Language, Thought, and Space (IV): Comparing Different Cultures

In my last post on the relationship between language, thought and (thinking and talking about) space I wrote that one of the most interesting, but also one of the most difficult questions is to what extent linguistic differences in talking about space reflect conceptual and perceptual differences.
Researchers at the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics (Nijmegen, Netherlands) and at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) have done very interesting experiments that shed light on this question
As I mentioned in a previous posts (see here) work done by Stephen Levinson and others on how different cultures talk about and conceptualize space has shown that not all of them employ a bodily, egocentric frame of reference or coordinate system as their dominant organizing principle for their experiences and thoughts. Speakers of “several indigenous languages of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Nepal, and south West Africa,” in contrast, organize the axes of their dominant coordinate system by absolute principles such as fixed landmarks (e.g. uphill vs. downhill) or cardinal directions (e.g. move the chair to the north). In addition, there are also langouages that primarily use “intrinsic,” object-centred Frames of Reference, such as in “The dog is at the front of the library.”
Differences between Relative and Absolute Speakers in Non-linguistic Spatial Tasks
In a set of clever experiments Levinson and his colleagues have also shown that speakers of relative and absolute languages differ in how they solve non-linguistic spatial tasks.
For example, in the “motion-maze task” (Pederson & Schmitt 1993) participants see a toy move on a table. They are then rotated 180° and asked to recognize, on a table with a maze-like diagram, the “the path traversed from within a maze-like diagram containing both absolute and relative possibilities“ (Levinson et al. 2002).

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).
Results like this were achieved on a wide array of space-based tasks, so the overall findings that relative speakers prefer relative FoR in spatial tasks and that absolute speakers prefer absolute FoRs seems to be quite robust (Haun et al. 2006).
Differences in Spatial Cognition in Childhood?
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.
They also tested adults of both cultures “to see whether differences were not only initial variations of an emerging cognitive skill but were actually stable across the life span.”
What they did was the following: The subject was placed in front of a table on which there were five identical cups in a “five dice”-constellation:  (sorry for the somewhat ugly, ad hod illustrations)
(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

1 thought on “Language, Thought, and Space (IV): Comparing Different Cultures”

  1. The body has no way of having an innate frame of reference without the interference of thought. Thought is the space and the separation between these otherwise discrete events. Thought is shaped by culture and experience. Without thought, there is no interpretation or continuity of these independent events.

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