Tag Archives: Stephen Levinson

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The power of diversity: New Scientist recognises the growing work on social structure and linguistic structure

A feature article in last week’s New Scientist asks why there is so much linguistic diversity present in the world, and what are the forces that drive it.  The article reads like a who’s who of the growing field of language structure and social structure:  Mark Pagel, Gary Lupyan, Quentin Atkinson, Robert Munroe, Carol and Melvin Ember, Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd, Stephen Levinson (click on the names to see some Replicated Typo articles about their work).  This is practically as close as my subject will come to having a pull-out section in Vanity Fair.  Furthermore, it recognises the weakening grip of Chomskyan linguistics.

Commentators have already gotten hung-up on whether English became simplified before or after spreading, but this misses the impact of the article:  There is an alternative approach to linguistics which looks at the differences between languages and recognises social factors as the primary source of linguistic change.  Furthermore, these ideas are testable using statistics and genetic methods.  It’s a pity the article didn’t mention the possibility of experimental approaches, including Gareth Roberts’ work on emerging linguistic diversity and work on cultural transmission using the Pictionary paradigm (Simon Garrod, Nick Fay, Bruno Gallantucci, see here and here).

David Robson (2011). Power of Babel: Why one language isn’t enough New Scientist, 2842 Online

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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