LANGUAGE AND COGNITION: THE SPEAKER OF ONE LANGUAGE
L1 intro to Cook & Bassetti (2011) Language and Bilingual Cognition
central question for philosophers, psychologists and linguists for many years
has been how what we think relates to what we say. This introduction sketches
some possible relationships
between cognition and language as a prologue to the rest of the book. It is intended as
an impressionistic snapshot from an applied linguist to involve readers with
some of the issues and potentialities of this exciting area of research.
Bilingualism is the subject of a separate background in Chapter 7. One
logical possibility is that the way people think influences the language they
use. Another that language influences how people think. Or it may be impossible
to separate the two: Thinking and language are essentially the same thing. Or
indeed language and thinking may be linked simply through convenience; neither
language nor thinking crucially affects the other.
these synchronic relationships between cognition and language at a particular
moment of time go diachronic and developmental issues about how the relationship
works over longer periods of time: How did these connections come into being in
societies and how do they emerge in the minds of individual children? Issues
also arise concerning people who know two systems: Does an English second
language (L2) user of Japanese in Tokyo think in a Japanese way, maintain their
English way of thinking, or think in a new way born out of the two?
OF COGNITION AND LANGUAGE
between cognition and language can be expressed in many ways. Gumperz &
Levinson (1996, p. 25) spell out one approach as:
differences occur in linguistic categories across languages
linguistic categories determine aspects of individuals’ cognition
aspects of individuals’ cognition differ across linguistic communities
according to the language they speak.
(1997) puts it as a logical choice between:
structure-centered approaches that see what linguistic differences imply for
domain-centered approaches that see how ‘experienced reality’ may be
represented differently across languages
behaviour-centered approaches that see how different behaviours are linked to
will discuss the relationship
as a set of
four inter-related questions; the extension to people who know more than one language
is made in Chapter 7.
1. Do People Think Differently?
question is whether there are differences between the cognition of groups or
individuals ‑- do English people think differently from Japanese people in
general? Does a particular English person think differently from a particular
Japanese person? The question is deliberately couched in general terms that
could apply to any group of people. Research
into the relationship
between language and cognition has usually restricted itself to groups that
differ in culture, nationality or age rather than gender, disability,
handedness, literacy or other areas where differences might also occur.
us take five disparate examples of apparent
differences in cognition between groups out of the many that could be
visual perception. The Müller-Lyer illusion, familiar from
introductions to psychology, asks which of two lines seems longer.
they are actually the same length; people from ‘non-Western’ cultures, such
as Zulus and Bushmen in Southern Africa and Hanunóo in the Philippines,
see them as the same length (Segall, Campbell, & Herskovitz, 1966). Even an
apparently straightforward matter of optical illusion varies between groups of
taste and smell. Malaysians are able
to make finer distinctions than English speakers between solutions differing in
saltiness (O’Mahoney & Muhiudeen, 1977); Germans and Japanese differ over
perceived pleasantness and intensity of
et al., 1998).
People’s perception of taste and smell differs across groups, even if such
sensations are hard to verbalize in any language.
spatial orientation. Guugu-Yimidhirr
people in north-east Australia do not orient themselves by their own bodies
(front/back, left/right) but by points of the compass (north/south, east/west)
(Levinson, 1996). Spatial reference is relative to the body of the speaker for
some groups, absolute for others. Or indeed based on other types of reference,
for speakers of Pirahã by orientation to the nearest river (Everett,
2008) and for the inhabitants of Santiago de Chile by closeness to the Andes --
‘up town’ is towards the Andes, ‘down town’ is away.
objects and substances. When classifying simple objects, Japanese
are influenced by the idea of their material rather than their shape; Americans
are the reverse (Imai & Gentner, 1997). Asked to choose whether a plastic
pyramid or a piece of cork is most like a cork pyramid, Japanese prefer the
piece of cork, English speakers the plastic pyramid. Similar preferences for
material versus shape have been found in Yucatec versus English (Lucy, 1992) and
for shape and
in Navaho versus English (Carroll & Casagrande, 1958).
Speakers of Berinmo in Papua New Guinea and speakers of English perceive
different boundaries between the two pairs of
and blue/green respectively (Davidoff,
& Roberson, 1999);
Davies (1998) found that speakers of Setswana were more likely to group
‘green’ and ‘blue’ together than speakers of English and Russian.
examples here so far have followed the logic expressed by Lucy (1997, p. 295):
“Without the relation to thought more generally (i.e. beyond that necessary
for the act of speaking itself), it [linguistic relativity] is merely linguistic
diversity”. The goal is, then, to see how language impinges on non-language
areas of cognition: “Does thinking for speaking a particular language have an
effect on how people think when not thinking for speaking that language? ” (Boroditsky,
Schmidt, & Phillips, 2003, p. 62). As Cardini (2009) points out, this
requires research techniques which involve language as little as possible; it
also has the problem of trying to establish language-neutral
aspects of cognition unaffected by the language and culture of the researcher
(Lucy, this volume; Wierzbicka, this volume).
language and cognition researchers, however, now work with
Slobin’s (1996) concept of ‘language for thinking’ -- “a special form of
thought that is mobilized for communication” (p. 76); they concentrate on
whether people differ when they communicate ideas rather than in the ideas
themselves. The question is whether people differ when they turn particular
concepts they want to say into words rather than whether they think differently
when actual communication is not involved. This may be compatible with a view in
which human thinking is universal; particular languages
draw out or enable particular ways of expressing our common mental concepts. Of
course, like observations of electrons, the difference between language for
thinking and non-language cognition is filtered through the mind of the
observer, which inevitably relies on the medium of language to function.
it is always possible to attack the design and methodology of individual
research paradigms, for example Li and Gleitman (2002)’s criticism of
Levinson’s approach, nevertheless the sheer bulk and range of the studies
constitute a body of evidence
that some aspects of cognition do vary between groups of human beings,
unavailable at the time when the relationship between language and cognition
became a focus of discussion in the early twentieth century: At least some
aspects of human cognition are not universal.
2. Do Differences in Cognition Go with Different Features of Language?
preliminary issue is whether language and cognition are indeed distinct at some
level. Writers like Jackendoff (1992) would claim they were one and the same and
deny that they can be meaningfully
To those who deny any difference, this question is pointless: If people indeed
think differently, this is necessarily reflected in their language; “language
does not affect cognition; it is one form that cognition can take” (Tomasello,
2003, p. 56).
At the opposite extreme, Chomskyan theory has always maintained the modularity
of language as a distinct faculty of
the mind. In the current
(e.g. Chomsky, 1995), an interface keeps the computational system of language
distinct from the conceptual-intentional system (Chomsky, 1995).
2 correlates differences in cognition with differences in language. Language is,
however, not the only factor that could be correlated with cognition. The
differences in susceptibility to the Müller-Lyer
illusion were ascribed by Segall et al.(1966) to the square lines of
‘carpentered’ buildings versus the flowing contours of ‘uncarpentered’
ones, that is to say, features of the environment; however, recent work in shape
representation finds common perception of shapes among US students and members
of an isolated tribe, the Hima (Biederman, Yue, & Davidoff, 2009). The taste
and smell differences of O’Mahoney and Muhiudeen (1977) and Ayabe-Kanamura
et al.(1998) may
be due to cooking styles, i.e. an aspect of culture, or indeed of early
habituation (Rozin & Schiller, 1980) -- hot curries in childhood apparently
raise your tolerance for chilli for life. Environment or non-language cultural
factors can then also be correlated with cognition differences.
what is the evidence for direct links between cognition and language itself? Let
us look at a handful of research-based studies:
grammatical gender and perception of objects. Grammatical gender is a formal
property of many languages
in which different elements in the sentence such as adjectives and verbs
‘agree’ with nouns by having a consistent set of properties (Corbett, 1991),
i.e. it should not be confused with the everyday meaning
of gender as ‘sex’. Languages have
an arbitrary number of genders in this sense, Polish for example having five. In
with ‘natural’ gender such as English, feminine pronouns like she
go with nouns referring to females like woman;
masculine he with nouns referring to
males man, and neuter it with nouns referring to inanimates rock. In languages with ‘arbitrary’ gender such as French, nouns
are assigned to genders regardless of whether they are
male, female or neuter, though there are often semantic or phonological patterns
to such assignment, French feminine nouns, for instance, having more syllables
(Matthews, 2009); often gender agreement in arbitrary gender languages
goes beyond pronouns to include adjectives, verb inflections, articles, and
Italian a toothbrush is masculine spazzolino, while a key is feminine chiave;
a ball is masculine Ball,
do people who speak languages
natural gender systems ascribe gender to objects differently from people who
speak arbitrary gender languages?
Sera, Forbes, Burch, & Rodriquez (2002) found that children
over the age of eight who spoke French and Spanish, both arbitrary gender languages,
associated female voices with objects referred to by nouns with feminine gender
in their language,
differing from children
who spoke English and from those
who spoke German,
gender language. Thus the semantic difference between arbitrary and natural
gender seems to go with how gender is assigned to objects in the world.
direction of writing
representation of time.
The direction in which a script is read or written is crucial to reading and
writing, varying inter alia between right-to-left, as in Arabic, Hebrew and
Urdu, and left-to-right, as in English, Cyrillic, and Devanagari. Children
who speak Hebrew or Arabic represent temporal concepts visually from
right-to-left, for instance ranging pictures of daily meals in a right-to-left
sequence, whereas English-speaking children
order them from left-to-right (Tversky, Kugelmass,
& Winter, 1991).
Writing directionality differs from most spoken language in that it is
explicitly taught to children, though it does also occur in the environment, for
example the left-to-right sequence of English before-and-after advertisements
for weight-loss, home improvement, and the like. An aspect of the language
system is linked with the way that children organize temporal concepts,
discussed further in Tversky (this volume). The same applies to perception of
geometrical shapes: Japanese children trained in a predominantly visual writing
system remember shapes better than English children with a mostly phonologically
based script (Mann, 1986). Other aspects of literacy have also been linked to
cognition: Goody (2000) sees literacy itself as introducing a profound change in
human memory systems; Luria (1976)
showed that literate people reason in
a more abstract way.
verb expression and motion. Languages
vary in how they describe change of location; Spanish speakers typically use
verbs that specify the path of a motion event and describe the manner of motion
separately, as in
entra caminando ‘he enters
verb entra shows the path ‘from
outside to inside’ and caminando
shows the manner ‘walking’, rather than say running or
cycling. English speakers specify the manner with path using a particle he
walked in -- verb-framed versus satellite languages (Talmy, 1985). Native
English speakers and Spanish speakers living in the US indeed judge the
similarity of pictures of motion events depending upon
the “salience of the path dimension in the linguistic descriptions” (Gennari,
Sloman, Malt, & Fitch, 2002).
Von Stutterheim, Bastin,
Carroll, Flecken, and Schmiedtová (to
appear) show that people's eyes explore images of motion differently according
to the motion-structure used in their language.
Czechowska and Ewert (this volume) extend such differences to pairs of languages
even within the same overall group.
So a preferred way of describing motion may be linked to an aspect of cognition.
countable/uncountable (count/mass) nouns
and classification. In English, nouns such as flour are called uncountable, i.e. have a zero article flour
rather than an indefinite article a flour
and seldom occur in the plural flours;
countable nouns like bottle on the
other hand can have an indefinite article a
bottle and occur in the plural bottles.
Uncountables can, if necessary, be counted through a phrase a bag of flour. Japanese nouns are uncountable in that there are no
articles in Japanese; they are ‘counted’ through a range of classifiers that
vary according to the type of object referred to, issatsu no hon, literally ‘one-classifier book’, and
ippai no mizu ‘one-classifier for container water’.
The material/shape distinction in cognition mentioned above is related to this
count/mass difference by Imai & Gentner (1997): the reason why American children
categorise objects more by shape, Japanese children
more by material, may be their respective languages. The way in which people
classify nouns therefore connects with how they classify objects in the world.
question 2 receives a positive answer: Some aspects of cognition seem to go with
particular aspects of language in a measurable way. The question differs from
the structure-based approach in Lucy (1997, this volume) only by relating
established differences in cognition to language
by relating descriptions of language
differences to cognition; the attempt
aspects of language
and aspects of cognition is the same in both cases.
LANGUAGE IN LANGUAGE AND COGNITION
continuing, we need to comment
briefly on the other partner in the two-way relationship
-- language -- which is often taken for granted (Cook, t.a.). The
of the English word language
found in other languages:
The distinction in French between
langue, langage, and parole
(de Saussure, 1915/1976) for
instance has always been a
bugbear for English-speaking linguists. Given that the language of academic
discussion for most research in language and cognition is English, researchers
may indeed be constrained by the English interpretation
its most general, language and cognition research concerns language as a
property of human beings: The
semantic primes of Wierzbicka (1996) such as ‘part’,
‘kind’ (the relationship between things) or ‘big’, ‘small’ (the size
make good candidates for a central inalienable core of human language and human
cognition; Lucy (1997, p. 292) describes a semiotic level at which “speaking
any natural language at all may influence thinking” -- people think
differently from apes because they have language.
a more specific level, the research concerns internalized language in people’s
minds -- how individuals know properties of nouns such as mass/count -- which is
by no means isomorphic with the institutionalized ‘standard’ language of
grammar books and dictionaries; the fact that the grammar books state particular
syntactic rules for English does not mean that Geordies do not say Thank
yous when addressing two people and individuals like the
current UK Foreign Secretary do
not say people
like you and I.
Research into language and cognition, if
it is not clear about the meaning
of language involved, tends to fall back by default on traditional
school grammar and common-sense rather than the scientific study of language
practiced in the twenty-first century. The four
alternative approaches proposed by Lucy (1997), which Lucy
(this volume) cuts down to three by eliminating behavior-centered, essentially
come down to different interpretation of what language
Evans describes the Cognitive Commitment to provide “a characterization of language
that accords with what is known about the mind and brain from other
disciplines” (p.000). But there is also the Linguistic Commitment to employ
views of language
consonant with theories and descriptions from the language-related
To meet this, terms like grammatical
gender and mass/count need a clear
basis in contemporary theories and descriptions of language.
Language Commitment also eventually involves investigating a broader range of
aspects of language
than the semantics
of syntactic forms such as grammatical gender and the referential meaning of limited
sets of words;
(1921, p. 181) pointed out, “the linguistic student should never make the
mistake of identifying a language with a dictionary”. There are for
a host of cross-linguistic syntactic differences crying out to be tested against
cognition such as the differences between configurational
with phrase structure and non-configurational
languages without (Hale, 1983); the preposition/postposition divide between languages
such as English and Japanese; the
variable order of Subject (S), Verb (V) and Object (O) in the world’s languages
(SOV, SVO, VSO, VOS, OVS/OSV) (Tomlin, 1986); and
whether subjects are compulsory in the sentence (Whorf,
1941b/1956, p. 243), alias the pro-drop or
null-subject parameter (Chomsky,
1981): All of these might well have as interesting
to cognition as the semantic aspects of grammatical form.
3. Does a Correlation of Cognition with Language Imply
a Causation, either from Cognition to Language or from Language to Cognition?
that some aspects of cognition do indeed correlate with aspects of language
(question 2), question 3 examines whether one causes the other and the direction
of the causality. Whether language creates differences in cognition or reflects
pre-existing cognitive differences is the central and most bitterly
controversial problem of research into language and cognition.
question raises the historical ghosts of linguistic relativity in linguistics
and philosophy, illustrated in the quotations in the box. To von Humboldt
(1836/1999), cognition imposes general laws on language but in turn language
gives form to cognition (though Humboldt is mostly concerned with language as
the possession of a nation, i.e. a group, not of an individual). Boas (1920/1940)
culture as confined by specific features of language, more or less as an aside
to his general ideas on culture. Bally regards language
as a straitjacket on cognition: “définer un
type de langue, c’est définer la manière dont elle déforme la
realite” (defining a kind of language means defining the ways in which it
distorts reality) (Forel, 2008, p. 123). Sapir (1921/n.d.) on the other hand
calls language a “garment for thought”: it is not separate from thought, it
is its highest form -- in some ways an antecedent of cognitive linguistics;
different languages predispose people to particular ways of thinking (although
his views on language and thought amount to a few asides in a general account of
language). Whorf (1940/1956) develops the idea of languages constraining
cognition more extensively through “the linguistic relativity principle”
that a person’s way of seeing the world is relative to the language
of the writings of Sapir and Whorf, others drew the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis that
language affects cognition: How you speak structures how you think. An
infuriating aspect of the discussion of linguistic
is the tendency for people, to debate not the actual issues involved, but their
interpretation of the writings of Whorf and Sapir in terms of such slogans as
‘determinism’ and ‘weak and strong’ versions of relativity (Casasanto,
2008; Lucy, this volume), rather like the exegesis of a sacred text.
… the requirements that thinking imposes on language, from which the general laws of language arise … language is the formative organ of thought. (p. 54)
The categories of language compel us to see the world arranged in certain definite conceptual groups which, on account of our lack of knowledge of linguistic processes, are taken as objective categories and which, therefore, impose themselves upon the form of our thoughts. (p. 289)
From the point of view of language, thought may be defined as the highest latent or potential content of speech … (1921/n.d., p. 14)
What if language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove? (1921/n.d., p. 15)
… nor can I believe that language and culture are in any true sense causally related. Culture may be defined as what a society does and thinks. Language is a particular how of thought, (1921/n.d., p. 216)
we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the
language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation
Concepts of ‘time’ and ‘matter’ are not given in substantially the same form by experience to all men but depend upon the nature of the language or languages through the use of which they have been developed. … probably the apprehension of space is given in substantially the same form by experience irrespective of language. (1941a/1956, p. 158)
… the “linguistic relativity principle”, which means, in informal terms that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars towards different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world. (1940/1956, p. 221)
slender evidence provided for these claims in the writings of these pioneers has
mostly been disputed or ridiculed, for example Whorf’s claim that Inuit languages
have seven words for snow, leaving them as the precursors of later work rather
than as a foundation for enquiry. Sometimes, as Lenneberg (1953) points out,
on translation from another language into English -- what would this mean if it
were English? -- rather than any independent proof of different cognition;
Wierzbicka (this volume) discusses the dangers in treating English as a
universal metalanguage for discussing cognition. One distinction between these
early approaches and later ones is that the early evidence comes from
observation of language in use rather than from the psychology-style experiments
used from the 1950s onwards (Lucy, 1996); Ervin-Tripp (this volume) provides a
fascinating account of the seminal work in this area.
crucial though seldom-made distinction, touched on implicitly by Whorf
(1941a/1956) in his concept of ‘habitual thought’, is that between
short-term causation in which the specific language used affects access during
processing, and long-term causation in which the specific language learnt
affects the long-lasting cognition of the user, essentially on-line performance
versus perma-store competence. One
dimension to this is the relationship between language and cognition in the
development of the individual; another is the relationship between Whorf’s
habitual thought in the adult and what
Lucy (1997, p. 307) calls “linear real-time processing of thinking”.
is to say, whether the cognitive development
of a human child over many years depends upon language is a different question
from whether the mature cognitive apparatus of the adult depends upon language
during mental processing. The
links between language and cognition might be the sand carried by the stream or
the sand deposited on the lake bottom (as Weinreich famously said about language
transfer, 1953, p. 11) -- a diachronic process that occurs throughout development
a synchronic process happening at the moment of speaking. Sera et al.(2002, p.
396) show how “grammatical gender can lead speakers
of a language to think about inanimate objects in terms of properties they
associate with males and females”, varying between natural gender languages
such as English and arbitrary gender languages such as French. A linguistic
system here correlates with a cognitive difference -- a short-term processing
link. Indeed Stapel & Semin (2007) point out that such staples of psychology
research as semantic priming discussed by Knickerbocker and Altarriba (this
volume) rely on short-term effects of language on cognition. Siegal, Kobayashi
Frank, Surian, and Hjelmquist
(this volume) see Theory of Mind awareness in children as arising from certain
types of conversational interaction, such as hearing other people talking about
their interpretations of people’s actions -- long-term development. De
Villiers (2000) indeed points to the syntactic underpinning of syntax necessary
for the child to understand the instructions in Theory of Mind tasks.
results of temporal sequence research seem unequivocal: Children taught to read
from right-to-left think differently from children taught left-to-right
direction, a long-term effect (Tversky et al., 1991). Apart from minor
environmental influences, the cause can only be the language difference. Still
researchers vary in their views of the relationship
language and child development.
et al.(1991, pp. 551-552)
take it more as a process of selecting from a set of concepts available to
similarity of systems invented repeatedly by different children and by different
cultures can be taken as evidence for some compelling cognitive correspondences
between people’s conceptions of the world and their
external representations of them.
In their classification study, Imai and Gentner (1997, p. 169) claim that “children universally make a distinction between individuals and non-individuals in word learning but that the nature of the categories and the boundary between them is influenced by language”. Barner, Inagaki, and Li (2009, p. 329) also suggest that “speakers of Mandarin, English, and Japanese draw on a universal set of lexical meanings, and that mass-count syntax allows speakers of English to select among these meanings”. This approach does not commit researchers to a straightforward causal relationship between language and cognition so much as a view that cognition is universal and a particular language in some way constrains the elements available -- very similar to the Chomskyan view of cognition as a set of innate universal concepts “essentially available prior to experience” (Chomsky, 1991, p. 29). The conclusion of the motion studies in Gennari et al.(2002) is similar: The language effect occurred only when language was relevant during initial encoding: “Linguistic descriptions directed attention to certain aspects of the events later used to make a non-linguistic judgement.” (p. 77). In other words language did not so much impinge upon the concept of motion itself as upon the ways people accessed the concept through language -- thinking for language.
correlation into causation is notoriously hard, often resting more on
unassailable arguments and accumulation of evidence
on the straightforward outcome of experiments. Correlation may be caused by some
underlying factor not tested for. When the link between lung cancer and smoking
depended on correlation alone, at one time it was argued that that the
underlying cause of cancer might be underlying genetic or personality
differences which correlated with a propensity
to smoke rather
smoking itself. So, in the case of language and cognition, it could be culture,
environment, or still others. To settle the language/cognition
developmentally would require bringing children
up in two groups with particular languages in the identical physical
environment, rather like a mammoth twin-study, clearly an ethically-forbidden
experiment except for King Psammeticus who, according to Herodotus (ca 430 BC)
with a silent shepherd for two years to see which language emerged spontaneously
(Thomas, 2006), and for the fictional treatment in The
Embedding (Watson, 1973) in which children
become superhuman by learning to handle multiply-embedded constructions.
sum up, these studies do not make a conclusive case for language being the cause
of some aspects of cognition. Mostly they are concerned with the synchronic
processing of language and cognition rather than with the diachronic development
of language and cognition. Overall they seem to support a so-called ‘weak’
version of linguistic relativity in which language facilitates cognition rather
than a ‘strong’ version in which language determines cognition -- if in fact
the strong relativity position has actually ever been held by someone rather
than acting as a strawman to be denigrated (Swoyer and others in this
volume debate the weak and strong versions of linguistic
alternative possibility that cognition drives language development
has received less attention. Yet in developmental terms, Sapir (1921, p. 16)
point of view that we have developed does not by any means preclude the
possibility of the growth of speech being in a high degree dependent on the
development of thought”. In
Piagetan research, the assumption was that cognitive development triggered
language acquisition, explored for instance by Sinclair-de-Zwart (1967) and
Bruner (1983). The influential review by Cromer (1974) concluded that, while
language development does not always relate to cognition, when there is
a relationship, language depends on cognitive development. Gathercole (this
volume, p. 000) similarly believes “extensive
pursuit over the last decades of meticulous work exploring the relationship
between language and cognitive development has indicated that language and
cognition interact in development”. Bowerman
(1996, p. 170) nonetheless feels that “spatial thought -- undeniably one of
our most basic cognitive capacities -- bears the imprint of language.”
all theories that deny that language is a specific module in the mind, whether
emergentism or behaviourism, will see a common underlying source for all
cognitive processes. The view from cognitive linguistics (V. Evans, this volume,
p. 000) is
that “the concepts we have access to, and the nature of the ‘reality’ we
think and talk about, are grounded in the multimodal representations that emerge
from our embodied experience”. Language and cognition are then an
inter-related inseparable system, and causation is irrelevant, or at any rate
4. Can Cognition be Changed by Appropriate Language Control or Teaching for
Individuals, Children or Societies?
questions 1-3 are answered affirmatively, there still remains the question for
an applied linguist of whether deliberately changing people’s language
actually alters their cognition. This section extends the discussion outside the
narrow academic discussion of cognition and language to the powerful if vague
influences on human life which often feature in popular discussions. The
intention is to remind us that the academic study of language and cognition has,
or should have, consequences for everyday problems and issues facing individuals
relevant attempt to cause cognitive change through language
correlated language level with Piagetan stage and then taught children the
language of the next stage, with little effect (Sinclair-de-Zwart, 1967).
Ervin-Tripp (this volume) describes Carroll’s discovery that Navaho children
sort objects by form because of their language, American children acquire it
from playing with blocks in pre-schools. One education approach
in the UK is known as ‘teaching thinking’ -- “an umbrella term used to
describe a range of interventions, which have been classified into three groups:
context independent, … subject-based programmes, …and subject infusion”
& Lin, 2003, p. 000). Worthwhile as these approaches may be on other
educational grounds, in so far as they involve changing thinking by language
intervention, we still do not know that language change promotes changes in
cognition, even if educationalists often take this for granted (and this could
arguably be said to be the heart of all education). The 1970s saw organized
intervention to redress disadvantaged groups in society such as Sesame
Street and Talk Reform (Gahagan
& Gahagan, 1970), with language being a key ingredient; the overall benefits
of Sesame Street for its child viewers
have been well-documented (Fisch & Truglio, 2001). Inasmuch as attempts to
to use Makaton or children
with reading difficulties to handle letter-shapes go beyond their language
briefs, these too rely on the idea of changing cognition through language
intervention. As indeed do claims for the educational and social advantages of learning
another language, as we shall see in Chapter 7.
In reverse, the practice of Steiner schools is not to teach reading
the child’s milk-teeth have dropped out (Steiner, 1968/1997), making language
clearly depend on physical maturation.
AND LANGUAGE IN MODERN LIFE
the reluctance of researchers over the years to commit themselves to the view
that language determines cognition, in everyday life this is precisely what
popular movements have assumed, particularly the attempts to improve the
workings of society and the minds of individuals by changing their language. One
form this takes is control of language through ‘anti-ism’, whether
anti-sexism deploring the effects of male-dominated language such as the use of chairman,
anti-racism concerned with the effects of race-tinged language such as the use
of Paki or gyppo, oranti-classism concerned with the effects of ‘elaborated’ middle-class
language on working-class children’s
education (Bernstein, 1971), such as the working-class preference for exophoric
pronouns relating language to the immediate environment rather than anaphoric
pronouns referring to aspects of discourse. The items of language discussed
change from decade to decade; yesterday’s ban on girl
for ‘mature women’ is superseded by today’s use of girl for ‘vital female youth’, as in Spice Girls. Academic research is not immune to these pressures.
However much they disagree with linguistic relativity, researchers are careful
to submit papers with non-specific gender he/she
or they for people in general and with
participant rather than subject
(Stapel & Semin, 2007); the publishers’ instructions to contributors to
this book say “Avoid
the use of ‘he’ (when he or she is meant) wherever possible, either through
the use of ‘they’ or by repeating the noun”
(Psychology Press, no date).
worthy belief that changing the language improves the world is often put down by
political correctness -- the Guardian
once called it “petty bourgeois linguistic anti-racism”: We can lessen the
discrimination against particular groups by censoring the language we use about
them. It is certainly best, for example, not to use
the word schizophrenic to mean when
people “seem to have very different purposes or opinions” (COBUILD, 1995),
exemplified in the “rather
schizophrenic way in which the Whorfian question has been viewed” (Gentner
& Goldin-Meadow, 2003, p. 4). Such use “does an injustice to the
enormity of the public health problems and profound suffering associated with
this most puzzling disorder of the human mind” (Gottesman, 1991) and is in
fact banned in some, if not all, newspaper style sheets. The
proscriptions on vocabulary do affect language usage: The
numbers of the pronoun she in Time Magazine almost doubled between
1960 and the present, while the numbers of he went down; indeed the usage
of several contributors to this volume is evidence
changes in gender choice in pronoun use. Whether
this affects people’s cognition and attitudes is another matter; Khosroshahi
(1989) found that adopting non-sex-marked generic pronouns affected women’s
drawing of generic objects but not men’s; avoiding the split-personality meaning
schizophrenic may improve politeness, but have little effect on
attitudes to mental illness.
can then be blamed for the general ills of humankind. For example the theories
of Western scientists may be constrained by the notions of Noun and Verb (Whorf,
1941b/1956), say imposing a dichotomy between
light as a noun-like particle or as a verb-like wave; like much subsequent
discussion in linguistic
this treats Noun and Verb as a semantic rather than a syntactic category.
Halliday (1990/2001) sees growthism as built-in to the use of scientific
language through elaborate nominal groups such as interpretations
of experiments on syntactic processing in cotton-top tamarin
and through the use of uncountable nouns for natural resources --
water suggests inexhaustibility, a
water suggests finiteness. The
field of ecolinguistics has indeed developed the concept of language interfacing
with society for good or for ill (Fill & Muhlhausler, 1990). Recent years
have shown many example of the entrenched belief that saying the words will in
itself change people’s thinking, whether political slogans like “Education,
education, education” or mission statements such
“Regionally rooted, nationally influential, and globally respected” (Cook,
intriguing possibility is the effect of computer languages
and computer programs on our cognition. Iverson (1980) talked of the positive
advantages of using the computer language APL (which he invented); “Programming
because they were designed for the purpose of directing computers, offer
important advantages as tools of thought”. The
computer language Prolog has been taught to children for similar reasons (Colbourn
& Light, 1987). On the negative side, Tufte (2003) attributes poor thinking,
and indeed the crash of the Space Shuttle, to the ubiquitous use of Powerpoint.
Eco (1994) writing on PC users versus Mac users speculates “One
may wonder whether, as time goes by, the use of one system rather than another
leads to profound inner changes.”
aircrash with the biggest loss of life to date may have been caused by a
confusion in the specialized international English of air traffic control
(Tajima, 2004). A Dutch pilot of a Boeing 747 departing from Tenerife announced We
are now at take-off, meaning
are now actually taking off’, the Spanish air traffic controller understood
‘we are now waiting at the take-off position’, with tragic consequences.
Reforming particular specialised areas of language to remove ambiguities or
unclarities for safety reasons alone seems a useful enterprise; airlines rely on
passengers understanding the emergency command brace
brace, an untypical use of a low frequency verb and a puzzle to non-native
speakers of English. Indeed one of Whorf’s original motivations for pursuing
linguistic relativity was the kind of language problems he encountered as a fire
inspector (Whorf, 1941a/1956); for example a little-used electric fire on a wall
was seen as ‘a place to put coats’; when someone turned on what they thought
was ‘the light-switch’, the building caught fire. Hence one practical
interest is how the short-term processing of language impacts upon cognition:
How we encode the environment at the moment of speaking affects our behaviour.
proposals have gone further than the banning of particular words or meanings.
The most notorious was the general semantics movement
based on Korzybski (1933), which attempted to make language more logical by
abandoning Aristotelian either/or choices, fictionalised in the Van Vogt (1948)
classic The World of Null-A (A for
Aristotelian). Reforming language removes undesirable thoughts. At the positive
end of the scale comes Halliday’s consciousness-raising of the environmental
implications of linguistic
for society and the world (Halliday,
the negative end comes the
thought control of Newspeak specially
designed by Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty
only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits
proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism] but to make all other forms
of thought impossible” (Orwell,
1949). The proposals for various kinds of simplified language such as Basic
English (Ogden, 1937) often have overtones of language control of thought.
as well as continuing to fascinate and infuriate researchers, the
language/cognition interface is also involved in many aspects of everyday life,
including government policies. It would seem well to establish its strengths and
limitations on as firm a basis as possible to inform people how feasible such
implementations are likely to be.
crucial element missing from the discussion so far is individuals or groups who
use two or more languages. In terms of the numbers of human beings alive today,
this is a colossal oversight common to most of the research in this area. There
may well be more people who use two or more languages in their everyday lives
than there are monolinguals in the world. In addition the advantage of second
language users for research into language and cognition is that these can be
development and use; “It would
be highly useful if we could, so to speak, disengage the two processes
of language and cognitive development and look at people whose level
of thinking is out of step with their level of language.” (Cook, 1981, p.
255). For these reasons the
role of second language users is at the centre of this book, starting with the
background to language
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