Language, Thought, and Space (V): Comparing Different Species As I’ve talked about in my last posts (see I, II, III, and IV) different cultures employ different coordinate systems or Frames of References (FoR) when talking about space.  FoRs

“serve to specify the directional relationships between objects in space, in reference to a shared referential anchor” (Haun et al. 2006: 17568)

As shown in my last post these linguistic differences seem to reflect certain cognitive differences:

Whether speakers mainly use a relative, ego-based FoR, a cardinal-direction/or landmark-based absolute FoR, or an object-based, intrinsic based FoR, also influences how they solve and conceptualise spatial tasks.

In my last post I also posed the question whether there is a cognitive “default setting” that we and the other great apes inherited from our last common ancestor that is only later overridden by cultural factors. The  crucial question then is which Frame of Reference might be the default one.

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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.

Language, Thought and Space (III): Frames of Reference in Language and Cognition

In the second chapter of his 2003 book Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity, Stephen Levinson discusses a concept that has been crucial to discussions of space and ‘perspectivation’ in language: frames of reference. (see e.g. these posts on my blog Shared Symbolic Storage) The term as it is used today was coined by Gestalt theorists of perception in the 1920s and was used to signify the steady and constant background against which other objects could be made out and identified. It can be defined as
“‘a unit or organization of units that collectively serve to identify a coordinate system with respect to which certain properties of objects, including the phenomenal self, are gauged’ (Rock 1992: 404, emphasis in Levinson 2003: 24).

Language, Thought, and Space (II): Universals and Variation

Spatial orientation is crucial when we try to navigate the world around us. It is a fundamental domain of human experience and depends on a wide array of cognitive capacities and integrated neural subsystems. What is most important for spatial cognition however, are the frames of references we use to locate and classify ourselves, others, objects, and events.

Often, we define a landmark (say ourselves, or a tree, or the telly) and then define an object’s location in relation to this landmark (the mouse is to my right, the bike lies left of the tree, my keys have fallen behind the telly). But as it turns out, many languages are not able to express a coordinate system with the meaning of the English expression “left of.” Instead, they employ a compass-like system of orientation.

They do not use a relative frame of reference, like in the English “the cat is behind the truck” but instead use an absolute frame of reference that can be illustrated in English by sentences such as “the cat is north of the truck.” (Levinson 2003: 3). This may seem exotic for us, but for many languages it is the dominant – although often not the only – way of locating things in space.

What cognitive consequences follow from this?

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