A softer ‘neo-Whorfianism’

At Neuroanthropology, we’ve had a number of posts about language and the brain (such as here, here, and here); it’s a issue of lasting importance in anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science, and psychology. There’s a really nice piece in The New York Times about it though, and for once, I just want to do a summary and reflection rather than a critique of one of their pieces. The article is When Language Can Hold the Answer by Christine Kenneally.

Daniel recently mentioned this piece in his post, A Times Trifecta, but I wanted to add a comment on it. Daniel relays the quote that the article uses to sum up the debate around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: ‘Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with the late Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways that language carves up the world?’ He’s just providing a thumbnail sketch, so he doesn’t include the next paragraph, which I think helps to elevate this article above the usual either-or, black-or-white dross that happens in public press about the role of language in thinking:

The latest research changes the framework, perhaps the language of the debate, suggesting that language clearly affects some thinking as a special device added to an ancient mental skill set. Just as adding features to a cellphone or camera can backfire, language is not always helpful. For the most part, it enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too.

Color is often used as the testing ground of this thinking, following on the fascinating work of Berlin and Kay in their classic work, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) (for a more recent discussion of color term emergence through language evolution, see Kay and Maffi 1999 — download .pdf). But color is not necessarily a good stand in for every sort of continuous experiential category; for example, color processing in the brain makes use of two sets of color receptor cones in the eye, which work to signal color contrasts between neurological opposed colors. This helps to create a warm-cool color contrast that can exert a kind of ‘attractor’ effect on color terms divisions. And the debate continues as to whether or not language is involved in perceiving color differences, as in a recent experiment by Boroditsky and colleagues with Russian and English speakers distinguishing types of blues (Winawer et al. 2007).

My basic point is that we can’t make blanket statements about the influence of language on thought because, as Kenneally suggests, language buttresses different cognitive systems in a variety of ways. The fact that there are speed differences in distinguishing colors whether or not subjects have a special term for the distinction, or if their language abilities are being disrupted by competing tasks, demonstrates that, in fact, the subject can perform perceptual tasks with or without language, it just may take longer. It’s a kind of ‘softer’ neo-Whorfianism that says we likely have more than one way to accomplish certain tasks; language provides an efficient short-cut, and likely makes some tasks significantly easier. There are tasks that seem impossible without language; certain mathematical tasks, for example, seem absolutely dependent upon having words in one’s language for numbers. I also suspect that some kinds of post-modern analysis are impossible without the necessary language, for example, but there are probably different ways to do basic spatial tasks, recall, or categorization.

So whether or not people are capable of doing tasks with and without language depends very much on the research design and on the task chosen (and, for that matter, what counts as success). What I like about Kenneally’s article though is that she gets this complexity and features it. Normally, I don’t have much nice to say about science writers, but in this piece, Kenneally really allows the complexity and subtlety be the story.

Berlin, Brent, and Paul Kay. 1969. Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press. (listing on Amazon)

Kay, Paul, and Luisa Maffi. 1999. Color Appearance and the Emergence and Evolution of Basic Color Lexicons. American Anthropologist 101: 743-760. (.pdf of the text)

Winawer, Jonathan, Nathan Witthoft, Michael C. Frank, Lisa Wu, Alex R. Wade, and Lera Boroditsky. 2007. Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(19): 7780-7785. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0701644104 (abstract)

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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