Interestingly, speakers of relative languages such as Dutch or Japanese recognize the path based on the relative frame of reference they employ in their language whereas speakers of absolute languages such as the Australian Aboriginal language Arrernte or Tzeltal recognize the path based on their absolute frame of reference (Levinson et al. 2002, Levinson 2003).
In a recent set of experiments Haun et al. (2006) tested how soon a cognitive bias in spatial cognition manifests itself. They tested 7-11 age year old children from a Dutch village, who mainly use an egocentric FoR) and from a Khoisan hunter–gatherer community in Namibia called =/= Akhoe Hai||om (to be honest, I don’t have any idea how to pronounce this), who almost always use absolute spatial descriptions.
(X = Cups | = Screen E= Experimenter O=Hidden Object)
They were then shown the location of an object that was hidden under one of the cups.
In the next step, the Subject was turned 180° and brought to an identical table behind the screen:
Then, and this is the crucial bit, they were asked to indicate the spot where they thought the object was hidden this time. In the experiment, there were three conditions. First, an egocentric one: if the object was hidden to the left of the subject, it was also hidden to the subject’s left after she was rotated to her new position.
Secondly, there was an object-centred condition in which the
“hiding and finding cups maintained position in relation to a salient landmark between the two tables, namely the screen or the experimenter” (Haun et al. 2006 : 17659).
And finally, there was a geocentric condition where, if the hiding cup was to the north-west, it would also be the to the north-west in the rotated position.
After repeated trials on all the conditions the following picture emerged: Hai||om children and adults were faster to learn and made the fewest errors in the absolute condition and Dutch children and adults were best in the egocentric condition.
“This correlation is fully robust by age 8 and persists into adulthood. In sum, Dutch and Hai||om subjects varied in their preferred cognitive strategy to solve a spatial relational learning task, and their preference matched the preferred mode of description in their respective language” (Haun et al. 2006 : 17570).
Although it is quite difficult to interpret these results in terms of the relationship between language and thought (see e.g. Pederson 2007, Palmer 2007: 1059ff.), especially because the instructions were still verbal, the results are certainly thrilling and give rise to further questions:
- is there a primary and basic, "innate" frame of reference ?
- is there a cognitive default setting that we and the other great apes inherited from our last common ancestor which is only later overridden by cultural factors?
I’ll return to these questions in my next post.
Haun, Daniel B. M., Christian J. Rapold, Josep Call, Gabriele Janzen, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2006. “Cognitive Cladistics and Cultural Override in Hominid Spatial Cognition.” In: PNAS 103: 17568–17573.
Levinson, Stephen C. 2003. Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Levinson, Stephen C., Sotaro Kita, Daniel B.M. Haun, Björn H. Rasch. 2002. “Returning the Tables: Language Affects Spatial Reasoning.” In: Cognition 84: 155–188.
Palmer, Gary B. 2007. “Cognitive Linguistics and Anthropological Linguistics.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1045-1073.
Pederson, Eric. 2007. “Cognitive Linguistics and Linguistic Relativity.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1012-1044.
Pederson, Eric & B. Schmitt 1993. Eric’s maze task. In Cognition and Space Kit Version 1.0 (pp. 73–76).Nijmegen: Cognitive Anthropology Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.
Haun, D., Rapold, C., Call, J., Janzen, G., & Levinson, S. (2006). Cognitive cladistics and cultural override in Hominid spatial cognition Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103 (46), 17568-17573 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0607999103