Does the language we speak influence or even shape the way we think? Last December, there was an interesting debate over at The Economist website with Lera Boroditsky defending the motion, and Language Log’s Mark Liberman against the motion (who IMO, both did a very good job).
The result of the online poll was quite clear: 78% agreed with the motion, while 22% disagreed.
There are, however, three main problems with this way of framing the question: First, it’s not really clear what ‘language’ really is, second, the same goes for “thought”, and third, there are many many ways of how “influencing” and “shaping” something can be conceptualized.
In this post I want to focus on the third problem and present a very useful classification system for hypotheses about linguistic relativity outlined in an article by Phillip Wolff and Kevin J. Holmes, which was published in the current issue Wiley Interdisciplinary Review: Cognitive Science.
But Science Doesn’t Work That Way: Miller & Chomsky (1963). Many of you who read this blog will be familiar with the position taken by Melody’s post over at Child’s Play: against a strong nativist position in language acquisition. It’s the first part in a series of posts so I’ll reserve judgement on her conclusions until she’s finished. But much of her post is drawn from a brilliant paper by Scholz and Pullum (2005): Irrational Nativist Exuberance. Key paragraph:
Do we really want to say that phonemes are ‘innate’?
I haven’t yet addressed how we know — with all but certainty — that the model Miller and Chomsky used had to be a poor approximation of human learning capabilities. It has to do with phonemes.
Experiments have shown that people are remarkably sensitive to the transitional probabilities between phonemes in their native languages, both when speaking and when listening to speech. If Miller and Chomsky’s assessment of probabilistic learning is correct, then the problem of “parameter estimation” should apply not only to learning the probabilities between words, but also to learning the probabilities between phonemes. Given that people do learn to predict phonemes, Miller and Chomsky’s logic would force us to conclude that not only must ‘grammar’ be innate, but the particular distribution of phonemes in English (and every other language) must be innate as well.
We only get to this absurdist conclusion because Miller & Chomsky’s argument mistakes philosophical logic for science (which is, of course, exactly what intelligent design does). So what’s the difference between philosophical logic and science? Here’s the answer, in Einstein’s words, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”
PLoS Blogs. Yet another blogging network. This time it’s with the Public Library of Science. The most notable move, for me at least, is Neuroanthropology. That move hasn’t seemed to impact upon their ability to produce good articles, the latest of which being in regards to Uner Tan Syndrome (I’m sure there was a documentary about this on BBC…).
With improvements in sequencing technology, low-frequency variation is becoming increasingly accessible. This greater resolution will no doubt expand our ability to identify genes and variants associated with disease and other human traits. This study integrates CNPs and lower-frequency SNPs with common SNPs in a more diverse set of human populations than was previously available. The results underscore the need to characterize population-genetic parameters in each population, and for each stratum of allele frequency, as it is not possible to extrapolate from past experience with common alleles. As expected, lower-frequency variation is less shared across populations, even closely related ones, highlighting the importance of sampling widely to achieve a comprehensive understanding of human variation.
Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers. Someone gave this in to the charity store I work at: it’s a brilliant book by Jan Gullberg on (surprise, surprise) the history of mathematics. The first chapter was on mathematics and language, so I had to pick it up, and not just for that chapter alone, as there are plenty of gaps in my mathematical knowledge I’m sure this will clear up.