. "Co-evolved" answers nothing.

    vongehr
    - There is a difference (perhaps only in degree) between trolling and a provocing via a deliberate choice of a one sided title/conclusion to get a certain meaning across more clearly.
    - Our language and our social structures co-evolved. It would be of little explanatory value to somehow squeeze out a description where one is to be seen before the other. "Co-evolved" actually answers pretty much everything.   the other guy
    Well, whether there is value or not (value being subjective), in causality, we still have to establish a relation between events and in this case the two events of interest concern language and thought and the question revolves around which event preceded which in the timeline of human evolution. "Co-evolved" is a cop-out.

    vongehr
    You do not understand the article. It is not about the time line of biological evolution.
    logicman
    I detect no hint of anger in the original post.  Are commenters crossing their streams, or is my skin too thick to feel the barbs of scorn ?  ( Did Shakespeare invent that last phrase? He beat me to the pun so many times. )

    I am surprised that the so-called Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is still discussed, except in the third way.  But that's science for you:  many a theory is:
    "but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more"

    Only in the case of 'false friends' can we show conclusively that language affects thought, but even there the thing is self-evidently a product of a culture.  A word of itself has no meaning: it is the means by which meaning is intended to be conveyed.  The fact that the word "didiman" conveys the idea of "agricultural officer" to a speaker of pidgin and "diddy man" to a Ken Dodd fan proves only that the world consists of rather more than the culture of the English-speaking philosophers who originated so many inane theories of language.
    Gerhard Adam
    Another argument is that since human babies epigenetically and ontogenetically develop language skills and linguistic knowledge at the same time and in concert with other mental faculties, then language and thought shaped each other.
    I know I've mentioned it before, but I can't help but be struck by Helen Keller's experience, since she represents one of the few articulate humans that have been in this territory you're trying to describe.
    Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.


    While Helen was still at Radcliffe she wrote her first book, The Story of My Life. In The World I Live In she said: "When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me".
    http://www.percepp.com/hkeller.htm
    I'm sure you've also experienced the problem of trying to organize your thoughts and how difficult it is to make them coherent without the ability to express them comprehensively in language [i.e either linguistic or mathematical or whatever].

    In addition, this is precisely why one often has to express ideas verbally to determine whether they are coherent.  How many times have you tried to express a thought and only realized that after putting it into words that it is gibberish?  or discovered obvious problems with a line of reasoning?
    Mundus vult decipi
    SynapticNulship
    I'm sure you've also experienced the problem of trying to organize your thoughts and how difficult it is to make them coherent without the ability to express them comprehensively in language [i.e either linguistic or mathematical or whatever].
    Indeed. But I don't attribute the maturation of ideas via external media to be primarily caused or dependent on language. The first clue is that one can elucidate a fuzzy idea by drawing pictures / diagrams instead of uttered/written language. I think the main issue to realize here is how limited our brains are. Why is it so hard to keep things straight in our heads, especially when coming up with new and/or complex concepts? The main reason may simply be memory. We can be consciously working on only a few ideas at a time, and even with careful memory chunking and linking things can get hairy quickly. But we add a feedback loop to external media (paper, typing) and things can become clearer much faster as our working memory is extended. Then there is also the dynamic and fleeting nature of our minds may make organization difficult, wheras at least on paper or screen we can write or draw something and leave it static. We can refer to that static series of signs reliably without it changing on us every time we look at it. And really organization and memory aid us in other external formats, not just those using pictures or language--the layout of items on a desk, the layout of windows on a computer, the methods of organization of files (be they paper or digital).
    The example of Chinese not using personal pronouns seems to reveal the exact opposite of what the writer was using that image to support. The form of the Chinese actually influences how the person thinks about the relationship between himself and the object liked. English stresses there is an "I" that is doing the liking. Chinese (from this example, I speak no Chinese) would appear to be more neutral about the relationship. In Italian, Spanish and Catalan, which I do speak, "I like" is expressed as "It pleases me" - stressing that the object affects the person, not that the "liking" is coming from an individual "I". Curiously, both English and Catalan stress that hate is born within - it is "I hate!" in both cases.

    In short, I think that each language and culture clearly shapes the way people in that area think and act. Though I do believe that mastering more languages actually opens you out to other worlds.

    BTW The quote from Helen Keller above would seem to put the seal on how far we can think without language.

    Strong evidence for language shaping thoughts is apparent when considering distinct characteristics of neighboring countries.
    .
    Consider France and Germany.
    Genetically, the peoples of France and Germany on average are not distinct. The countries are very different though. Most people know exactly which country I am describing If I say the country known for: art, cuisine, love, and free thinking.
    Most people also have no problem determining which country when I say it is know for: engineering, group effort, and seriousness to a degree that some mistake it for a lack of a sense of humor.
    .
    These characteristics are traits of culture, Culture if shaped by language. Language definitely shapes thought.

    SynapticNulship
    Strong evidence for lederhosen shaping thoughts is apparent when considering distinct characteristics of neighboring countries. Consider France and Germany...
    logicman
    Strong evidence for lederhosen shaping thoughts is apparent when considering distinct characteristics of neighboring countries. Consider France and Germany...
    ... and Austria, and Switzerland: does yodeling shape thoughts about cows ?  ;-)


    Gerhard Adam
    Reminds me of an old joke I once heard:

    In heaven the English are the police, the French are the cooks, and the Germans are the engineers.

    In hell, the English are the cooks, the French are the engineers, and the Germans are the police.
    Mundus vult decipi
    logicman
    LOL

    ( Does txtspk shp tht ? )
    John Hasenkam
    Isn't the very title of this post based on the assumption that "thought" is a singular thing? Sure some thinking is shaped by language, and vice versa, but to make one universal rule presumes all thinking has some definite like quality across all types of thinking. "Thinking" - just another bad concept.