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MrFlibble

Linguistic relativity (a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)

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Today I felt like starting a thread about linguistics, and the question of linguistic relativity may provide some interesting points for discussion. In fact, I had a vague remembrance of bringing this up before, and even checked up if there was no such thread already, and indeed there had been a discussion of the issue quite some time ago. Recently, however, I've learned an intriguing piece of information that may or may not provide insights into the question of whether language really shapes our thoughts.

Long story short, there's a tribe of hunter-gatherers called Piraha who live in the Amazonian jungles of Brazil. They speak a language isolate that had remained largely unknown to linguists until the late seventies when Daniel Everett, a missionary and linguist, started his successful study and research of the language.

The Piraha language has quite a few interesting features, but one that is of importance to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that it completely lacks any numerals - and accordingly, the Piraha people have no notion of counting. According to Everett, they have words for 'small quantity' and 'large quantity', meaning that they are able to evaluate the amount of something, but that's about it. The importance of this discovery cannot be underestimated because numerals have been thought to be a linguistic universal, not to mention the widespread idea of mathematics being a "universal language".

Here's how Everett himself accounts of the situation in an interview:

MLU: You found out something amazing about the Pirahã and numbers. What was this discovery, and what did it tell you about human cognition?

DE: When I first went to work on the Pirahã language, I looked at what previous folks there had written. I had been preceded by two other missionaries, Arlo Heinrichs, who was the first missionary or linguist to work with the Pirahãs (he had had some linguistic training), from 1959-1967, and Steven Sheldon, who had an MA in linguistics and had worked with the Pirahãs from 1967-1976. Both Steve and Arlo had talked about the Pirahãs having the numbers 'one', 'two', and 'many', which was not an uncommon system. And my initial experiences seemed to confirm this. They almost always used the word 'hói' for one object, 'hoí' for two objects, and 'báagiso' for three or more objects. I didn't really think much about it. I was told what the words meant, they matched my initial experience, they were not uncommon, and I had a lot more to do than work on numbers. However, over the years, I realized that 'hoí' could be used on more than two objects, overlapping frequently with what I thought 'báagiso' mean, i.e. 'many'. I then began to notice that the words I thought meant 'one' and 'two' could be reversed. When confronted with two teeny fish and one large fish, many Pirahã would refer to the two teeny fish as 'hói' and the one large fish as 'hoí'. I got the idea that these Pirahã words didn't refer to numbers so much as relative volumes/quantities. I noticed too that the Pirahãs never count, never use their fingers to 'tally' objects, and seemed to lack any notion of keeping track of exact quantities. I was by then teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and I mentioned my hypothesis that Pirahã lacked counting (though I still said that they had numbers 'one', 'two', and 'many', but without much precision, i.e. with polysemy in each term) to a colleague in Psychology, Peter Gordon (now at Columbia University). Peter went with me three years in a row to the Pirahãs and spent a few months total studying their counting. He published a paper in Science in 2004 based on this research that he had conducted more than a decade previously. It was a huge sensation. Ironically, at the same time, and unaware of his ms. for Science, I was doing my own thinking about Pirahã numerals and counting because I had been invited to talk at a conference on Numerals at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. I concluded, after spending a lot of time reviewing all my data, that the Pirahãs in fact did not have any numbers at all. This created quite a stir at the Leipzig conference and there was some skepticism (quite naturally), since no other system like this had been discovered (though I suspect now that other so-called 'one', 'two', 'many' systems will turn out to lack numbers too). Both Peter and I agreed that the Pirahãs lacked counting, but he continued to claim, ironically based mainly on what I had told him at the time he did his Pirahã research, that they had numbers.

This interested some folks at MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences so they contacted me about the possibility of going to Brazil, at their own expense, on my next trip down, to conduct some experiments (the main researcher was Prof. Ted Gibson, along with two of his PhD students, Evelina Fedorenko and Mike Frank, who is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford). The results of the experiments we did together, published in the journal Cognition, established fairly clearly that Pirahã lacked numbers altogether (this paper was chosen by Discovery Magazine as one of the 100 most important science stories of 2008). By then, I had incorporated the lack of numbers into my discussion of other Pirahã linguistic characteristics that I have attempted to account for on cultural grounds. But whatever the explanation, the lack of numbers was a significant discovery because it showed, contra a great many claims by psychologists, linguists, and others, that numbers were innate. They are not.

Moreover, at some point the Piraha asked Everett to teach them the basics of counting for practical purposes, but all their attempts to learn, despite their motivation, were unsuccessful. This fact lends itself to the interpretation as supportive of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, implying that the language imposes very noticeable restrictions on the mental operations of its users, or maybe even on their general perception of reality ("that which cannot be named does not exist"*).

However, the opposite interpretation cannot be ignored either, namely that the language merely reflects what is present in the culture: the Piraha have never had any serious use for counting, and the linguistic "tools" to service this field of expertise were simply never "invented". Everett himself, apparently, is very careful in drawing conclusions, suggesting that multiple factors play into this unique (or at least rarely encountered) linguo-cultural feature.

I guess it would be interesting to see if a Piraha speaker could learn counting in another language (while learning that language), but they are generally monolingual, and only have limited knowledge of other languages that they use when communicating with outsiders.

* A somewhat similar situation can be observed in the field of colour terms in different languages, which has proven to be a successful subject for research in both linguistics and psychology. Experimental evidence suggests that, even though speakers have the physical capacity to distinguish between colours that do not have corresponding separate terms in their language, they have trouble realizing this difference because they have no means of literally "putting it into words".

[Edit] Here's another nice interview with Everett:

http://boingboing.net/2012/03/26/the-grammar-of-happiness-an-i.html

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I believe the main argument against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that even when your language lacks a word for some concept, you can always find ways to express that concept with a more complicated sentence. Also, loanwords can fill the void. The languages of hunter-gatherer tribes certainly have no native words for such concepts as "electricity", "motor", "airplane" or "vacuum", but that doesn't mean they can't learn those concepts after careful explanation.

In principle, anyone can learn any concept. It might just take some time.

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How can a proper linguist or psychologist speak of innate ideas? We can talk about a priori concepts or prenatal perception, but the assumption that people are born with some knowledge seems to me a too hardcore platonism. What would we have languages for, if perceptibles sufficed to humans? Numerals are words, learned with the language, as all the other grammatical categories, given that they do exist in the society one is born to. They serve mostly a descriptive function and don't reflect the full potential of mathematics. What about Piraha's deductive power? How do they cope with identity principle?

On the other hand, I think it shows how misleading can be the use of a global lingua franca like English in such a research :) It's used in every part of the world, so it has the brain-capacity to adopt any concept. "Universals" themselves are a quite complicated one, I don't know if there is any other language than Latin (from which we have it), which has developed something like it. It's a very culture-specific term, which reflects the needs of the discourse, in which it was formulated. A researcher should be aware of it before he would declare something to be a universal.

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I believe the main argument against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that even when your language lacks a word for some concept, you can always find ways to express that concept with a more complicated sentence. Also, loanwords can fill the void.

It is true that an idea may be expressed via a single word or a phrase, both within a language and when it comes to the comparison of different languages. Also, it is quite normal to have terms for various concepts that are phrases, not single words, both in scientific terminology and in everyday speech. However, there is evidence from experimental psychology that suggests that the lack of a word to denote a concept may seriously hamper categorization and related cognitive functions (sorry, no links about that for now :().

On the other hand, the expression of ideas in a language is never limited to the lexical level and the question of whether or not there are words for particular concepts. The presence or lack of certain grammatical categories can seriously affect what can and can't be expressed explicitly in a language. A very simple example is the category of definiteness in the English language. Learners of English whose native language does not have such a category (such as Russian) have serious trouble with the articles in English, even though the state of affairs that correlates to the use of the articles in English is clearly understandable to, and present in the minds of such non-English speakers most of the time (and may be partially expressed by other means in their native language in at least some situations).

It is very possible that the lack of means to express a certain idea or situation verbally also coincides with the difficulty of realizing and/or thinking about such an idea or situation. In linguistics, there's the notion of salience, which is basically the idea that a language reflects (and explicitly expresses) that which is important for its speakers, while unimportant things are not expressed. While certainly not a universal rule (at least, on the utterance level where implicit meanings can be quite important), the notion of salience suggests that things that remain unverbalized in a language are also those to which the speakers give little, if any, thought most of the time.

How can a proper linguist or psychologist speak of innate ideas? We can talk about a priori concepts or prenatal perception, but the assumption that people are born with some knowledge seems to me a too hardcore platonism. What would we have languages for, if perceptibles sufficed to humans? Numerals are words, learned with the language, as all the other grammatical categories, given that they do exist in the society one is born to. They serve mostly a descriptive function and don't reflect the full potential of mathematics.

I'm fairly certain that the idea of universals in modern linguistics is not directly associated with the notion of innate ideas. Rather, it is a statement of fact based on pure observation, that a certain feature occurs in all languages that are known so far. It is mostly a tool of linguistic typology, although the Chomskian types certainly yearn for both universal and completely innate linguistic traits.

I guess the implicit idea of universal (rational) thought had permeated traditional linguistics and is still acknowledged by at least some scholars, in spite of growing evidence to the contrary from the field of cognitive sciences. This is why the book Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being by George Lakoff and Raphael Nunez turned out to be quite controversial.

On the other hand, I think it shows how misleading can be the use of a global lingua franca like English in such a research :) It's used in every part of the world, so it has the brain-capacity to adopt any concept. "Universals" themselves are a quite complicated one, I don't know if there is any other language than Latin (from which we have it), which has developed something like it. It's a very culture-specific term, which reflects the needs of the discourse, in which it was formulated. A researcher should be aware of it before he would declare something to be a universal.

As I mentioned before, linguistic universals are determined based on empirical evidence, so there is no reason to blame all the people who thought numerals to be a universal from observations of languages that were known at that point. Piraha is probably the first language to break this rule, and it just so happens that this discovery is also a valid counter for the idea of innateness of numbers, for which there is indeed no empirical basis.

On the other hand, you're right that specific languages have certain features that might influence scientific thinking in a way that such features might be seen as universals. A brilliant example of addressing this problem can be found in Emile Benveniste's essay Categories of Thought and Language where he shows by careful analysis that Aristotle's categories of thought are in fact the Indo-European system of parts of speech. Similarly, George Lakoff in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things describes the nominal categories (noun classes) in the Dyirbal language which can be seen as utterly weird by anyone who's familiar with the IE categories, but in fact the categories in Dyirbal have a very complex, culturally and ecologically determined system that underlies them.

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Benveniste...that theory was handled in something from Derrida, I think. Yet I'd be cautious with it, this is an interpretation, not an "evidence", for example pronouns or particles aren't reflected in Aristotle's system. His idea of substance is also quite different from Platonic forms or pre-Socratic arche, although all of them could be seen as a reflection of the grammatical category of noun. The language provided these terms, sure, but the differences were elaborated by individuals within a specialized discourse. It could've been the case that 5th century protoslavic or protogermanic languages had equivalent terms too, but didn't have the discourse, which would mould them in a more exact way. Thus, I believe there are no "universals", only prevalent concepts, loaned by languages without discourses enough deep to develop a sound alternative. For example if in philosophy "epoche" gets enough developed, it may replace "substance" as the "goal" of science.

I don't know, if mere pragmatism (salience idea) is enough for a term to spread, but that's like with phonology, you never know when your kids start speaking r as l, neither why ;)

With the "innate ideas" I was referring to the end of article, let's say it was just for the atmosphere... But the evidence problem: we have an evidence of individual judgement in the matter of defining substance, an "invention" of the term. The fact we don't have it for numerals or for example intersections doesn't mean these weren't "invented" at some historical point too.

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Benveniste...that theory was handled in something from Derrida, I think. Yet I'd be cautious with it, this is an interpretation, not an "evidence", for example pronouns or particles aren't reflected in Aristotle's system. His idea of substance is also quite different from Platonic forms or pre-Socratic arche, although all of them could be seen as a reflection of the grammatical category of noun. The language provided these terms, sure, but the differences were elaborated by individuals within a specialized discourse. It could've been the case that 5th century protoslavic or protogermanic languages had equivalent terms too, but didn't have the discourse, which would mould them in a more exact way.

Of course this is not direct evidence for Benveniste's claim, but the example with Aristotle's categories just shows how easy the language encourages thinking in a certain direction, while effectively shutting off alternative venues of thought. I suppose that, for example, speakers of an ergative language would view the notions of "subject" and "object" quite differently from speakers of a nominative language.

Thus, I believe there are no "universals", only prevalent concepts, loaned by languages without discourses enough deep to develop a sound alternative. For example if in philosophy "epoche" gets enough developed, it may replace "substance" as the "goal" of science.

Certainly universals in semantics is a pretty problematic point. In the vein of contemporary cognitive trends, I assume it would be safest to just say that there are certain limits imposed by human biology on our cognitive apparatus, but the variation within those limits is quite considerable, hence all the different languages (and cultures) we actually have.

This is, once again, a point where semantics as a branch of linguistics proves to be quite different from any other field of language study: I wouldn't say there's any real methodological problem to hypothesize (unless proven otherwise, of course) that a certain phonological, morphological or syntactic feature is characteristic of all languages, if it is observed in all languages known so far. But if you're talking about semantics, be it simple meanings or patterns of semantic change (cognitive metaphor anyone?), you're immediately on a shaky ground.

I don't know, if mere pragmatism (salience idea) is enough for a term to spread, but that's like with phonology, you never know when your kids start speaking r as l, neither why ;)

I wouldn't say that salience is synonymous with pragmatism, it's just a consequence of how language generally works. The trick here is that you can't possibly express everything within a single utterance, even if it refers to a simple object or situation. Moreover, expressing everything is not really a goal of verbal communication - rather, you need to attract your partner's attention to something that is important or relevant, either at the moment or in general. This limitation of natural language neatly coincides with cognitive limitations of our attention and working memory. Of course, all this may be characterized as "pragmatism", but then again, the primary function of language was never to have a nice chat about abstractions in the first place ;)

There's another side to the salience problem, namely that since language obviously changes at a slower pace than thinking, it is capable of preserving things that are no longer salient to its current speakers. This makes for exceptionally interesting material of linguistic archaeology, and may also reveal important facts about conceptual systems of past epochs.

On the other hand (since you mention phonological changes), there are constant changes in the language that are often very hard to account for. What we do know for sure (or rather, acknowledge a pretty obvious fact) is that language - any living natural language - is in a permanent state of change. There are reasons to believe that this is an essential part of how it works - otherwise it would not have been able to refer to new objects, ideas or situations, for example, - but many changes are quite hard to explain. Jan Baudouin de Courtenay called such changes "oscillations" to emphasize that they are not part of some progressive (or regressive) evolution of language, as it had been previously believed in the times of Wilhelm von Humboldt for example. Often the best cases of explanation here is when there's an outside influence on a language that had been historically documented. However, this does not shed light on the core of the problem, because languages demonstrably possess the capacity of changing on their own as well.

And yet again, any change in a language is mirrored (and, possibly, caused) by changes in its speakers, both on an individual and social levels.

With the "innate ideas" I was referring to the end of article, let's say it was just for the atmosphere... But the evidence problem: we have an evidence of individual judgement in the matter of defining substance, an "invention" of the term. The fact we don't have it for numerals or for example intersections doesn't mean these weren't "invented" at some historical point too.

If you mean the part about Wierzbicka's "semantic primitives" (in the article about universals), well, I must say I've never really taken her works all too seriously, although she does have some interesting observations. After all, Wierzbicka's method, although it had gained its fair share of popularity, is based mostly on introspection, which is obviously not the best thing from the standpoint of positive science. I also agree with Patrick Seriot who said that her works have much ideological bias, in addition to the subjectivity that inevitably arises from the use of the introspective method per se.

As for the invented concepts, as opposed to innate ones, nowadays there also exists the idea of emergent concepts, which of course belongs to the same anti-innateness camp as the invented concepts theory, only it stresses the point that the construction of concepts (or other linguistic or cognitive entities) does not necessarily involve conscious effort from its users. I think that here one could draw an analogy with open source software, in that a speaker may rather straightforwardly use their language "as it is", but at the same time is capable of innovations should the need arise (or simply if they feel like going a little creative ;)).

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Well, I'll try to answer it from the end. I've just looked at what would Kant say about emergent/invented concepts, as I think this anti-innateness camp owes a lot to him ;) for him, an idea can be formulated, but not sufficiently defined, working as an abstract point of convergence (or "direction" as you say) for discourses trying to improve the saliency or coherence of its meaning. That is (now I'll steal a bit from Merleau-Ponty's interpretation), the emergence/invention does need some pre-existing terms and a multitude of speakers. I don't mean "invention" is like Kant came and said, "now I want that 'idea' means this and this", a discourse requires communicating persons, not preachers. In this way, "invention" doesn't differ much from "emergence". Semantic changes, at least with more complicated terms, need personal involvement, but they are necessarily social processes. Thus, we also can see Aristotle not only as a preacher, his meditation directed by linguistic dispositions, but rather vice-versa as a worker, trying to manipulate the course of language.

I'd like to give a link to some book about relations between codification of language and power, but I think only of politological works, perhaps you do have some tips?

Then, I can pose the question again, what is that saliency about? If a term seems clear to me, I don't talk about it.

Term "about" in my previous science is a kind of spatial metaphor, which doesn't have to be the most salient one in this context, but I simply mention it. Does this involve semantic change? If I start to use "about" only in strictly spatial sense ("I'm just walking about"), it may change the meaning at least in the environment I'm speaking it. The swap in meaning is here very simple, needing only a quantity of speakers to adopt it, without need of an exhausting discourse. Motives why people do so, well saliency can be one of explanations, but in phonology it's hard to find out too. Pragmatic argument: if my language lacks such a term, I'll adopt it. Aesthetic argument: I like it, it's easier to pronounce than an alternative ("around").

More complicated terms like "idea", "cognitive metaphor" or "ergative language", on the other hand, have such motivations somewhat embedded in their very use. They depend rather on elaboration and experiences of, as well as knowledge of the discourses by present users. The very question "why" is, I think, more philosophical or anthropological than of linguistics or semantics, bound with dispositions of both discourse and persons speaking the language. Yet I think it would help more to solve the Piraha mystery (not why Piraha didn't, but why did Protoindoeuropean actually develop numerals?) than that dreaming about universals.

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I don't mean "invention" is like Kant came and said, "now I want that 'idea' means this and this", a discourse requires communicating persons, not preachers. In this way, "invention" doesn't differ much from "emergence". Semantic changes, at least with more complicated terms, need personal involvement, but they are necessarily social processes. Thus, we also can see Aristotle not only as a preacher, his meditation directed by linguistic dispositions, but rather vice-versa as a worker, trying to manipulate the course of language.

Absolutely, that's indeed how it all works :) It is probably because natural language is in the state of a constant flow that inventing something rarely comes down to inserting some prefabricated thing into a language, but rather working it all out in the process of communication. The only thing I really wanted to point out hee when talking about invention vs. emergence is that there seem to be different degrees in conscious involvement: while in philosophical or scientific discourse the process of working out a notion is sought to be controlled down to minute details, while in our everyday use of language such changes progress subtly, often without people who actually influence them noticing what's happening :)

I'd like to give a link to some book about relations between codification of language and power, but I think only of politological works, perhaps you do have some tips?

I'm no sure if this is what you're looking for, but George Lakoff had spent quite some time working in a think tank he had founded, called Rockridge Institute. They were studying quite practical implications of cognitive linguistics and the conceptual metaphor theory. Eventually their funding was cut, but many of the former workers went on to create a company called Cognitive Policy Works. They have the seminal book by George Lakoff, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, which was written during the Rockridge era, up on their website.

Then, I can pose the question again, what is that saliency about? If a term seems clear to me, I don't talk about it.

Well, I could say that salience is a principle of language use that tells people to make explicit what is currently important to both the speaker and the listener. This principle manifests in different phenomena depending on the levels of analysis: when we're talking about the purport of an utterance, we can assume that explicit information is important to the speaker (this concerns the choice of words, the style, the amount of actual information in the utterance); on the diachronic level, we can see what had been important enough for the speakers and regular enough to occur in the language to become categories of grammar or categories of semantics.

Term "about" in my previous science is a kind of spatial metaphor, which doesn't have to be the most salient one in this context, but I simply mention it. Does this involve semantic change? If I start to use "about" only in strictly spatial sense ("I'm just walking about"), it may change the meaning at least in the environment I'm speaking it. The swap in meaning is here very simple, needing only a quantity of speakers to adopt it, without need of an exhausting discourse. Motives why people do so, well saliency can be one of explanations, but in phonology it's hard to find out too. Pragmatic argument: if my language lacks such a term, I'll adopt it. Aesthetic argument: I like it, it's easier to pronounce than an alternative ("around").

Recent cognitive studies suggest that there is some biological mechanism - a feature of our brains' functions perhaps - that governs how metaphors work. The same features are responsible for both generating metaphors and understanding them, thenceforth there is no special "learning" needed to understand a particular new metaphor.

Spatial metaphors belong to the class of the most basic, naturally occurring types of metaphor (most, if not all, prepositions in IE languages have originally had physical, spatial meanings), and it is not a coincidence that the experience of our bodies in a three-dimensional space is one of the most basic everyday experiences of our life. So I think that if new spatial metaphors occur in speech (e.g. as phrasal verbs in English) they will most probably be picked by speakers very quickly, and thus make their way into conventional language.

More complicated terms like "idea", "cognitive metaphor" or "ergative language", on the other hand, have such motivations somewhat embedded in their very use. They depend rather on elaboration and experiences of, as well as knowledge of the discourses by present users. The very question "why" is, I think, more philosophical or anthropological than of linguistics or semantics, bound with dispositions of both discourse and persons speaking the language. Yet I think it would help more to solve the Piraha mystery (not why Piraha didn't, but why did Protoindoeuropean actually develop numerals?) than that dreaming about universals.

The question of why (and how) numerals were invented is indeed very intriguing :) Counting seems like such a natural thing to do, no wonder people had thought it to be a universal feature of the mind. There is no doubt that the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies demanded practical mathematics, but I am really at loss as of how exactly the process could go. I guess that the invention of writing (or at least drawing) could have been involved in it (Everett mentions that the Piraha have trouble perceiving drawings and even photographs, which is a sure indication that they do not practise drawing either). At any rate, this was a huge cognitive advancement as well as a technological invention.

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That is pretty fascinating. The mere possibility of a people who can't even distinguish "two" from "three" never even occurred to me. Then again, I remember being suprised a couple of years ago when I read that the discovery/invention of the number zero in India was a huge milestone.

The importance of this discovery cannot be underestimated because numerals have been thought to be a linguistic universal, not to mention the widespread idea of mathematics being a "universal language".

Is there any known overlap between mathematics and language neurologically speaking?

I vaguely remember reading a paralel between mathematics Oliver Sacks' Seeing Voices (in a footnote I guess); that they're both "formal systems". Most of the book was about deafness and signing language though, and quite interesting I should add. It's generally accepted that there's an optimal learning age for language (and for that reason, diagnosing deafness is important so that the child can be learned sign language as early as possible so not to slow down his/her development), it seems logical that the same applies to counting and mathematics and general.

I guess it would be interesting to see if a Piraha speaker could learn counting in another language (while learning that language), but they are generally monolingual, and only have limited knowledge of other languages that they use when communicating with outsiders.

Why should that help, exactly? Unless there is some reason why the Piraha language is structurally unsound to incorporate counting.

Also, 2 + 2 = 5.

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Is there any known overlap between mathematics and language neurologically speaking?

This is actually a straight to the point question, but for now I don't have any details about that. I think there is evidence from the field of studying aphasias though which suggests that counting can function without natural language at least in some circumstances. Not 100% sure about this though.

Then again, I remember being suprised a couple of years ago when I read that the discovery/invention of the number zero in India was a huge milestone.

heh, in fact, recently I've heard from a colleague that the notion of zero was first invented in the Indian linguistic theory (which is actually a pretty ancient thing to begin with, with many critical insights having been made long before European linguists of the past two centuries figured them out) and then incorporated into mathematics.

I vaguely remember reading a paralel between mathematics Oliver Sacks' Seeing Voices (in a footnote I guess); that they're both "formal systems". Most of the book was about deafness and signing language though, and quite interesting I should add. It's generally accepted that there's an optimal learning age for language (and for that reason, diagnosing deafness is important so that the child can be learned sign language as early as possible so not to slow down his/her development), it seems logical that the same applies to counting and mathematics and general.

Well, the notion of natural language as a "formal system" goes back to the rather recent period when "mathematocentric" theories of language were popular. Language certainly can be described as a formal system, but such a description, even though it has its merits and use, does not encompass all that natural language is and does.

As for the sensitive period during which language acquisition is most effective, I think it's a very interesting idea to consider if the same thing could be applied to mathematics. There is a general notion of brain plasticity, i.e. the ability of the neural tissue in the brain to adapt, on the physiological level, to the various changes a living organism undergoes, which also facilitates learning. It is believed that the level of plasticity generally decreases with age, making learning new things proceed more slowly and less effectively (I think there have been recent findings that may challenge this claim though, but once again I'm short on details here).

However, there is an important difference between language acquisition an learning to count, which must not be overlooked: while the former usually occurs naturally without any conscious systematic effort from either the child or her parents, counting and mathematics are most certainly taught as a specific skill (on the other hand, the acquisition of numerals seems to happen the same way other words are learned).

Why should that help, exactly? Unless there is some reason why the Piraha language is structurally unsound to incorporate counting.

Well, checking if the Piraha could learn to count in another language would in fact be a great test of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that's why I said that it's an interesting point to explore. I the SWH holds true, then a Piraha speaker can learn to count, and possibly to use more complex mathematical operations, in another language, while being completely unable to do so in their native language. If the SWH is incorrect, then learning another language will not make a difference at all, and we'll have to conclude that something else is responsible for the inability of the Piraha people to learn counting (e.g. they're too old to learn and their reduced neuroplasticity doesn't allow them to make significant progress; or different teaching methods should be used etc.).

It's not like opportunities for such experiments in linguistics present themselves all the time ;)

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Guys, I read most of the posts here. At some point you lost me with too many details and stuff. :D

BUT after reading the discovery made with the Piraha people, I have to agree that language and education (aka social conditioning) will pretty much shape the way we see reality.

I am working in China for the past one and a half years and their writing system includes conditioning. I found out that the words for jealousy, hate, etc. have the female character included (hence women are bad). Also once I noticed a word to describe beautiful has the emperor character in it (hence the emperor is always beatiful/good). And another time while reading on wikipedia about a national minority in China i found out they changed the graphical rendition of that minority's name while keeping the same sound. They changed it from something like "dog-people" (highly depreciative) to "strong-people" mainly because that minority had no problem in acception the CCP's rule.

Also, the characters making out the chinese rendition of Coca-Cola literally mean "happy - good taste".

The thing is that a certain image can give you a certain psichological stance, and, thus, a predetermined view on things. If you have a happy/good character in the word, it means it is good for you, or a certain character might gain posivitve or negative significance by inserting it in words that have that significance.

It's a bit like "1984" when by cutting out word to describe a concept, that concept would dissapear. That is because we only work with mental operators we know. Not all of us are geniuses to invent new concepts and word for them so the majority of the people will work/think with the concepts provided for them by society (education).

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Davidu, you've brought up a very interesting aspect of the problem that is relevant to hieroglyphic/logographic writing systems, and also is a manifestation of a much broader phenomenon (not restricted to languages that use logographic writing), that is, the network of various associations that one gets as a part of cultural background. The interesting thing here is that concepts can have culture-specific associations, but also words themselves can have certain associations, be it semantics or their form/sound.

As for the idea from 1984 about the word-concept dependency, it would probably be far too much to say that concepts are entirely nonexistent without words (non-verbal thinking is a well-known and scientifically confirmed phenomenon, and there are numerous docuented cases of aphasia that clearly show that cognitive processes remain intact even though the ability to use words was lost), but experimental evidence also points to the conclusion that the presence and use of words greatly boosts acquisition and use of new concepts (e.g. situations where there's a single word for a concept ve. situations where new concepts only have descriptive labels vs. situations where concepts are labelled by means of nonword symbols).

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True, concepts can exist without words to describe them, but in a more general way (a population) if the concept has no word attached to it it's difficult-to-impossible to talk about it, so, being diluted in the mass of people it simply dissapears. Or let's say it stays dormant until someone will name it.

In the case of the tribe without numerals even if they would instinctively hint to the existance of numbers and mathematics the cultural pre-conditioning will hold them back. So, people brought up without numerals might not grasp that notion at old age. Or, the researchers didn't know how to explain the tribesmen the notion using the tribe's own cultural references.

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True, concepts can exist without words to describe them, but in a more general way (a population) if the concept has no word attached to it it's difficult-to-impossible to talk about it, so, being diluted in the mass of people it simply dissapears. Or let's say it stays dormant until someone will name it.

Well, very often a concept is quite available to the general public and well-known while its name is a specific term that laymen seldom know. For example, I'm pretty certain everyone has at least once seen a pantograph but I guess the number of people who know that it's called that is much smaller. It doesn't prevent those who don't know the term from knowing what it is, being able to recognize it, drawing inferences about it (e.g. if a pantograph is detached from the overhead line it will cut power supply of the tram) and occasionally referring to it by means of description or a generic word/placeholder name ("thing", "gizmo" etc.; in some theories such words are called "metawords" for being able to refer to, well, pretty much everything). Of course, the lack of a specific name for a concept (or knowledge thereof by general public) does make a considerable obstacle for talking about it, but it doesn't necessarily result in the disappearance of a concept.

Abstract concepts, on the other hand, are probably much more affected by the presence or absence of respective names in a language.

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No problem. That amazonian rainforest is crazy. People miss concepts hahahahaha.

Imagine when some anthropologists will find a tribe that completely lack the concept of corruption and politics :D

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Dunno about corruption, but it might pretty well be the case that the Piraha people are unfamiliar with the concept of greed, seeing as how they generally don't make provisions and never hoard any goods. They do trade cocounts that they forage in the jungle for stuff like European clothes, but I guess no one there is particularly inclined to get a second T-shirt if they already have one :)

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Concepts like greed, corruption, etc. come with increase in population above the sustainability threshold. Then, out of fear of not having enough, people start to stockpile, and other people would make generous gifts of stuff in order to get the stuff they need. Etc.

In the case of these people, they don't even need to practice agriculture, the whole ecosystem is providing for them.

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lol, studying down the individuals subsisting on a privileged position in power relations

 

this wednesday I'm leading a debate about Whorf in our synchrone-linguistic seminary...

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I think the Klingon's name is spelled without an H.

BTW, Whorf's biography is pretty interesting. He was self-taught in linguistics, having been educated as a chemist, and had remarkable knowledge in both fields. I find this particular story quite entertaining:

Around the same time he began work as a fire prevention engineer (an inspector) for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. He was particularly good at the job and was highly commended by his employers. His job required him to travel to production facilities throughout New England to be inspected. In one anecdote his arrival at a chemical plant is described in which he was denied access by the director because he would not allow anyone to see the production procedure which was a trade secret. Having been told what the plant produced, Whorf wrote a chemical formula on a piece of paper, saying to the director: "I think this is what you're doing". The surprised director asked Whorf how he knew about the secret procedure, and he simply answered: "You couldn't do it in any other way."

(from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Lee_Whorf'>Wikipedia)

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It seems to me that Whorf pushed the ideas prepared by Sapir and Boas to extremes - determinism, marginalization of differences within language branches... it gave linguists access to anthropological studies, but more for experimental reasons. Sapir's theory of language drift was nearly forgotten, we're using again only the Schleicher's old typology, and the "American school" is now mostly about abstract things like language emergence or, for that matter, proving that Whorf was right.

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It seems to me that Whorf pushed the ideas prepared by Sapir and Boas to extremes - determinism, marginalization of differences within language branches...
Curiously enough, the (mostly unexplored) nature of the relation between language and thought can be logically pushed to either of the extreme opposites - either postulating that thought is completely independent of language, or that is influenced/determined by it. However, either claim is quite tough to test empirically, especially since reasoning comparable to that of humans is not observed in beings devoid of language.

I must say that even though the experiments with colour terminology have greatly contributed to various fields in both linguistics and psychology, they are not convincing enough to prove Whorfianism false.

I'd say that the problem here is that perhaps the initial question whether language influences/determines thinking or not, is not properly formulated in the first place. Obviously, we cannot stick with any definition of reasoning that focuses on logical faculties and ignores cultural, psychological and cognitive (in the experiencialist terms) aspects of human life and behaviour. However, including all those raises lots of additional problems, makes the definition of thought vague at best, and besides, if we include culture, we'll also have to language as well.

One thing that is perhaps safe to assume is that language is a tool, not a separate entity. These days, views on evolution become more widespread that take into account not only the genes, but the mutual influence of an organism and its environment in their adaptive interaction. Perhaps the mutual influence of humans on the language and vice versa could also be understood in similar terms.

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