Saturday, January 22, 2011

Language and thought

Scientific paradigms come and go. An idea will emerge and flower, often to be overshadowed by a newer, better idea, and find itself left to wither and die. But sometimes, rarely, the old idea stirs in its grave, threatening to rise from the dead.

A case in point is the idea by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf that a language may determine h0w its speakers are able to think. Their most famous example came from studying the Hopi language, which they said lacked many markers for past, present and future, leaving them to speculate that Hopis don't think of time in the way that we do.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis gained a big following in the 1930s and 40s, but by the 1970s it was all but abandoned. The problem? It suffered a near complete lack of evidence to support the claims. And, it turned out, they didn't know enough Hopi to realize it did the tense job in other ways. Linguists came up with a new idea: thought is universal.

Enter an article in the current Scientific American by Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor at Stanford and editor in chief of "Frontiers in Cultural Psychology." Now, she said, researchers have the evidence.

She's armed with plenty of examples,, such as the little girl from an Australian Aboriginal tribe that has no words for "left" and "right," but only uses absolute cardinal directions. She can instantly point to due north from anywhere (you try that away from home), or the Amazon language that lacks numbers and only has words for "few" and many."

Examples abound, and although more work is needed, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems intuitively correct. But here's a self test: If you were told that "grue" is a color half way between green and blue, would you start noticing the color grue?

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