The Power of Language Learning

“I feel that American as against British English, and English of any major dialect as against Russian, and both languages as against the Tarascan language of Mexico constitute different worlds. I note that it is persons with experience of foreign languages and poetry who feel most acutely that a natural language is a different way not only of talking but of thinking and imaging and of emotional life.”
~Paul Friedrich, The Language Parallax, Kindle Locations 356-359

“Marketing professor David Luna has performed tests on people who are not just bilingual but bicultural—those who have internalized two different cultures—which lend support to this model of cultural frames. Working with people immersed equally in both American and Hispanic cultures, he examined their responses to various advertisements and newspaper articles in both languages and compared them to those of bilinguals who were only immersed in one culture. He reports that biculturals, more than monoculturals, would feel “like a different person” when they spoke different languages, and they accessed different mental frames depending on the cultural context, resulting in shifts in their sense of self.”
~Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, p. 204

Like Daniel Everett, the much earlier Roger Williams went to convert the natives, and in the process he was deconverted, at least to the extent of losing his righteous Puritanism. And as with Everett, he studied the native languages and wrote about them. That could be an example of the power of linguistic relativity, in that studying another language could cause you to enter another cultural worldview.

On a related note, Baruch Spinoza did textual analysis, Thomas Paine did Biblical criticism, Friedrich Nietzsche did philology, etc. It makes one wonder how studying language might help shape the thought and redirect the life trajectory of certain thinkers. Many radicals have a history of studying languages and texts. The same thing is seen with a high number of academics, ministers, and apologists turning into agnostics and atheists through an originally faithful study of the Bible (e.g., Robert M. Price).

There is a trickster quality to language, something observed by many others. To closely study language and the products of language is to risk having one’s mind unsettled and then to risk being scorned by those locked into a single linguistic worldview. What Everett found was that, in trying to translate the Bible for the Piraha, he was destabilizing his place within the religious order and also, in discovering the lack of linguistic recursion, destabilizing his place within the academic order. Both organized religion and organized academia are institutions of power that maintain the proper order. For the same reason of power, governments have often enforced a single language for the entire population, as thought control and social control, as enforced assimilation.

Monolingualism goes hand in hand with monoculturalism. And so simply learning a foreign language can be one of the most radical acts that one can commit. The more foreign the language, the more radical the effect. But sometimes simply scrutinizing one’s own native language can shift one’s mind, a possible connection between writing and a greater potential for independent thought. Then again, knowledge of language can also make one a better rhetorician and propagandist. Language as trickster phenomenon does have two faces.

* * *

The Bilingual Mind
by Aneta Pavlenko
pp. 25-27

Like Humboldt and Sapir before him, Whorf, too, believed in the plasticity of the human mind and its ability to go beyond the categories of the mother tongue. This belief permeates the poignant plea for ‘multilingual awareness’ made by the terminally ill Whorf to the world on the brink of World War II:

I believe that those who envision a world speaking only one tongue, whether English, German, Russian, or any other, hold a misguided ideal and would do the evolution of the human mind the greatest disservice. Western culture has made, through language, a provisional analysis of reality and, without correctives, holds resolutely to that analysis as final. The only correctives lie in all those other tongues which by aeons of independent evolution have arrived at different, but equally logical, provisional analyses. ([ 1941b ] 2012 : 313)

Whorf’s arguments fell on deaf ears, because they were made in a climate significantly less tolerant of linguistic diversity than that of the late imperial Russia and the USSR. In the nineteenth century, large immigrant communities in the US (in particular German speakers) enjoyed access to native-language education, press and theater. The situation began to change during the period often termed the Great Migration (1880–1924), when approximately 24 million new immigrants entered the country (US Bureau of the Census, 1975 ). The overwhelming influx raised concerns about national unity and the capacity of American society to assimilate such a large body of newcomers. In 1917, when the US entered the European conflict declaring war on Germany, the anti-immigrant sentiments found an outlet in a strong movement against ‘the language of the enemy’: German books were removed from libraries and destroyed, German-language theaters and publications closed, and German speakers became subject to intimidation and threats (Luebke , 1980 ; Pavlenko, 2002a ; Wiley , 1998 ).

The advisability of German – and other foreign-language-medium – instruction also came into question, in a truly Humboldtian fashion that linked the learning of foreign languages with adoption of ‘foreign’ worldviews (e.g., Gordy , 1918 ). The National Education Association went as far as to declare “the practice of giving instruction … in a foreign tongue to be un-American and unpatriotic” (Fitz-Gerald , 1918 : 62). And while many prominent intellectuals stood up in defense of foreign languages (e.g., Barnes, 1918 ), bilingual education gave way and so did foreign-language instruction at the elementary level, where children were judged most vulnerable and where 80% of them ended their education. Between 1917 and 1922, Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota issued laws that prohibited foreign-language instruction in grades I through VIII, while Wisconsin and Minnesota restricted it to one hour a day. Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio made the teaching of German illegal at the elementary level, and so did several cities with large German-speaking populations, including Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia (Luebke , 1980 ; Pavlenko, 2002a ). The double standard that made bilingualism an upper-class privilege reserved for ‘real’ Americans is seen in the address given by Vassar College professor Marian Whitney at the Modern Language Teachers conference in 1918:

In so far as teaching foreign languages in our elementary schools has been a means of keeping a child of foreign birth in the language and ideals of his family and tradition, I think it a bad thing; but to teach young Americans French, German, or Spanish at an age when their oral and verbal memory is keen and when languages come easily, is a good thing. (Whitney , 1918 : 11–12)

The intolerance reached its apogee in Roosevelt ’s 1919 address to the American Defense Society that equated English monolingualism with loyalty to the US:

We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boardinghouse; and we have room for but one sole loyalty, and that is the loyalty to the American people. (cited in Brumberg, 1986 : 7)

Reprinted in countless Board of Education brochures, this speech fortified the pressure not only to learn English but to abandon native languages. This pressure precipitated a rapid shift to English in many immigrant communities, further facilitated by the drastic reduction in immigrant influx, due to the quotas established by the 1924 National Origins Act (Pavlenko , 2002a ). Assimilation efforts also extended to Native Americans, who were no longer treated as sovereign nations – many Native American children were sent to English-language boarding schools, where they lost their native languages (Morgan, 2009 ; Spack , 2002 ).

The endangerment of Native American languages was of great concern to Boas, Sapir , and Whorf , yet their support for linguistic diversity and multilingualism never translated into reforms and policies: in the world outside of academia, Americanization laws and efforts were making US citizenry unapologetically monolingual and the disappearance of ‘multilingual awareness’ was applauded by academics who viewed bilingualism as detrimental to children’s cognitive, linguistic and emotional development (Anastasi & Cordova , 1953 ; Bossard, 1945 ; Smith, 1931 , 1939 ; Spoerl , 1943 ; Yoshioka , 1929 ; for discussion, see Weinreich, 1953 : 115–118). It was only in the 1950s that Arsenian ( 1945 ), Haugen ( 1953 , 1956 ), and Weinreich ( 1953 ) succeeded in promoting a more positive view of bilingualism, yet part of their success resided in the fact that by then bilingualism no longer mattered – it was regarded, as we will see, as an “unusual” characteristic, pervasive at the margins but hardly relevant for the society at large.

In the USSR, on the other hand, linguists’ romantic belief in linguistic rights and politicians’ desire to institutionalize nations as fundamental constituents of the state gave rise to the policy of korenizatsia [nativization] and a unique educational system that promoted the development of multilingual competence (Hirsch, 2005 ; Pavlenko , 2013 ; Smith , 1998 ). It is a little-known and under-appreciated irony that throughout the twentieth century, language policies in the ‘totalitarian’ Soviet Union were significantly more liberal – even during the period of the so-called ‘russification’– than those in the ‘liberal’ United States.

Straw Men in the Linguistic Imaginary

“For many of us, the idea that the language we speak affects how we think might seem self-evident, hardly requiring a great deal of scientific proof. However, for decades, the orthodoxy of academia has held categorically that the language a person speaks has no effect on the way they think. To suggest otherwise could land a linguist in such trouble that she risked her career. How did mainstream academic thinking get itself in such a straitjacket?”
~ Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct

Portraying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as linguistic determinism is a straw man fallacy. It’s false to speak of a Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at all as no such hypothesis was ever proposed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Interestingly, it turns out that researchers have since found examples of what could be called linguistic determinism or at least very strong linguistic relativity, although still apparently rare (similar to how examples of genetic determinism are rare). But that is neither here nor there, considering Sapir and Whorf didn’t argue for linguistic determinism, no matter how you quote-mine their texts. The position of relativity, similar to social constructivism, is the wholesale opposite of rigid determinism — besides, linguistic relativism wasn’t even a major focus of Sapir’s work even as he influenced Whorf.

Turning their view into a caricature of determinism was an act of projection. It was the anti-relativists who were arguing for biology determining language, from Noam Chomsky’s language module in the brain to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s supposedly universal color categories. It was masterful rhetoric to turn the charge onto those holding the moderate position in order to dress them up as ideologial extremists and charlatans. And with Sapir and Whorf gone from early deaths, they weren’t around to defend themselves and to deny what was claimed on their behalf.

Even Whorf’s sometimes strongly worded view of relativity, by today’s standards and knowledge in the field, doesn’t sound particularly extreme. If anything, to those informed of the most up-to-date research, denying such obvious claims would now sound absurd. How did so many become disconnected from simple truths of human experience that anyone who dared speak these truths could be ridiculed and dismissed out of hand? For generations, relativists stating common sense criticisms of race realism were dismissed in a similar way, and they were often the same people (cultural relativity and linguistic relativity in American scholarship was influenced by Franz Boas) — the argument tying them together is that relativity in expression and emodiment of our shared humanity (think of it more in terms of Daniel Everett’s dark matter of the mind) is based on a complex and flexible set of universal potentials, such that universalism doesn’t require nor indicate essentialism. Yet why do we go on clinging to so many forms of determinism, essentialism, and nativism, including those ideas advocated by many of Sapir and Whorf’s opponents?

We are in a near impossible situation, Essentialism has been a cornerstone of modern civilization, most of all in its WEIRD varieties. Relativity simply can’t be fully comprehended, much less tolerated, within the dominant paradigm, although as Leavitt argues it resonates with the emphasis on language found in Romanticism which was a previous response to essentialism. As for linguistic determinism, even if it were true beyond a few exceptional cases, it is by and large an untestable hypothesis at present and so scientifically meaningless within WEIRD science. WEIRD researchers exist in a civilization that has become dominated by WEIRD societies with nearly all alternatives destroyed or altered beyond their original form. There is no where to stand outside of the WEIRD paradigm, especially not the WEIRDest of the WEIRD researchers doing most of the research.

If certain thoughts are unthinkable within WEIRD culture and language, we have no completely alien mode of thought by which to objectively assess the WEIRD, as imperialism and globalization has left no society untouched. There is no way for us to even think about what might be unthinkable, much less research it. This doublebind goes right over the heads of most people, even over the heads of some relativists who fear being disparaged if they don’t outright deny any possibility of the so-called strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. That such a hypothesis potentially could describe reality to a greater extent than we’d prefer is, for most people infected with the WEIRD mind virus and living within the WEIRD monocultural reality tunnel, itself an unthinkable thought.

It is unthinkable and, in its fullest form, fundamentally untestable. And so it is terra incognito within the collective mind. The response is typically either uncomfortable irritation or nervous laughter. Still, the limited evidence in support of linguistic determinism points to the possibility of it being found in other as-of-yet unexplored areas — maybe a fair amount of evidence already exists that will later be reinterpreted when a new frame of understanding becomes established or when someone, maybe generations later, looks at it with fresh eyes. History is filled with moments when something shifted allowing the incomprehensible and unspeakable to become a serious public debate, sometimes a new social reality. Determinism in all of its varieties seems a generally unfrutiful path of research, although in its linguistic form it is compelling as a thought experiment in showing how little we know and can know, how severely constrained is our imaginative capacities.

We don’t look in the darkness where we lost what we are looking for because the light is better elsewhere. But what would we find if we did search the shadows? Whether or not we discovered proof for linguistic determinism, we might stumble across all kinds of other inconvenient evidence pointing toward ever more radical and heretical thoughts. Linguistic relativity and determinism might end up playing a central role less because of the bold answers offered than in the questions that were dared to be asked. Maybe, in thinking about determinism, we could come to a more profound insight of relativity — after all, a complex enough interplay of seemingly deterministic factors would for all appearances be relativistic, that is to say what seen to be linear causation could when lines of causation are interwoven lead to emergent properties. The relativistic whole, in that case, presumably would be greater than the deterministic parts.

Besides, it always depends on perspective. Consider Whorf who “has been rejected both by cognitivists as a relativist and by symbolic and postmodern anthropologists as a determinist and essentialist” (John Leavitt, Linguistic Relativities, p. 193; Leavitt’s book goes into immense detail about all of the misunderstanding and misinterpretation, much of it because of intellectual laziness or hubris  but some of motivated by ideological agendas; the continuing and consistent wrongheadedness makes it difficult to not take much of it as arguing in bad faith). It’s not always clear what the debate is supposed to be about. Ironically, such terms as ‘determinism’ and ‘relativity’ are relativistic in their use while, in how we use them, determining how we think about the issues and how we interpret the evidence. There is no way to take ourselves out of the debate itself for our own humanity is what we are trying to place under the microscope, causing us tremendous psychological contortions in maintaining whatever worldview we latch onto.

There is less distance between linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism than is typically assumed. The former says we are only limited by habit of thought and all it entails within culture and relationships. Yet habits of thought can be so powerful as to essentially determine social orders for centuries and millennia. Calling this mere ‘habit’ hardly does it justice. In theory, a society isn’t absolutely determined to be the way it is nor for those within it to behave the way they do, but in practice extremely few individuals ever escape the gravity pull of habitual conformity and groupthink (i.e., Jaynesian self-authorization is more a story we tell ourselves than an actual description of behavior).

So, yes, in terms of genetic potential and neuroplasticity, there was nothing directly stopping Bronze Age Egyptians from starting an industrial revolution and there is nothing stopping a present-day Piraha from becoming a Harvard professor of mathematics — still, the probability of such things happening is next to zero. Consider the rare individuals in our own society who break free of the collective habits of our society, as they usually either end up homeless or institutionalized, typically with severely shortened lives. To not go along with the habits of your society is to be deemed insane, incompetent, and/or dangerous. Collective habits within a social order involve systematic enculturation, indoctrination, and enforcement. The power of language — even if only relativistic — over our minds is one small part of the cultural system, albeit an important part.

We don’t need to go that far with our argument, though. However you want to splice it, there is plenty of evidence that remains to be explained. And the evidence has become overwhelming and, to many, disconcerting. The debate over the validity of the theory of linguistic relativity is over. But the opponents of the theory have had two basic strategies to contain their loss and keep the debate on life support. They conflate linguistic relativity with linguistic determinism and dismiss it as laughably false. Or they concede that linguistic relativity is partly correct but argue that it’s insignificant in influence, as if they never denied it and simply were unimpressed.

“This is characteristic: one defines linguistic relativity in such an extreme way as to make it seem obviously untrue; one is then free to acknowledge the reality of the data at the heart of the idea of linguistic relativity – without, until quite recently, proposing to do any serious research on these data.” (John Leavit, Linguistic Relativities, p. 166)

Either way, essentialists maintain their position as if no serious challenge was posed. The evidence gets lost in the rhetoric, as the evidence keeps growing.

Still, there is something more challenging that also gets lost in debate, even when evidence is acknowledged. What motivated someone like Whorf wasn’t intellectual victory and academic prestige. There was a sense of human potential locked behind habit. That is why it was so important to study foreign cultures with their diverse languages, not only for the sake of knowledge but to be confronted by entirely different worldviews. Essentialists are on the old imperial path of Whiggish Enlightenment, denying differences by proclaiming that all things Western are the norm of humanity and reality, sometimes taken as a universal ideal state or the primary example by which to measure all else… an ideology that easily morphs into yet darker specters:

“Any attempt to speak of language in general is illusory; the (no doubt French or English) philosopher who does so is merely elevating his own mother tongue to the status of a universal standard (p. 3). See how the discourse of diversity can be turned to defend racism and fascism! I suppose by now this shouldn’t surprise us – we’ve seen so many examples of it at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century.” (John Leavit, Linguistic Relativities, p. 161)

In this light, it should be unsurprising that the essentialist program presented in Chomskyan linguistics was supported and funded by the Pentagon (their specific interest in this case being about human-computer interface in eliminating messy human error; in studying the brain as a computer, it was expected that the individual human mind could be made more amenable to a computerized system of military action and its accompanying chain-of-command). Essentialism makes promises that are useful for systems of effective control as part of a larger technocratic worldview of social control.

The essentialist path we’ve been on has left centuries of destruction in its wake. But from the humbling vista opening onto further possibilities, the relativists offer not a mere scientific theory but a new path for humanity or rather they throw light onto the multiple paths before us. In offering respect and openness toward the otherness of others, we open ourselves toward the otherness within our own humanity. The point is that, though trapped in linguistic cultures, the key to our release is also to be found in the same place. But this requires courage and curiosity, a broadening of the moral imagination.

Let me end on a note of irony. In comparing linguistic cultures, Joseph Needham wrote that, “Where Western minds asked ‘what essentially is it?’, Chinese minds asked ‘how is it related in its beginnings, functions, and endings with everything else, and how ought we to react to it?” This was quoted by Jeremy Lent in the Patterning Instinct (p. 206; quote originally from: Science and Civilization in China, vol. 2, History of Scientific Thought, pp. 199-200). Lent makes clear that this has everything to do with language. Chinese language embodies ambiguity and demands contextual understanding, whereas Western or more broadly Indo-European language elicits abstract essentialism.

So, it is a specific linguistic culture of essentialism that influences, if not entirely determines, that Westerners are predisposed to see language as essentialist, rather than as relative. And it is this very essentialism that causes many Westerners, especially abstract-minded intellectuals, to be blind to essentialism as being linguistically cultural, but not essentialist to human nature and neurocognitive functioning. That is the irony. This essentialist belief system is further proof of linguistic relativism.

 

* * *

The Patterning Instinct
by Jeremy Lent
pp. 197-205

The ability of these speakers to locate themselves in a way that is impossible for the rest of us is only the most dramatic in an array of discoveries that are causing a revolution in the world of linguistics. Researchers point to the Guugu Yimithirr as prima facie evidence supporting the argument that the language you speak affects how your cognition develops. As soon as they learn their first words, Guugu Yimithirr infants begin to structure their orientation around the cardinal directions. In time, their neural connections get wired accordingly until this form of orientation becomes second nature, and they no longer even have to think about where north, south, east, and west are.3 […]

For many of us, the idea that the language we speak affects how we think might seem self-evident, hardly requiring a great deal of scientific proof. However, for decades, the orthodoxy of academia has held categorically that the language a person speaks has no effect on the way they think. To suggest otherwise could land a linguist in such trouble that she risked her career. How did mainstream academic thinking get itself in such a straitjacket?4

The answer can be found in the remarkable story of one charismatic individual, Benjamin Whorf. In the early twentieth century, Whorf was a student of anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir, whose detailed study of Native American languages had caused him to propose that a language’s grammatical structure corresponds to patterns of thought in its culture. “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do,” Sapir suggested, “because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”5

Whorf took this idea, which became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, to new heights of rhetoric. The grammar of our language, he claimed, affects how we pattern meaning into the natural world. “We cut up and organize the spread and flow of events as we do,” he wrote, “largely because, through our mother tongue, we are parties to an agreement to do so, not because nature itself is segmented in exactly that way for all to see.”6 […]

Whorf was brilliant but highly controversial. He had a tendency to use sweeping generalizations and dramatic statements to drive home his point. “As goes our segmentation of the face of nature,” he wrote, “so goes our physics of the Cosmos.” Sometimes he went beyond the idea that language affects how we think to a more strident assertion that language literally forces us to think in a certain way. “The forms of a person’s person’s thoughts,” he proclaimed, “are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious.” This rhetoric led people to interpret the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a theory of linguistic determinism, claiming that people’s thoughts are inevitably determined by the structure of their language.8

A theory of rigid linguistic determinism is easy to discredit. All you need to do is show a Hopi Indian capable of thinking in terms of past, present, and future, and you’ve proven that her language didn’t ordain how she was able to think. The more popular the Sapir-Whorf theory became, the more status could be gained by any researcher who poked holes in it. In time, attacking Sapir-Whorf became a favorite path to academic tenure, until the entire theory became completely discredited.9

In place of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis arose what is known as the nativist view, which argues that the grammar of language is innate to humankind. As discussed earlier, the theory of universal grammar, proposed by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and popularized more recently by Steven Pinker, posits that humans have a “language instinct” with grammatical rules coded into our DNA. This theory has dominated the field of linguistics for decades. “There is no scientific evidence,” writes Pinker, “that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking.” Pinker and other adherents to this theory, however, are increasingly having to turn a blind eye—not just to the Guugu Yimithirr but to the accumulating evidence of a number of studies showing the actual effects of language on people’s patterns of thought.10 […]

Psychologist Peter Gordon saw an opportunity to test the most extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with the Pirahã. If language predetermined patterns of thought, then the Pirahã should be unable to count, in spite of the fact that they show rich intelligence in other forms of their daily life. He performed a number of tests with the Pirahã over a two-year period, and his results were convincing: as soon as the Pirahã had to deal with a set of objects beyond three, their counting performance disintegrated. His study, he concludes, “represents a rare and perhaps unique case for strong linguistic determinism.”12

The Guugu Yimithirr, at one end of the spectrum, show the extraordinary skills a language can give its speakers; the Pirahã, at the other end, show how necessary language is for basic skills we take for granted. In between these two extremes, an increasing number of researchers are demonstrating a wide variety of more subtle ways the language we speak can influence how we think.

One set of researchers illustrated how language affects perception. They used the fact that the Greek language has two color terms—ghalazio and ble—that distinguish light and dark blue. They tested the speed with which Greek speakers and English speakers could distinguish between these two different colors, even when they weren’t being asked to name them, and discovered the Greeks were significantly faster.13

Another study demonstrates how language helps structure memory. When bilingual Mandarin-English speakers were asked in English to name a statue of someone with a raised arm looking into the distance, they were more likely to name the Statue of Liberty. When they were asked the same question in Mandarin, they named an equally famous Chinese statue of Mao with his arm raised.14

One intriguing study shows English and Spanish speakers remembering accidental events differently. In English, an accident is usually described in the standard subject-verb-object format of “I broke the bottle.” In Spanish, a reflexive verb is often used without an agent, such as “La botella se rompió”—“the bottle broke.” The researchers took advantage of this difference, asking English and Spanish speakers to watch videos of different intentional and accidental events and later having them remember what happened. Both groups had similar recall for the agents involved in intentional events. However, when remembering the accidental events, English speakers recalled the agents better than the Spanish speakers did.15

Language can also have a significant effect in channeling emotions. One researcher read the same story to Greek-English bilinguals in one language and, then, months later, in the other. Each time, he interviewed them about their feelings in response to the story. The subjects responded differently to the story depending on its language, and many of these differences could be attributed to specific emotion words available in one language but not the other. The English story elicited a sense of frustration in readers, but there is no Greek word for frustration, and this emotion was absent in responses to the Greek story. The Greek version, however, inspired a sense of stenahoria in several readers, an emotion loosely translated as “sadness/discomfort/suffocation.” When one subject was asked why he hadn’t mentioned stenahoria after his English reading of the story, he answered that he cannot feel stenahoria in English, “not just because the word doesn’t exist but because that kind of situation would never arise.”16 […]

Marketing professor David Luna has performed tests on people who are not just bilingual but bicultural—those who have internalized two different cultures—which lend support to this model of cultural frames. Working with people immersed equally in both American and Hispanic cultures, he examined their responses to various advertisements and newspaper articles in both languages and compared them to those of bilinguals who were only immersed in one culture. He reports that biculturals, more than monoculturals, would feel “like a different person” when they spoke different languages, and they accessed different mental frames depending on the cultural context, resulting in shifts in their sense of self.25

In particular, the use of root metaphors, embedded so deeply in our consciousness that we don’t even notice them, influences how we define our sense of self and apply meaning to the world around us. “Metaphor plays a very significant role in determining what is real for us,” writes cognitive linguist George Lakoff. “Metaphorical concepts…structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.”26

These metaphors enter our minds as infants, as soon as we begin to talk. They establish neural pathways that are continually reinforced until, just like the cardinal directions of the Guugu Yimithirr, we use our metaphorical constructs without even recognizing them as metaphors. When a parent, for example, tells a child to “put that out of your mind,” she is implicitly communicating a metaphor of the MIND AS A CONTAINER that should hold some things and not others.27

When these metaphors are used to make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos, they become the root metaphors that structure a culture’s approach to meaning. Hunter-gatherers, as we’ve seen, viewed the natural world through the root metaphor of GIVING PARENT, which gave way to the agrarian metaphor of ANCESTOR TO BE PROPITIATED. Both the Vedic and Greek traditions used the root metaphor of HIGH IS GOOD to characterize the source of ultimate meaning as transcendent, while the Chinese used the metaphor of PATH in their conceptualization of the Tao. These metaphors become hidden in plain sight, since they are used so extensively that people begin to accept them as fundamental structures of reality. This, ultimately, is how culture and language reinforce each other, leading to a deep persistence of underlying structures of thought from one generation to the next.28

Linguistic Relativities
by John Leavitt
pp. 138-142

Probably the most famous statement of Sapir’s supposed linguistic determinism comes from “The Status of Linguistics as a Science,” a talk published in 1929:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of a particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language, and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are different worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir 1949: 162)

This is the passage that is most commonly quoted to demonstrate the putative linguistic determinism of Sapir and of his student Whorf, who cites some of it (1956: 134) at the beginning of “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,” a paper published in a Sapir Festschrift in 1941. But is this linguistic determinism? Or is it the statement of an observed reality that must be dealt with? Note that the passage does not say that it is impossible to translate between different languages, nor to convey the same referential content in both. Note also that there is a piece missing here, between “labels attached” and “We see and hear.” In fact, the way I have presented it, with the three dots, is how this passage is almost always presented (e.g., Lucy 1992a: 22); otherwise, the quote usually ends at “labels attached.” If we look at what has been elided, we find two examples, coming in a new paragraph immediately after “attached.” In a typically Sapirian way, one is poetic, the other perceptual. He begins:

The understanding of a simple poem, for instance, involves not merely an understanding of the single words in their average significance, but a full comprehension of the whole life of the community as it is mirrored in the words, or as it is suggested by the overtones.

So the apparent claim of linguistic determinism is to be illustrated by – a poem (Friedrich 1979: 479–80), and a simple one at that! In light of this missing piece of the passage, what Sapir seems to be saying is not that language determines thought, but that language is part of social reality, and so is thought, and to understand either a thought or “a green thought in a green shade” you need to consider the whole.

The second example is one of the relationship of terminology to classification:

Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose. If one draws some dozen lines, for instance, of different shapes, one peceives them as divisible into such categories as “straight,” “crooked,” “curved,” “zigzag” because of the classificatory suggestiveness of the linguistic terms themselves. We see and hear …

Again, is Sapir here arguing for a determination of thought by language or simply observing that in cases of sorting out complex data, one will tend to use the categories that are available? In the latter case, he would be suggesting to his audience of professionals (the source is a talk given to a joint meeting of the Linguistic Society of America and the American Anthropological Association) that such phenomena may extend beyond simple classification tasks.

Here it is important to distinguish between claims of linguistic determinism and the observation of the utility of available categories, an observation that in itself in no way questions the likely importance of the non-linguistic salience of input or the physiological component of perception. Taken in the context of the overall Boasian approach to language and thought, this is clearly the thrust of Sapir’s comments here. Remember that this was the same man who did the famous “Study on Phonetic Symbolism,” which showed that there are what appear to be universal psychological reactions to certain speech sounds (his term is “symbolic feeling-significance”), regardless of the language or the meaning of the word in which these sounds are found (in Sapir 1949). This evidence against linguistic determinism, as it happens, was published the same year as “The Status of Linguistics as a Science,” but in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.3

The metaphor Sapir uses most regularly for the relation of language patterning to thought is not that of a constraint, but of a road or groove that is relatively easy or hard to follow. In Language, he proposed that languages are “invisible garments” for our spirits; but at the beginning of the book he had already questioned this analogy: “But what if language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove?” (p. 15); grammatical patterning provides “grooves of expression, (which) have come to be felt as inevitable” (p. 89; cf. Erickson et al. 1997: 298). One important thing about a road is that you can get off it; of a groove, that you can get out of it. We will see that this kind of wording permeates Whorf’s formulations as well. […]

Since the early 1950s, Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941) has most often been presented as the very epitome of extreme cognitive relativism and linguistic determinism. Indeed, as the name attached to the “linguistic determinism hypothesis,” a hypothesis almost never evoked but to be denied, Whorf has become both the best-known ethnolinguist outside the field itself and one of the great straw men of the century. This fate is undeserved; he was not a self-made straw man, as Marshall Sahlins once called another well-known anthropologist. While Whorf certainly maintained what he called a principle of linguistic relativity, it is clear from reading Language, Thought, and Reality, the only generally available source of his writings, published posthumously in 1956, and even clearer from still largely unpublished manuscripts, that he was also a strong universalist who accepted the general validity of modern science. With some re-evaluations since the early 1990s (Lucy 1992a; P. Lee 1996), we now have a clearer idea of what Whorf was about.

In spite of sometimes deterministic phraseology, Whorf presumed that much of human thinking and perception was non-linguistic and universal across languages. In particular, he admired Gestalt psychology (P. Lee 1996) as a science giving access to general characteristics of human perception across cultures and languages, including the lived experiences that lie behind the forms that we label time and space. He puts this most clearly in discussions of the presumably universal perception of visual space:

A discovery made by modern configurative or Gestalt psychology gives us a canon of reference, irrespective of their languages or scientific jargons, by which to break down and describe all visually observable situations, and many other situations, also. This is the discovery that visual perception is basically the same for all normal persons past infancy and conforms to definite laws. (Whorf 1956: 165)

Whorf clearly believed there was a real world out there, although, enchanted by quantum mechanics and relativity theory, he also believed that this was not the world as we conceive it, nor that every human being conceives it habitually in the same way.

Whorf also sought and proposed general descriptive principles for the analysis of languages of the most varied type. And along with Sapir, he worked on sound symbolism, proposing the universality of feeling-associations to certain speech sounds (1956: 267). Insofar as he was a good disciple of Sapir and Boas, Whorf believed, like them, in the universality of cognitive abilities and of some fundamental cognitive processes. And far from assuming that language determines thought and culture, Whorf wrote in the paper for the Sapir volume that

I should be the last to pretend that there is anything so definite as “a correlation” between culture and language, and especially between ethnological rubrics such as “agricultural, hunting,” etc., and linguistic ones like “inflected,” “synthetic,” or “isolating.” (pp. 138–9)

pp. 146

For Whorf, certain scientific disciplines – elsewhere he names “relativity, quantum theory, electronics, catalysis, colloid chemistry, theory of the gene, Gestalt psychology, psychoanalysis, unbiased cultural anthropology, and so on” (1956: 220), as well as non-Euclidean geometry and, of course, descriptive linguistics – were exemplary in that they revealed aspects of the world profoundly at variance with the world as modern Westerners habitually assume it to be, indeed as the members of any human language and social group habitually assume it to be.

Since Whorf was concerned with linguistic and/or conceptual patterns that people almost always follow in everyday life, he has often been read as a determinist. But as John Lucy pointed out (1992a), Whorf’s critiques clearly bore on habitual thinking, what it is easy to think; his ethical goal was to force us, through learning about other languages, other ways of foregrounding and linking aspects of experience, to think in ways that are not so easy, to follow paths that are not so familiar. Whorf’s argument is not fundamentally about constraint, but about the seductive force of habit, of what is “easily expressible by the type of symbolic means that language employs” (“Model,” 1956: 55) and so easy to think. It is not about the limits of a given language or the limits of thought, since Whorf presumes, Boasian that he is, that any language can convey any referential content.

Whorf’s favorite analogy for the relation of language to thought is the same as Sapir’s: that of tracks, paths, roads, ruts, or grooves. Even Whorf’s most determinist-sounding passages, which are also the ones most cited, sound very different if we take the implications of this analogy seriously: “Thinking … follows a network of tracks laid down in the given language, an organization which may concentrate systematically upon certain phases of reality … and may systematically discard others featured by other languages. The individual is utterly unaware of this organization and is constrained completely within its unbreakable bonds” (1956: 256); “we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages” (p. 213). But this is from the same essay in which Whorf asserted the universality of “ways of linking experiences … basically alike for all persons”; and this completely constrained individual is evidently the unreflective (utterly unaware) Mr. Everyman (Schultz 1990), and the very choice of the analogy of traced lines or tracks, assuming that they are not railway tracks – that they are not is suggested by all the other road and path metaphors – leaves open the possibility of getting off the path, if only we had the imagination and the gumption to do it. We can cut cross-country. In the study of an exotic language, he wrote, “we are at long last pushed willy-nilly out of our ruts. Then we find that the exotic language is a mirror held up to our own” (1956: 138). How can Whorf be a determinist, how can he see us as forever trapped in these ruts, if the study of another language is sufficient to push us, kicking and screaming perhaps, out of them?

The total picture, then, is not one of constraint or determinism. It is, on the other hand, a model of powerful seduction: the seduction of what is familiar and easy to think, of what is intellectually restful, of what makes common sense.7 The seduction of the habitual pathway, based largely on laziness and fear of the unknown, can, with work, be resisted and broken. Somewhere in the back of Whorf’s mind may have been the allegory of the broad, fair road to Hell and the narrow, difficult path to Heaven beloved of his Puritan forebears. It makes us think of another New England Protestant: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, / I took the one less travelled by, / and that has made all the difference.”

The recognition of the seduction of the familiar implies a real ethical program:

It is the “plainest” English which contains the greatest number of unconscious assumptions about nature … Western culture has made, through language, a provisional analysis of reality and, without correctives, holds resolutely to that analysis as final. The only correctives lie in all those other tongues which by aeons of independent evolution have arrived at different, but equally logical, provisional analyses. (1956: 244)

Learning non-Western languages offers a lesson in humility and awe in an enormous multilingual world:

We shall no longer be able to see a few recent dialects of the Indo-European family, and the rationalizing techniques elaborated from their patterns, as the apex of the evolution of the human mind, nor their present wide spread as due to any survival from fitness or to anything but a few events of history – events that could be called fortunate only from the parochial point of view of the favored parties. They, and our own thought processes with them, can no longer be envisioned as spanning the gamut of reason and knowledge but only as one constellation in a galactic expanse. (p. 218)

The breathtaking sense of sudden vaster possibility, of the sky opening up to reveal a bigger sky beyond, may be what provokes such strong reactions to Whorf. For some, he is simply enraging or ridiculous. For others, reading Whorf is a transformative experience, and there are many stories of students coming to anthropology or linguistics largely because of their reading of Whorf (personal communications; Alford 2002).

p. 167-168

[T]he rise of cognitive science was accompanied by a restating of what came to be called the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” in the most extreme terms. Three arguments came to the fore repeatedly:

Determinism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis says that the language you speak, and nothing else, determines how you think and perceive. We have already seen how false a characterization this is: the model the Boasians were working from was only deterministic in cases of no effort, of habitual thought or speaking. With enough effort, it is always possible to change your accent or your ideas.

Hermeticism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis maintains that each language is a sealed universe, expressing things that are inexpressible in another language. In such a view, translation would be impossible and Whorf’s attempt to render Hopi concepts in English an absurdity. In fact, the Boasians presumed, rather, that languages were not sealed worlds, but that they were to some degree comparable to worlds, and that passing between them required effort and alertness.

Both of these characterizations are used to set up a now classic article on linguistic relativity by the psychologist Eleanor Rosch (1974):

Are we “trapped” by our language into holding a particular “world view”? Can we never really understand or communicate with speakers of a language quite different from our own because each language has molded the thought of its people into mutually incomprehensible world views? Can we never get “beyond” language to experience the world “directly”? Such issues develop from an extreme form of a position sometimes known as “the Whorfian hypothesis” … and called, more generally, generally, the hypothesis of “linguistic relativity.” (Rosch 1974: 95)

Rosch begins the article noting how intuitively right the importance of language differences first seemed to her, then spends much of the rest of it attacking this initial intuition.

Infinite variability. A third common characterization is that Boasian linguistics holds that, in Martin Joos’s words, “languages can differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable ways” (Joos 1966: 96). This would mean that the identification of any language universal would disprove the approach. In fact, the Boasians worked with the universals that were available to them – these were mainly derived from psychology – but opposed what they saw as the unfounded imposition of false universals that in fact reflected only modern Western prejudices. Joos’s hostile formulation has been cited repeatedly as if it were official Boasian doctrine (see Hymes and Fought 1981: 57).

For over fifty years, these three assertions have largely defined the received understanding of linguistic relativity. Anyone who has participated in discussions and/or arguments about the “Whorfian hypothesis” has heard them over and over again.

p. 169-173

In the 1950s, anthropologists and psychologists were interested in experimentation and the testing of hypotheses on what was taken to be the model of the natural sciences. At a conference on language in culture, Harry Hoijer (1954) first named a Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language influences thought.

To call something a hypothesis is to propose to test it, presumably using experimental methods. This task was taken on primarily by psychologists. A number of attempts were made to prove or disprove experimentally that language influences thought (see Lucy 1992a: 127–78; P. Brown 2006). Both “language” and “thought” were narrowed down to make them more amenable to experiment: the aspect of language chosen was usually the lexicon, presumably the easiest aspect to control in an experimental setting; thought was interpreted to mean perceptual discrimination and cognitive processing, aspects of thinking that psychologists were comfortable testing for. Eric Lenneberg defined the problem posed by the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” as that of “the relationship that a particular language may have to its speakers’ cognitive processes … Does the structure of a given language affect the thoughts (or thought potential), the memory, the perception, the learning ability of those who speak that language?” (1953: 463). Need I recall that Boas, Sapir, and Whorf went out of their way to deny that different languages were likely to be correlated with strengths and weaknesses in cognitive processes, i.e., in what someone is capable of thinking, as opposed to the contents of habitual cognition? […]

Berlin and Kay started by rephrasing Sapir and Whorf as saying that the search for semantic universals was “fruitless in principle” because “each language is semantically arbitrary relative to every other language” (1969: 2; cf. Lucy 1992a: 177–81). If this is what we are calling linguistic relativity, then if any domain of experience, such as color, is identified in recognizably the same way in different languages, linguistic relativity must be wrong. As we have seen, this fits the arguments of Weisgerber and Bloomfield, but not of Sapir or Whorf. […]

A characteristic study was reported recently in my own university’s in-house newspaper under the title “Language and Perception Are Not Connected” (Baril 2004). The article starts by saying that according to the “Whorf–Sapir hypothesis … language determines perception,” and therefore that “we should not be able to distinguish differences among similar tastes if we do not possess words for expressing their nuances, since it is language that constructs the mode of thought and its concepts … According to this hypothesis, every language projects onto its speakers a system of categories through which they see and interpret the world.” The hypothesis, we are told, has been “disconfirmed since the 1970s” by research on color. The article reports on the research of Dominic Charbonneau, a graduate student in psychology. Intrigued by recent French tests in which professional sommeliers, with their elaborate vocabulary, did no better than regular ignoramuses in distinguishing among wines, Charbonneau carried out his own experiment on coffee – this is, after all, a French-speaking university, and we take coffee seriously. Francophone students were asked to distinguish among different coffees; like most of us, they had a minimal vocabulary for distinguishing them (words like “strong,” “smooth,” “dishwater”). The participants made quite fine distinctions among the eighteen coffees served, well above the possible results of chance, showing that taste discrimination does not depend on vocabulary. Conclusion: “Concepts must be independent of language, which once again disconfirms the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” (my italics). And this of course would be true if there were such a hypothesis, if it was primarily about vocabulary, and if it said that vocabulary determines perception.

We have seen that Bloomfield and his successors in linguistics maintained the unlimited arbitrariness of color classifications, and so could have served as easy straw men for the cognitivist return to universals. But what did Boas, Sapir, Whorf, or Lee actually have to say about color? Did they in fact claim that color perception or recognition or memory was determined by vocabulary? Sapir and Lee are easy: as far as I have been able to ascertain, neither one of them talked about color at all. Steven Pinker attributes a relativist and determinist view of color classifications to Whorf:

Among Whorf’s “kaleidoscopic flux of impressions,” color is surely the most eye-catching. He noted that we see objects in different hues, depending on the wavelengths of the light they reflect, but that the wavelength is a continuous dimension with nothing delineating red, yellow, green, blue, and so on. Languages differ in their inventory of color words … You can fill in the rest of the argument. It is language that puts the frets in the spectrum. (Pinker 1994: 61–2)

No he didn’t. Whorf never noted anything like this in any of his published work, and Pinker gives no indication of having gone through Whorf’s unpublished papers. As far as I can ascertain, Whorf talks about color in two places; in both he is saying the opposite of what Pinker says he is saying.

pp. 187-188

The 1950s through the 1980s saw the progressive triumph of universalist cognitive science. From the 1980s, one saw the concomitant rise of relativistic postmodernism. By the end of the 1980s there had been a massive return to the old split between universalizing natural sciences and their ancillary social sciences on the one hand, particularizing humanities and their ancillary cultural studies on the other. Some things, in the prevailing view, were universal, others so particular as to call for treatment as fiction or anecdote. Nothing in between was of very much interest, and North American anthropology, the discipline that had been founded upon and achieved a sort of identity in crossing the natural-science/humanities divide, faced an identity crisis. Symptomatically, one noticed many scholarly bookstores disappearing their linguistics sections into “cognitive science,” their anthropology sections into “cultural studies.”

In this climate, linguistic relativity was heresy, Whorf, in particular, a kind of incompetent Antichrist. The “Whorfian hypothesis” of linguistic relativism or determinism became a topos of any anthropology textbook, almost inevitably to be shown to be silly. Otherwise serious linguists and psychologists (e.g., Pinker 1994: 59–64) continued to dismiss the idea of linguistic relativity with an alacrity suggesting alarm and felt free to heap posthumous personal vilification on Whorf, the favorite target, for his lack of official credentials, in some really surprising displays of academic snobbery. Geoffrey Pullum, to take only one example, calls him a “Connecticut fire prevention inspector and weekend language-fancier” and “our man from the Hartford Fire Insurance Company” (Pullum 1989 [1991]: 163). This comes from a book with the subtitle Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. But how irreverent is it to make fun of somebody almost everybody has been attacking for thirty years?

The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct
by Vyvyan Evans
pp. 195-198

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Whorf?

Psychologist Daniel Casasanto has noted, in an article whose title gives this section its heading, that some researchers find Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity to be threatening. 6 But why is Whorf such a bogeyman for some? And what makes his notion of linguistic relativity such a dangerous idea?

The rationalists fear linguistic relativity – the very idea of it – and they hate it, with a passion: it directly contradicts everything they stand for – if relativism is anywhere near right, then the rationalist house burns down, or collapses, like a tower of cards without a foundation. And this fear and loathing in parts of the Academy can often, paradoxically, be highly irrational indeed. Relativity is often criticised without argumentative support, or ridiculed, just for the audacity of existing as an intellectual idea to begin with. Jerry Fodor, more candid than most about his irrational fear, just hates it. He says: “The thing is: I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate anything else, excepting, maybe, fiberglass powerboats.” 7 Fodor continues, illustrating further his irrational contempt: “surely, surely, no one but a relativist would drive a fiberglass powerboat”. 8

Fodor’s objection is that relativism overlooks what he deems to be “the fixed structure of human nature”. 9 Mentalese provides the fixed structure – as we saw in the previous chapter. If language could interfere with this innate set of concepts, then the fixed structure would no longer be fixed – anathema to a rationalist.

Others are more coy, but no less damning. Pinker’s strategy is to set up straw men, which he then eloquently – but mercilessly – ridicules. 10 But don’t be fooled, there is no serious argument presented – not on this occasion. Pinker takes an untenable and extreme version of what he claims Whorf said, and then pokes fun at it – a common modus operandi employed by those who are afraid. Pinker argues that Whorf was wrong because he equated language with thought: that Whorf assumes that language causes or determines thought in the first place. This is the “conventional absurdity” that Pinker refers to in the first of his quotations above. For Pinker, Whorf was either romantically naïve about the effects of language, or, worse, like the poorly read and ill-educated, credulous.

But this argument is a classic straw man: it is set up to fail, being made of straw. Whorf never claimed that language determined thought. As we shall see, the thesis of linguistic determinism, which nobody believes, and which Whorf explicitly rejected, was attributed to him long after his death. But Pinker has bought into the very myths peddled by the rationalist tradition for which he is cheerleader-in-chief, and which lives in fear of linguistic relativity. In the final analysis, the language-as-instinct crowd should be afraid, very afraid: linguistic relativity, once and for all, explodes the myth of the language-as-instinct thesis.

The rise of the Sapir − Whorf hypothesis

Benjamin Lee Whorf became interested in linguistics in 1924, and studied it, as a hobby, alongside his full-time job as an engineer. In 1931, Whorf began to attend university classes on a part-time basis, studying with one of the leading linguists of the time, Edward Sapir. 11 Amongst other things covered in his teaching, Sapir touched on what he referred to as “relativity of concepts … [and] the relativity of the form of thought which results from linguistic study”. 12 The notion of the relativistic effect of different languages on thought captured Whorf’s imagination; and so he became captivated by the idea that he was to develop and become famous for. Because Whorf’s claims have often been disputed and misrepresented since his death, let’s see exactly what his formulation of his principle of linguistic relativity was:

Users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward 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. 13

Indeed, as pointed out by the Whorf scholar, Penny Lee, post-war research rarely ever took Whorf’s principle, or his statements, as their starting point. 14 Rather, his writings were, on the contrary, ignored, and his ideas largely distorted. 15

For one thing, the so-called ‘Sapir − Whorf hypothesis’ was not due to either Sapir or Whorf. Sapir – whose research was not primarily concerned with relativity – and Whorf were lumped together: the term ‘Sapir − Whorf hypothesis’ was coined in the 1950s, over ten years after both men had been dead – Sapir died in 1939, and Whorf in 1941.16 Moreover, Whorf’s principle emanated from an anthropological research tradition; it was not, strictly speaking, a hypothesis. But, in the 1950s, psychologists Eric Lenneberg and Roger Brown sought to test empirically the notion of linguistic relativity. And to do so, they reformulated it in such a way that it could be tested, producing two testable formulations. 17 One, the so-called ‘strong version’ of relativity, holds that language causes a cognitive restructuring: language causes or determines thought. This is otherwise known as linguistic determinism, Pinker’s “conventional absurdity”. The second hypothesis, which came to be known as the ‘weak version’, claims instead that language influences a cognitive restructuring, rather than causing it. But neither formulation of the so-called ‘Sapir − Whorf hypothesis’ was due to Whorf, or Sapir. Indeed, on the issue of linguistic determinism, Whorf was explicit in arguing against it, saying the following:

The tremendous importance of language cannot, in my opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called ‘mind’. My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signalling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur. 18

This demonstrates that, in point of fact, Whorf actually believed in something like the ‘fixed structure’ that Fodor claims is lacking in relativity. The delicious irony arising from it all is that Pinker derides Whorf on the basis of the ‘strong version’ of the Sapir − Whorf hypothesis: linguistic determinism – language causes thought. But this strong version was a hypothesis not created by Whorf, but imagined by rationalist psychologists who were dead set against Whorf and linguistic relativity anyway. Moreover, Whorf explicitly disagreed with the thesis that was posthumously attributed to him. The issue of linguistic determinism became, incorrectly and disingenuously, associated with Whorf, growing in the rationalist sub-conscious like a cancer – Whorf was clearly wrong, they reasoned.

In more general terms, defenders of the language-as-instinct thesis have taken a leaf out of the casebook of Noam Chomsky. If you thought that academics play nicely, and fight fair, think again. Successful ideas are the currency, and they guarantee tenure, promotion, influence and fame; and they allow the successful academic to attract Ph.D. students who go out and evangelise, and so help to build intellectual empires. The best defence against ideas that threaten is ridicule. And, since the 1950s, until the intervention of John Lucy in the 1990s – whom I discuss below – relativity was largely dismissed; the study of linguistic relativity was, in effect, off-limits to several generations of researchers.

The Bilingual Mind, And What it Tells Us about Language and Thought
by Aneta Pavlenko
PP. 27-32

1.1.2.4 The real authors of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the invisibility of scientific revolutions

The invisibility of bilingualism in the United States also accounts for the disappearance of multilingual awareness from discussions of Sapir’s and Whorf’s work, which occurred when the two scholars passed away – both at a relatively young age – and their ideas landed in the hands of others. The posthumous collections brought Sapir’s ( 1949 ) and Whorf’s ( 1956 ) insights to the attention of the wider public (including, inter alia , young Thomas Kuhn ) and inspired the emergence of the field of psycholinguistics. But the newly minted psycholinguists faced a major problem: it had never occurred to Sapir and Whorf to put forth testable hypotheses. Whorf showed how linguistic patterns could be systematically investigated through the use of overt categories marked systematically (e.g., number in English or gender in Russian) and covert categories marked only in certain contexts (e.g., gender in English), yet neither he nor Sapir ever elaborated the meaning of ‘different observations’ or ‘psychological correlates’.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, scholarly debates at conferences, summer seminars and in academic journals attempted to correct this ‘oversight’ and to ‘systematize’ their ideas (Black, 1959 ; Brown & Lenneberg , 1954 ; Fishman , 1960 ; Hoijer, 1954a; Lenneberg, 1953 ; Osgood & Sebeok , 1954 ; Trager , 1959 ). The term ‘the Sapir -Whorf hypothesis’ was first used by linguistic anthropologist Harry Hoijer ( 1954b ) to refer to the idea “that language functions, not simply as a device for reporting experience, but also, and more significantly, as a way of defining experience for its speakers” (p. 93). The study of SWH, in Hoijer’s view, was supposed to focus on structural and semantic patterns active in a given language. This version, probably closest to Whorf’s own interest in linguistic classification, was soon replaced by an alternative, developed by psychologists Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg, who translated Sapir’s and Whorf’s ideas into two ‘testable’ hypotheses (Brown & Lenneberg, 1954 ; Lenneberg, 1953 ). The definitive form of the dichotomy was articulated in Brown’s ( 1958 ) book Words and Things:

linguistic relativity holds that where there are differences of language there will also be differences of thought, that language and thought covary. Determinism goes beyond this to require that the prior existence of some language pattern is either necessary or sufficient to produce some thought pattern. (p. 260)

In what follows, I will draw on Kuhn’s ([1962] 2012 ) insights to discuss four aspects of this radical transformation of Sapir’s and Whorf’s ideas into the SWH: (a) it was a major change of paradigm , that is, of shared assumptions, research foci, and methods, (b) it erased multilingual awareness , (c) it created a false dichotomy, and (d) it proceeded unacknowledged.

The change of paradigm was necessitated by the desire to make complex notions, articulated by linguistic anthropologists, fit experimental paradigms in psychology. Yet ideas don’t travel easily across disciplines: Kuhn ([1962] 2012 ) compares a dialog between scientific communities to intercultural communication, which requires skillful translation if it is to avoid communication breakdowns. Brown and Lenneberg ’s translation was not skillful and while their ideas moved the study of language and cognition forward, they departed from the original arguments in several ways (for discussion, see also Levinson , 2012 ; Lucy , 1992a ; Lee , 1996 ).

First, they shifted the focus of the inquiry from the effects of obligatory grammatical categories, such as tense, to lexical domains, such as color, that had a rather tenuous relationship to linguistic thought (color differentiation was, in fact, discussed by Boas and Whorf as an ability not influenced by language). Secondly, they shifted from concepts as interpretive categories to cognitive processes, such as perception or memory, that were of little interest to Sapir and Whorf, and proposed to investigate them with artificial stimuli, such as Munsell chips, that hardly reflect habitual thought. Third, they privileged the idea of thought potential (and, by implication, what can be said) over Sapir’s and Whorf’s concerns with obligatory categories and habitual thought (and, by definition, with what is said). Fourth, they missed the insights about the illusory objectivity of one’s own language and replaced the interest in linguistic thought with independent ‘language’ and ‘cognition’. Last, they substituted Humboldt ’s, Sapir ’s and Whorf ’s interest in multilingual awareness with a hypothesis articulated in monolingual terms.

A closer look at Brown’s ( 1958 ) book shows that he was fully aware of the existence of bilingualism and of the claims made by bilingual speakers of Native American languages that “thinking is different in the Indian language” (p. 232). His recommendation in this case was to distrust those who have the “unusual” characteristic of being bilingual:

There are few bilinguals, after all, and the testimony of those few cannot be uncritically accepted. There is a familiar inclination on the part of those who possess unusual and arduously obtained experience to exaggerate its remoteness from anything the rest of us know. This must be taken into account when evaluating the impressions of students of Indian languages. In fact, it might be best to translate freely with the Indian languages, assimilating their minds to our own. (Brown, 1958 : 233)

The testimony of German–English bilinguals – akin to his own collaborator Eric Heinz Lenneberg – was apparently another matter: the existence of “numerous bilingual persons and countless translated documents” was, for Brown ( 1958 : 232), compelling evidence that the German mind is “very like our own”. Alas, Brown ’s ( 1958 ) contradictory treatment of bilingualism and the monolingual arrogance of the recommendations ‘to translate freely’ and ‘to assimilate Indian minds to our own’ went unnoticed by his colleagues. The result was the transformation of a fluid and dynamic account of language into a rigid, static false dichotomy.

When we look back, the attribution of the idea of linguistic determinism to multilinguals interested in language evolution and the evolution of the human mind makes little sense. Yet the replacement of the open-ended questions about implications of linguistic diversity with two ‘testable’ hypotheses had a major advantage – it was easier to argue about and to digest. And it was welcomed by scholars who, like Kay and Kempton ( 1984 ), applauded the translation of Sapir’s and Whorf’s convoluted passages into direct prose and felt that Brown and Lenneberg “really said all that was necessary” (p. 66) and that the question of what Sapir and Whorf actually thought was interesting but “after all less important than the issue of what is the case” (p. 77). In fact, by the 1980s, Kay and Kempton were among the few who could still trace the transformation to the two psychologists. Their colleagues were largely unaware of it because Brown and Lenneberg concealed the radical nature of their reformulation by giving Sapir and Whorf ‘credit’ for what should have been the Brown-Lenneberg hypothesis.

We might never know what prompted this unusual scholarly modesty – a sincere belief that they were simply ‘improving’ Sapir and Whorf or the desire to distance themselves from the hypothesis articulated only to be ‘disproved’. For Kuhn ([1962] 2012 ), this is science as usual: “it is just this sort of change in the formulation of questions and answers that accounts, far more than novel empirical discoveries, for the transition from Aristotelian to Galilean and from Galilean to Newtonian dynamics” (p. 139). He also points to the hidden nature of many scientific revolutions concealed by textbooks that provide the substitute for what they had eliminated and make scientific development look linear, truncating the scientists’ knowledge of the history of their discipline. This is precisely what happened with the SWH: the newly minted hypothesis took on a life of its own, multiplying and reproducing itself in myriads of textbooks, articles, lectures, and popular media, and moving the discussion further and further away from Sapir’s primary interest in ‘social reality’ and Whorf’s central concern with ‘habitual thought’.

The transformation was facilitated by four common academic practices that allow us to manage the ever-increasing amount of literature in the ever-decreasing amount of time: (a) simplification of complex arguments (which often results in misinterpretation); (b) reduction of original texts to standard quotes; (c) reliance on other people’s exegeses; and (d) uncritical reproduction of received knowledge. The very frequency of this reproduction made the SWH a ‘fact on the ground’, accepted as a valid substitution for the original ideas. The new terms of engagement became part of habitual thought in the Ivory Tower and to this day are considered obligatory by many academics who begin their disquisitions on linguistic relativity with a nod towards the sound-bite version of the ‘strong’ determinism and ‘weak’ relativity. In Kuhn ’s ([1962] 2012 ) view, this perpetuation of a new set of shared assumptions is a key marker of a successful paradigm change: “When the individual scientist can take a paradigm for granted, he need no longer, in his major works, attempt to build his field anew, starting from first principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced” (p. 20).

Yet the false dichotomy reified in the SWH – and the affective framing of one hypothesis as strong and the other as weak – moved the goalposts and reset the target and the standards needed to achieve it, giving scholars a clear indication of which hypothesis they should address. This preference, too, was perpetuated by countless researchers who, like Langacker ( 1976 : 308), dismissed the ‘weak’ version as obviously true but uninteresting and extolled ‘the strongest’ as “the most interesting version of the LRH” but also as “obviously false”. And indeed, the research conducted on Brown’s and Lenneberg’s terms failed to ‘prove’ linguistic determinism and instead revealed ‘minor’ language effects on cognition (e.g., Brown & Lenneberg, 1954 ; Lenneberg , 1953 ) or no effects at all (Heider , 1972 ). The studies by Gipper ( 1976 ) 4 and Malotki ( 1983 ) showed that even Whorf ’s core claims, about the concept of time in Hopi, may have been misguided. 5 This ‘failure’ too became part of the SWH lore, with textbooks firmly stating that “a strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis cannot be true” (Foss & Hakes , 1978 : 393).

By the 1980s, there emerged an implicit consensus in US academia that Whorfianism was “a bête noire, identified with scholarly irresponsibility, fuzzy thinking, lack of rigor, and even immorality” (Lakoff, 1987 : 304). This consensus was shaped by the political climate supportive of the notion of ‘free thought’ yet hostile to linguistic diversity, by educational policies that reinforced monolingualism, and by the rise of cognitive science and meaning-free linguistics that replaced the study of meaning with the focus on structures and universals. Yet the implications of Sapir ’s and Whorf’s ideas continued to be debated (e.g., Fishman , 1980 , 1982 ; Kay & Kempton , 1984 ; Lakoff, 1987 ; Lucy & Shweder , 1979 ; McCormack & Wurm , 1977 ; Pinxten , 1976 ) and in the early 1990s the inimitable Pinker decided to put the specter of the SWH to bed once and for all. Performing a feat reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty, Pinker ( 1994 ) made the SWH ‘mean’ what he wanted it to mean, namely “the idea that thought is the same thing as language” (p. 57). Leaving behind Brown ’s ( 1958 ) articulation with its modest co-variation, he replaced it in the minds of countless undergraduates with

the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism , stating that people’s thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language, and its weaker version, linguistic relativity , stating that differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers. (Pinker, 1994 : 57)

And lest they still thought that there is something to it, Pinker ( 1994 ) told them that it is “an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity” (p. 57) and “it is wrong, all wrong” (p. 57). Ironically, this ‘obituary’ for the SWH coincided with the neo-Whorfian revival, through the efforts of several linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists – most notably Gumperz and Levinson ( 1996 ), Lakoff ( 1987 ), Lee ( 1996 ), Lucy ( 1992a , b ), and Slobin ( 1991 , 1996a ) – who were willing to buck the tide, to engage with the original texts, and to devise new methods of inquiry. This work will form the core of the chapters to come but for now I want to emphasize that the received belief in the validity of the terms of engagement articulated by Brown and Lenneberg and their attribution to Sapir and Whorf is still pervasive in many academic circles and evident in the numerous books and articles that regurgitate the SWH as the strong/weak dichotomy. The vulgarization of Whorf ’s views bemoaned by Fishman ( 1982 ) also continues in popular accounts, and I fully agree with Pullum ( 1991 ) who, in his own critique of Whorf, noted:

Once the public has decided to accept something as an interesting fact, it becomes almost impossible to get the acceptance rescinded. The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality. (p. 159)

Popularizers of academic work continue to stigmatize Whorf through comments such as “anyone can estimate the time of day, even the Hopi Indians; these people were once attributed with a lack of any conception of time by a book-bound scholar, who had never met them” (Richards , 1998 : 44). Even respectable linguists perpetuate the strawman version of “extreme relativism – the idea that there are no facts common to all cultures and languages” (Everett, 2012 : 201) or make cheap shots at “the most notorious of the con men, Benjamin Lee Whorf, who seduced a whole generation into believing, without a shred of evidence, that American Indian languages lead their speakers to an entirely different conception of reality from ours” (Deutscher, 2010 : 21). This assertion is then followed by a statement that while the link between language, culture, and cognition “seems perfectly kosher in theory, in practice the mere whiff of the subject today makes most linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists recoil” because the topic “carries with it a baggage of intellectual history which is so disgraceful that the mere suspicion of association with it can immediately brand anyone a fraud” (Deutscher, 2010 : 21).

Such comments are not just an innocent rhetorical strategy aimed at selling more copies: the uses of hyperbole (most linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists ; mere suspicion of association), affect (disgraceful , fraud , recoil , embarrassment), misrepresentation (disgraceful baggage of intellectual history), strawman’s arguments and reduction ad absurdum as a means of persuasion have played a major role in manufacturing the false consent in the history of ideas that Deutscher (2010) finds so ‘disgraceful’ (readers interested in the dirty tricks used by scholars should read the expert description by Pinker , 2007 : 89–90). What is particularly interesting is that both Deutscher (2010) and Everett (2012) actually martial evidence in support of Whorf’s original arguments. Their attempt to do so while distancing themselves from Whorf would have fascinated Whorf, for it reveals two patterns of habitual thought common in English-language academia: the uncritical adoption of the received version of the SWH and the reliance on the metaphor of ‘argument as war’ (Tannen , 1998), i.e., an assumption that each argument has ‘two sides’ (not one or three), that these sides should be polarized in either/or terms, and that in order to present oneself as a ‘reasonable’ author, one should exaggerate the alternatives and then occupy the ‘rational’ position in between. Add to this the reductionism common for trade books and the knowledge that criticism sells better than praise, and you get Whorf as a ‘con man’.

Dark Matter of the Mind
by Daniel L. Everett
Kindle Locations 352-373

I am here particularly concerned with difference, however, rather than sameness among the members of our species— with variation rather than homeostasis. This is because the variability in dark matter from one society to another is fundamental to human survival, arising from and sustaining our species’ ecological diversity. The range of possibilities produces a variety of “human natures” (cf. Ehrlich 2001). Crucial to the perspective here is the concept-apperception continuum. Concepts can always be made explicit; apperceptions less so. The latter result from a culturally guided experiential memory (whether conscious or unconscious or bodily). Such memories can be not only difficult to talk about but often ineffable (see Majid and Levinson 2011; Levinson and Majid 2014). Yet both apperception and conceptual knowledge are uniquely determined by culture, personal history, and physiology, contributing vitally to the formation of the individual psyche and body.

Dark matter emerges from individuals living in cultures and thereby underscores the flexibility of the human brain. Instincts are incompatible with flexibility. Thus special care must be given to evaluating arguments in support of them (see Blumberg 2006 for cogent criticisms of many purported examples of instincts, as well as the abuse of the term in the literature). If we have an instinct to do something one way, this would impede learning to do it another way. For this reason it would surprise me if creatures higher on the mental and cerebral evolutionary scale— you and I, for example— did not have fewer rather than more instincts. Humans, unlike cockroaches and rats— two other highly successful members of the animal kingdom— adapt holistically to the world in which they live, in the sense that they can learn to solve problems across environmental niches, then teach their solutions and reflect on these solutions. Cultures turn out to be vital to this human adaptational flexibility— so much so that the most important cognitive question becomes not “What is in the brain?” but “What is the brain in?” (That is, in what individual, residing in what culture does this particular brain reside?)

The brain, by this view, was designed to be as close to a blank slate as was possible for survival. In other words, the views of Aristotle, Sapir, Locke, Hume, and others better fit what we know about the nature of the brain and human evolution than the views of Plato, Bastian, Freud, Chomsky, Tooby, Pinker, and others. Aristotle’s tabula rasa seems closer to being right than is currently fashionable to suppose, especially when we answer the pointed question, what is left in the mind/ brain when culture is removed?

Most of the lessons of this book derive from the idea that our brains (including our emotions) and our cultures are related symbiotically through the individual, and that neither supervenes on the other. In this framework, nativist ideas often are superfluous.

Kindle Locations 3117-3212

Science, we might say, ought to be exempt from dark matter. Yet that is much harder to claim than to demonstrate. […] To take a concrete example of a science, we focus on linguistics, because this discipline straddles the borders between the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. The basic idea to be explored is this: because counterexamples and exceptions are culturally determined in linguistics, as in all sciences, scientific progress is the output of cultural values. These values differ even within the same discipline (e.g., linguistics), however, and can lead to different notions of progress in science. To mitigate this problem, therefore, to return to linguistics research as our primary example, our inquiry should be informed by multiple theories, with a focus on languageS rather than Language. To generalize, this would mean a focus on the particular rather than the general in many cases. Such a focus (in spite of the contrast between this and many scientists’ view that generalizations are the goal of science) develops a robust empirical basis while helping to distinguish local theoretical culture from broader, transculturally agreed-upon desiderata of science— an issue that theories of language, in a way arguably more extreme than in other disciplines, struggle to tease apart.

The reason that a discussion of science and dark matter is important here is to probe the significance and meaning of dark matter, culture, and psychology in the more comfortable, familiar territory of the reader, to understand that what we are contemplating here is not limited to cultures unlike our own, but affects every person, every endeavor of Homo sapiens, even the hallowed enterprise of science. This is not to say that science is merely a cultural illusion. This chapter has nothing to do with postmodernist epistemological relativity. But it does aim to show that science is not “pure rationality,” autonomous from its cultural matrix. […]

Whether we classify an anomaly as counterexample or exception depends on our dark matter— our personal history plus cultural values, roles, and knowledge structures. And the consequences of our classification are also determined by culture and dark matter. Thus, by social consensus, exceptions fall outside the scope of the statements of a theory or are explicitly acknowledged by the theory to be “problems” or “mysteries.” They are not immediate problems for the theory. Counterexamples, on the other hand, by social consensus render a statement false. They are immediately acknowledged as (at least potential) problems for any theory. Once again, counterexamples and exceptions are the same etically, though they are nearly polar opposites emically. Each is defined relative to a specific theoretical tradition, a specific set of values, knowledge structures, and roles— that is, a particular culture.

One bias that operates in theories, the confirmation bias, is the cultural value that a theory is true and therefore that experiments are going to strengthen it, confirm it, but not falsify it. Anomalies appearing in experiments conducted by adherents of a particular theory are much more likely to be interpreted as exceptions that might require some adjustments of the instruments, but nothing serious in terms of the foundational assumptions of the theory. On the other hand, when anomalies turn up in experiments by opponents of a theory, there will be a natural bias to interpret these as counterexamples that should lead to the abandonment of the theory. Other values that can come into play for the cultural/ theoretical classification of an anomaly as a counterexample or an exception include “tolerance for cognitive dissonance,” a value of the theory that says “maintain that the theory is right and, at least temporarily, set aside problematic facts,” assuming that they will find a solution after the passage of a bit of time. Some theoreticians call this tolerance “Galilean science”— the willingness to set aside all problematic data because a theory seems right. Fair enough. But when, why, and for how long a theory seems right in the face of counterexamples is a cultural decision, not one that is based on facts alone. We have seen that the facts of a counterexample and an exception can be exactly the same. Part of the issue of course is that data, like their interpretations, are subject to emicization. We decide to see data with a meaning, ignoring the particular variations that some other theory might seize on as crucial. In linguistics, for example, if a theory (e.g., Chomskyan theory) says that all relevant grammatical facts stop at the boundary of the sentence, then related facts at the level of paragraphs, stories, and so on, are overlooked.

The cultural and dark matter forces determining the interpretation of anomalies in the data that lead one to abandon a theory and another to maintain it themselves create new social situations that confound the intellect and the sense of morality that often is associated with the practice of a particular theory. William James (1907, 198) summed up some of the reactions to his own work, as evidence of these reactions to the larger field of intellectual endeavors: “I fully expect to see the pragmatist view of truth run through the classic stages of a theory’s career. First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.”

In recent years, due to my research and claims regarding the grammar of the Amazonian Pirahã— that this language lacks recursion— I have been called a charlatan and a dull wit who has misunderstood. It has been (somewhat inconsistently) further claimed that my results are predicted (Chomsky 2010, 2014); it has been claimed that an alternative notion of recursion, Merge, was what the authors had in mind is saying that recursion is the foundation of human languages; and so on. And my results have been claimed to be irrelevant.

* * *

Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Useful Fictions Becoming Less Useful
Essentialism On the Decline
Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?
Blue on Blue
The Chomsky Problem
Dark Matter of the Mind
What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?
Cultural Body-Mind
How Universal Is The Mind?
The Psychology and Anthropology of Consciousness
On Truth and Bullshit

How Universal Is The Mind?

One expression of the misguided nature vs nurture debate is the understanding of our humanity. In wondering about the universality of Western views, we have already framed the issue in terms of Western dualism. The moment we begin speaking in specific terms, from mind to psyche, we’ve already smuggled in cultural preconceptions and biases.

Sabrina Golonka discusses several other linguistic cultures (Korean, Japanese, and Russian) in comparison to English. She suggests that dualism, even if variously articulated, underlies each conceptual tradition — a general distinction between visible and invisible. But all of those are highly modernized societies built on millennia of civilizational projects, from imperialism to industrialization. It would be even more interesting and insightful to look into the linguistic worldviews of indigenous cultures.

The Piraha, for example, are linguistically limited in only speaking about what they directly experience or about what those they personally know have directly experienced. They don’t talk about what is ‘invisible’, whether within the human sphere or beyond in the world, and as such they aren’t prone to theoretical speculations.

What is clear is that the Piraha’s mode of perception and description is far different, even to the point that what they see is sometimes invisible to those who aren’t Piraha. There is an anecdote shared by Daniel Everett. The Piraha crowded on the riverbank pointing to the spirit they saw on the other side, but Everett and his family saw nothing. That brings doubt to the framework of visible vs invisible. The Piraha were fascinated by what becomes invisible such as a person disappearing around the bend of a trail, although their fascination ended at that liminal point at the edge of the visible, not extending beyond it.

Another useful example would be the Australian Aborigine. The Songlines were traditionally integrated with their sense of identity and reality, signifying an experience that is invisible within the reality tunnel of WEIRD society (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Prior to contact, individualism as we know it may have been entirely unknown for Songlines express a profoundly collective sense of being in the world.

If any kind of dualism between visible and invisible did exist within the Aboriginal worldview, it more likely would have been on a communal level of experience. In their culture, ritual songs are learned and then what they represent becomes visible to the initiated, however this process might be made sense of within Aboriginal language. A song makes some aspect of the world visible, which is to invoke a particular reality and the beings that inhabit that reality. This is what Westerners would interpret as states of mind, but that is clearly an inadequate understanding of the fully immersive and embodied experience.

Western psychology has made non-Western experience invisible to most Westerners. There is the invisible we talk about within our own cultural worldview, what we perceive as known and familiar, no matter how intangible. But even more important is the unknown and unfamiliar that is so fundamentally invisible that we are incapable of talking about it. This doesn’t merely limit our understanding. Entire ways of being in the world are precluded by the words and concepts we use. Our sense of our own humanity is lesser for it and, as cultural languages go extinct, this state of affairs worsens with the near complete monocultural destruction of the very alternatives that most powerfully challenge our assumptions.

* * *

How Universal Is The Mind?
by Sabrina Golonka

So, back to the mind and our current view of cognition. Cross-linguistic research shows that, generally speaking, every culture has a folk model of a person consisting of visible and invisible (psychological) aspects (Wierzbicka, 2005). While there is agreement that the visible part of the person refers to the body, there is considerable variation in how different cultures think about the invisible (psychological) part. In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of “the mind” and the modern view of cognition. But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood? […]

In a larger sense, the fact that there seems to be a universal belief that people consist of visible and invisible aspects explains much of the appeal of cognitive psychology over behaviourism. Cognitive psychology allows us to invoke invisible, internal states as causes of behaviour, which fits nicely with the broad, cultural assumption that the mind causes us to act in certain ways.

To the extent that you agree that the modern conception of “cognition” is strongly related to the Western, English-speaking view of “the mind”, it is worth asking what cognitive psychology would look like if it had developed in Japan or Russia. Would text-books have chapter headings on the ability to connect with other people (kokoro) or feelings or morality (dusa) instead of on decision-making and memory? This possibility highlights the potential arbitrariness of how we’ve carved up the psychological realm – what we take for objective reality is revealed to be shaped by culture and language.

I recently wrote a blog about a related topic. In Pāli and Sanskrit – ancient Indian languages – there is no collective term for emotions. They do have words for all of the basic emotions and some others, but they do not think of them as a category distinct from thought. I have yet to think through all of the implications of this observation but clearly the ancient Indian view on psychology must have been very different to ours.

Han 21 December 2011 at 17:06

Very interesting post. Have you looked into Julian Jaynes’s strange and marvelous book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”? Even if you regard bicameralism as iffy, there’s an interesting section on the creation of metaphorical spaces — body-words that become “containers” for feelings, thoughts, attributes etc. The culturally distinct descriptors of the “invisible” may be related to historical accidents that vary from place to place.

Simon 9 January 2012 at 06:33

Also relevant might be Lakoff and Johnson’s “Philosophy in the Flesh” looking at, in their formulation, the inevitably metaphorical nature of thought and speech and the ultimate grounding of (almost) all metaphors in our physical experience from embodiment in the world.

Wordplay Schmordplay

What Do You Call Words Like Wishy-Washy or Mumbo Jumbo?

Words like wishy-washy or mumbo-jumbo, or any words that contain two identical or similar parts (a segment, syllable, or morpheme), are called reduplicative words or tautonyms. The process of forming such words is known as reduplication. In many cases, the first word is a real word, while the second part (sometimes nonsensical) is invented to create a rhyme and to create emphasis. Most reduplicative begin as hyphenated words, and through very common usage, eventually lose the hype to become single words. Regardless of their hyphenation, they underscore the playfulness of the English language.

Reduplication isn’t just jibber-jabber

There are several kinds of reduplication. One type replaces a vowel while keeping the initial consonant, as in “flip-flop,” “pish-posh,” and “ping-pong.” Another type keeps the vowel but replaces that first sound, as in “namby-pamby,” “hanky-panky,” “razzle-dazzle,” and “timey-wimey,” a word used by Dr. Who fans for time-travel shenanigans. Reduplication doesn’t get any simpler than when the whole word is repeated, like when you pooh-pooh a couple’s attempt to dress matchy-matchy. My favorite type is “schm” reduplication, though some might say “Favorite, schmavorite!” All the types show that redundancy isn’t a problem in word-making. Grant Barrett, host of the public radio show “A Way with Words,” notes via e-mail that even the word “reduplication” has an unnecessary frill: “I’ve always liked the ‘re’ in ‘reduplicate.’ We’re doing it again! It’s right there in the word!”

Reduplication

Reduplication in linguistics is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word (or part of it) or even the whole word is repeated exactly or with a slight change.

Reduplication is used in inflections to convey a grammatical function, such as plurality, intensification, etc., and in lexical derivation to create new words. It is often used when a speaker adopts a tone more “expressive” or figurative than ordinary speech and is also often, but not exclusively, iconic in meaning. Reduplication is found in a wide range of languages and language groups, though its level of linguistic productivity varies.

Reduplication is the standard term for this phenomenon in the linguistics literature. Other terms that are occasionally used include cloningdoublingduplicationrepetition, and tautonym when it is used in biological taxonomies, such as “Bison bison”.

The origin of this usage of tautonym is uncertain, but it has been suggested that it is of relatively recent derivation.

Reduplication

The coinage of new words and phrases into English has been greatly enhanced by the pleasure we get from playing with words. There are numerous alliterative and rhyming idioms, which are a significant feature of the language. These aren’t restricted to poets and Cockneys; everyone uses them. We start in the nursery with choo-choos, move on in adult life to hanky-panky and end up in the nursing home having a sing-song.

The repeating of parts of words to make new forms is called reduplication. There are various categories of this: rhyming, exact and ablaut (vowel substitution). Examples, are respectively, okey-dokey, wee-wee and zig-zag. The impetus for the coining of these seems to be nothing more than the enjoyment of wordplay. The words that make up these reduplicated idioms often have little meaning in themselves and only appear as part of a pair. In other cases, one word will allude to some existing meaning and the other half of the pair is added for effect or emphasis.

New coinages have often appeared at times of national confidence, when an outgoing and playful nature is expressed in language; for example, during the 1920s, following the First World War, when many nonsense word pairs were coined – the bee’s knees, heebie-jeebies etc. That said, the introduction of such terms begin with Old English and continues today. Willy-nilly is over a thousand years old. Riff-raff dates from the 1400s and helter-skelter, arsy-versy (a form of vice-versa), and hocus-pocus all date from the 16th century. Coming up to date we have bling-bling, boob-tube and hip-hop. I’ve not yet recorded a 21st century reduplication. Bling-bling comes very close but is 20th century. ‘Bieber Fever’ is certainly 21st century, but isn’t quite a reduplication.

A hotchpotch of reduplication

Argy-bargy and lovey-dovey lie on opposite ends of the interpersonal scale, but they have something obvious in common: both are reduplicatives.

Reduplication is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-ayemishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit.

Reduplicatives emerge early in our language-learning lives. As infants in the babbling phase we reduplicate syllables to utter mama, dada, nana and papa, which is where these pet names come from. Later we use moo-moo, choo-choo, wee-wee and bow-wow (or similar) to refer to familiar things. The repetition, as well as being fun, might help children develop and practise the pronunciation of sounds.

As childhood progresses, reduplicatives remain popular, popping up in children’s books, songs and rhymes. Many characters in children’s stories have reduplicated names: Humpty Dumpty, Chicken Licken and Handy Andy, to name a few.

The language rule we know – but don’t know we know

Ding dong King Kong

Well, in fact, the Big Bad Wolf is just obeying another great linguistic law that every native English speaker knows, but doesn’t know that they know. And it’s the same reason that you’ve never listened to hop-hip music.

You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig, or ‘cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one.

All four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip. Every second your watch (or the grandfather clock in the hall makes the same sound) but we say tick-tock, never tock-tick. You will never eat a Kat Kit bar. The bells in Frère Jaques will forever chime ‘ding dang dong’.

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

Why this should be is a subject of endless debate among linguists, it might be to do with the movement of your tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. It doesn’t matter. It’s the law, and, as with the adjectives, you knew it even if you didn’t know you knew it. And the law is so important that you just can’t have a Bad Big Wolf.

Jibber Jabber: The Unwritten Ablaut Reduplication Rule

In all these ablaut reduplication word pairs, the key vowels appear in a specific order: either i before a, or i before o.

In linguistic terms, you could say that a high vowel comes before a low vowel. The i sound is considered a high vowel because of the location of the tongue relative to the mouth in American speech. The a and o sounds are low vowels.

See-saw doesn’t use the letter i, but the high-vowel-before-low-vowel pattern still applies.

This Weird Grammar Rule is Why We Say “Flip Flop” Instead of “Flop Flip”

As to why this I-A-O pattern has such a firm hold in our linguistic history, nobody can say. Forsyth calls it a topic of “endless debate” among linguists that may originate in the arcane movements of the human tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. Whatever the case, the world’s English speakers are on-board, and you will never catch Lucy accusing Charlie Brown of being washy-wishy.

Reduplicative Words

Ricochet Word

wishy-washy, hanky panky – name for this type of word-formation?

argle-bargle

Easy-Peasy

Double Trouble

English Ryming Compound Words

Rhyming Compounds

Reduplicates

REDUPLICATION

English gitaigo: Flip-Flop Words

Development of Language and Music

Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning
by Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello

All of this leads ineluctably to the view that the notion of universal grammar is plain wrong. Of course, scientists never give up on their favorite theory, even in the face of contradictory evidence, until a reasonable alternative appears. Such an alternative, called usage-based linguistics, has now arrived. The theory, which takes a number of forms, proposes that grammatical structure is not in­­nate. Instead grammar is the product of history (the processes that shape how languages are passed from one generation to the next) and human psychology (the set of social and cognitive capacities that allow generations to learn a language in the first place). More important, this theory proposes that language recruits brain systems that may not have evolved specifically for that purpose and so is a different idea to Chomsky’s single-gene mutation for recursion.

In the new usage-based approach (which includes ideas from functional linguistics, cognitive linguistics and construction grammar), children are not born with a universal, dedicated tool for learning grammar. Instead they inherit the mental equivalent of a Swiss Army knife: a set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.

Broca and Wernicke are dead – it’s time to rewrite the neurobiology of language
by Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest

Yet the continued dominance of the Classic Model means that neuropsychology and neurology students are often learning outmoded ideas, without getting up to date with the latest findings in the area. Medics too are likely to struggle to account for language-related symptoms caused by brain damage or illness in areas outside of the Classic Model, but which are relevant to language function, such as the cerebellum.

Tremblay and Dick call for a “clean break” from the Classic Model and a new approach that rejects the “language centric” perspective of the past (that saw the language system as highly specialised and clearly defined), and that embraces a more distributed perspective that recognises how much of language function is overlaid on cognitive systems that originally evolved for other purposes.

Signing, Singing, Speaking: How Language Evolved
by Jon Hamilton, NPR

There’s no single module in our brain that produces language. Instead, language seems to come from lots of different circuits. And many of those circuits also exist in other species.

For example, some birds can imitate human speech. Some monkeys use specific calls to tell one another whether a predator is a leopard, a snake or an eagle. And dogs are very good at reading our gestures and tone of voice. Take all of those bits and you get “exactly the right ingredients for making language possible,” Elman says.

We are not the only species to develop speech impediments
by Moheb Costandi, BBC

Jarvis now thinks vocal learning is not an all-or-nothing function. Instead there is a continuum of skill – just as you would expect from something produced by evolution, and which therefore was assembled slowly, piece by piece.

The music of language: exploring grammar, prosody and rhythm perception in zebra finches and budgerigars
by Michelle Spierings, Institute of Biology Leiden

Language is a uniquely human trait. All animals have ways to communicate, but these systems do not bear the same complexity as human language. However, this does not mean that all aspects of human language are specifically human. By studying the language perception abilities of other species, we can discover which parts of language are shared. It are these parts that might have been at the roots of our language evolution. In this thesis I have studied language and music perception in two bird species, zebra finches and budgerigars. For example, zebra finches can perceive the prosodic (intonation) patterns of human language. The budgerigars can learn to discriminate between different abstract (grammar) patterns and generalize these patterns to new sounds. These and other results give us insight in the cognitive abilities that might have been at the very basis of the evolution of human language.

How Music and Language Mimicked Nature to Evolve Us
by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Curiously, in the majority of our interaction with the world, we seem to mimic the sounds of events among solid objects. Solid-object events are comprised of hits, slides and rings, producing periodic vibrations. Every time we speak, we find the same three fundamental auditory constituents in speech: plosives (hit-sounds like t, d and p), fricatives (slide-sounds like f, v and sh), and sonorants (ring-sounds like a, u, w, r and y). Changizi demonstrates that solid-object events have distinct “grammar” recurring in speech patterns across different languages and time periods.

But it gets even more interesting with music, a phenomenon perceived as a quintessential human invention — Changizi draws on a wealth of evidence indicating that music is actually based on natural sounds and sound patterns dating back to the beginning of time. Bonus points for convincingly debunking Steven Pinker’s now-legendary proclamation that music is nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.”

Ultimately, Harnessed shows that both speech and music evolved in culture to be simulacra of nature, making our brains’ penchant for these skills appear intuitive.

The sounds of movement
by Bob Holmes, New Scientist

It is this subliminal processing that spoken language taps into, says Changizi. Most of the natural sounds our ancestors would have processed fall into one of three categories: things hitting one another, things sliding over one another, and things resonating after being struck. The three classes of phonemes found in speech – plosives such as p and k, fricatives such as sh and f, and sonorants such as r, m and the vowels – closely resemble these categories of natural sound.

The same nature-mimicry guides how phonemes are assembled into syllables, and syllables into words, as Changizi shows with many examples. This explains why we acquire language so easily: the subconscious auditory processing involved is no different to what our ancestors have done for millions of years.

The hold that music has on us can also be explained by this kind of mimicry – but where speech imitates the sounds of everyday objects, music mimics the sound of people moving, Changizi argues. Primitive humans would have needed to know four things about someone moving nearby: their distance, speed, intent and whether they are coming nearer or going away. They would have judged distance from loudness, speed from the rate of footfalls, intent from gait, and direction from subtle Doppler shifts. Voila: we have volume, tempo, rhythm and pitch, four of the main components of music.

Scientists recorded two dolphins ‘talking’ to each other
by Maria Gallucci, Mashable

While marine biologists have long understood that dolphins communicate within their pods, the new research, which was conducted on two captive dolphins, is the first to link isolated signals to particular dolphins. The findings reveal that dolphins can string together “sentences” using a handful of “words.”

“Essentially, this exchange of [pulses] resembles a conversation between two people,” Vyacheslav Ryabov, the study’s lead researcher, told Mashable.

“The dolphins took turns in producing ‘sentences’ and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other’s pulses before producing its own,” he said in an email.

“Whistled Languages” Reveal How the Brain Processes Information
by Julien Meyer, Scientific American

Earlier studies had shown that the left hemisphere is, in fact, the dominant language center for both tonal and atonal tongues as well as for nonvocalized click and sign languages. Güntürkün was interested in learning how much the right hemisphere—associated with the processing of melody and pitch—would also be recruited for a whistled language. He and his colleagues reported in 2015 in Current Biology that townspeople from Kuşköy, who were given simple hearing tests, used both hemispheres almost equally when listening to whistled syllables but mostly the left one when they heard vocalized spoken syllables.

Did Music Evolve Before Language?
by Hank Campbell, Science 2.0

Gottfriend Schlaug of Harvard Medical School does something a little more direct that may be circumstantial but is a powerful exclamation point for a ‘music came first’ argument. His work with patients who have suffered severe lesions on the left side of their brain showed that while they could not speak – no language skill as we might define it – they were able to sing phrases like “I am thirsty”, sometimes within two minutes of having the phrase mapped to a melody.

Chopin, Bach used human speech ‘cues’ to express emotion in music
by Andrew Baulcomb, Science Daily

“What we found was, I believe, new evidence that individual composers tend to use cues in their music paralleling the use of these cues in emotional speech.” For example, major key or “happy” pieces are higher and faster than minor key or “sad” pieces.

Theory: Music underlies language acquisition
by B.J. Almond, Rice University

Contrary to the prevailing theories that music and language are cognitively separate or that music is a byproduct of language, theorists at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) advocate that music underlies the ability to acquire language.

“Spoken language is a special type of music,” said Anthony Brandt, co-author of a theory paper published online this month in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience. “Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music.”

– See more at: http://news.rice.edu/2012/09/18/theory-music-underlies-language-acquisition/#sthash.kQbEBqnh.dpuf

How Brains See Music as Language
by Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic

What researchers found: The brains of jazz musicians who are engaged with other musicians in spontaneous improvisation show robust activation in the same brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language and syntax. In other words, improvisational jazz conversations “take root in the brain as a language,” Limb said.

“It makes perfect sense,” said Ken Schaphorst, chair of the Jazz Studies Department at the New England Conservatory in Boston. “I improvise with words all the time—like I am right now—and jazz improvisation is really identical in terms of the way it feels. Though it’s difficult to get to the point where you’re comfortable enough with music as a language where you can speak freely.”

Along with the limitations of musical ability, there’s another key difference between jazz conversation and spoken conversation that emerged in Limb’s experiment. During a spoken conversation, the brain is busy processing the structure and syntax of language, as well the semantics or meaning of the words. But Limb and his colleagues found that brain areas linked to meaning shut down during improvisational jazz interactions. In other words, this kind of music is syntactic but it’s not semantic.

“Music communication, we know it means something to the listener, but that meaning can’t really be described,” Limb said. “It doesn’t have propositional elements or specificity of meaning in the same way a word does. So a famous bit of music—Beethoven’s dun dun dun duuuun—we might hear that and think it means something but nobody could agree what it means.”

 

Dark Matter of the Mind

The past half year has been spent in anticipation. Daniel Everett has a new book that finally came out the other day: Dark Matter of the Mind. I was so curious to read it because Everett is the newest and most well known challenger to mainstream linguistics theory. This is only an interest to me because it so happens to directly touch upon every aspect of our humanity: human nature (vs nurture), self-identity, consciousness, cognition, perception, behavior, culture, philosophy, etc.

The leading opponent to Everett’s theory is Noam Chomsky, a well-known and well-respected public intellectual. Chomsky is the founder of the so-called cognitive revolution — not that Everett sees it as all that revolutionary: “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Kindle Location 306). That brings into the conflict issues of personality, academia, politics, and funding. It’s two paradigms clashing, one of the paradigms having been dominant for more than a half century.

Now that I’ve been reading the book, I find my response to be mixed. Everett is running headlong into difficult terrain and I must admit he does so competently. He is doing the tough scholarly work that needs to be done. As Bill Benzon explained (at 3 Quarks Daily):

“While the intellectual world is rife with specialized argumentation arrayed around culture and associated concepts (nature, nurture, instinct, learning) these concepts themselves do not have well-defined technical meanings. In fact, I often feel they are destined to go the way of phlogiston, except that, alas, we’ve not yet discovered the oxygen that will allow us to replace them [4]. These concepts are foundational, but the foundation is crumbling. Everett is attempting to clear away the rubble and start anew on cleared ground. That’s what dark matter is, the cleared ground that becomes visible once the rubble has been pushed to the side. Just what we’ll build on it, and how, that’s another question.”

This explanation points to a fundamental problem, if we are to consider it a problem. Earlier in the piece, Benzon wrote that, “OK, I get it, I think, you say, but this dark matter stuff is so vague and metaphorical. You’re right. And it remains that way to the end of the book. And that, I suppose, is my major criticism, though it’s a minor one. “Dark matter” does a lot of conceptual work for Everett, but he discusses it indirectly.” Basically, Everett struggles with a limited framework of terminology and concepts. But that isn’t entirely his fault. It’s not exactly new territory that Everett discovered, just not yet fully explored and mapped out. The main thing he did, in his earliest work, was to bring up evidence that simply did not fit into prevailing theories. And now in a book like this he is trying to make sense of what that evidence indicates and what theory better explains it.

It would have been useful if Everett had been able to give a fuller survey of the relevant scholarship. But if he had, it would have been a larger and more academic book. It is already difficult enough for most readers not familiar with the topic. Besides, I suspect that Everett was pushing against the boundaries of his own knowledge and readings. It was easy for me to see everything that was left out, in relation to numerous other fields beyond his focus of linguistics and anthropology — such as: neurocognitive research, consciousness studies, classical studies of ancient texts, voice-hearing and mental health, etc.

The book sometimes felt like reinventing the wheel. Everett’s expertise is in linguistics, and apparently that has has been an insular field of study defended by a powerful and entrenched academic establishment. My sense is that linguistics is far behind in development, compared to many other fields. The paradigm shift that is just now happening in linguistics has been for decades creating seismic shifts elsewhere in academia. Some argue that this is because linguistics became enmeshed in Pentagon-funded computer research and so has had a hard time disentangling itself in order to become an independent field once again. Chomsky as leader of the cognitive revolution has effectively dissuaded a generation of linguists from doing social science, instead promoting the hard sciences, a problematic position to hold about a rather soft field like linguistics. As anthropologist Chris Knight explains it, in Decoding Chomsky (Chapter 1):

“[O]ne bedrock assumption underlies his work. If you want to be a scientist, Chomsky advises, restrict your efforts to natural science. Social science is mostly fraud. In fact, there is no such thing as social science.[49] As Chomsky asks: ‘Is there anything in the social sciences that even merits the term “theory”? That is, some explanatory system involving hidden structures with non-trivial principles that provide understanding of phenomena? If so, I’ve missed it.’[50]

“So how is it that Chomsky himself is able to break the mould? What special factor permits him to develop insights which do merit the term ‘theory’? In his view, ‘the area of human language . . . is one of the very few areas of complex human functioning’ in which theoretical work is possible.[51] The explanation is simple: language as he defines it is neither social nor cultural, but purely individual and natural. Provided you acknowledge this, you can develop theories about hidden structures – proceeding as in any other natural science. Whatever else has changed over the years, this fundamental assumption has not.”

This makes Everett’s job harder than it should be, in breaking new ground in linguistics and in trying to connect it to the work already done elsewhere, most often in the social sciences. As humans are complex social animals living in a complex world, it is bizarre and plain counterproductive to study humans in the way one studies a hard science like geology. Humans aren’t isolated biological computers that can operate outside of the larger context of specific cultures and environments. But Chomsky simply assumes all of that is irrelevant on principle. Field research of actual functioning languages, as Everett has done, can be dismissed because it is mere social science. One can sense how difficult it is for Everett in struggling against this dominant paradigm.

Still, even with these limitations of the linguistics field, the book remains a more than worthy read. His using Plato and Aristotle to frame the issue was helpful to an extent, although it also added another variety of limitation. I got a better sense of the conflict of worldviews and how they relate to the larger history of ideas. But in doing so, I became more aware of the problems of that frame, very closely related to the problems of the nature vs nurture debate (for, in reality, nature and nurture are inseparable). He describes linguistic theoreticians like Chomsky as being in the Platonic school of thought. Chomsky surely would agree, as he has already made that connection in his own writings, what he discusses as Plato’s problem and Plato’s answer. Chomsky’s universal grammar are Platonic in nature, for as he has written such “knowledge is ‘remembered’” (“Linguistics, a personal view” from The Chomskyan Turn). This is Plato’s ananmesis and alethia, an unforgetting of what is true, based on the belief that humans are born with certain kinds of innate knowledge.

That is interesting to think about. But in the end I felt that something was being oversimplified or entirely left out. Everett is arguing against nativism, that there is an inborn predetermined human nature. It’s not so much that he is arguing for a blank slate as he is trying to explain the immense diversity and potential that exists across cultures. But the duality of nativism vs non-nativism lacks the nuance to wrestle down complex realities.

I’m sympathetic to Everett’s view and to his criticisms of the nativist view. But there are cross-cultural patterns that need to be made sense of, even with the exceptions that deviate from those patterns. Dismissing evidence is never satisfying. Along with Chomsky, he throws in the likes of Carl Jung. But the difference between Chomsky and Jung is that the former is an academic devoted to pure theory unsullied by field research while the latter was a practicing psychotherapist who began with the particulars of individual cases. Everett is arguing for a focus on the particulars, upon which to build theory, but that is what Jung did. The criticisms of Chomsky can’t be shifted over to Jung, no matter what one thinks of Jung’s theories.

Part of the problem is that the kind of evidence Jung dealt with remains to be explained. It’s simply a fact that certain repeating patterns are found in human experience, across place and time. That is evidence to be considered, not dismissed, however one wishes to interpret it. Not even most respectable nativist thinkers want to confront this kind of evidence that challenges conventional understandings on all sides. Maybe Jungian theories of archetypes, personality types, etc are incorrect. But how do we study and test such things, going from direct observation to scientific research? And how is the frame of nativism/non-nativism helpful at all?

Maybe there are patterns, not unlike gravity and other natural laws, that are simply native to the world humans inhabit and so might not be entirely or at all native to the human mind, which is to say not in the way that Chomsky makes nativist claims about universal grammar. Rather, these patterns would be native to to humans in the way and to the extent humans are native to the world. This could be made to fit into Everett’s own theorizing, as he is attempting to situate the human within larger contexts of culture, environment, and such.

Consider an example from psychedelic studies. It has been found that people under the influence of particular psychedelics often have similar experiences. This is why shamanic cultures speak of psychedelic plants as having spirits that reside within or are expressed through them.

Let me be more specific. DMT is the most common psychedelic in the world, it being found in numerous plants and even is produced in small quantities by the human brain. It’s an example of interspecies co-evolution, plants and humans having chemicals in common. Plants are chemistry factories and they use chemicals for various purposes, including communication with other plants (e.g., chemically telling nearby plants that something is nibbling on its leaves and so put up your chemical defenses) and communicating with non-plants (e.g., sending out bitter chemicals to help inform the nibbler that they might want to eat elsewhere). Animals didn’t just co-evolve with edible plants but also psychedelic plants. And humans aren’t the only species to imbibe. Maybe chemicals like DMT serve a purpose. And maybe there is a reason so many humans tripping on DMT experience what some describe as self-replicating machine elves or self-transforming fractal elves. Humans have been tripping on DMT for longer than civilization has existed.

DMT is far from being the only psychedelic plant like this. It’s just one of the more common. The reason plant psychedelics do what they do to our brains is because our brains were shaped by evolution to interact with chemicals like this. These chemicals almost seem designed for animal brains, especially DMT which our own brains produce.

That brings up some issues about the whole nativism/non-nativism conflict. Is a common experience many humans have with a psychedelic plant native to humans, native to the plant, or native to the inter-species relationship between human and plant? Where do the machine/fractal elves live, in the plant or in our brain? My tendency is to say that they in some sense ‘exist’ in the relationship between plants and humans, an experiential expression of that relationship, as immaterial and ephemeral as the love felt by two humans. These weird psychedelic beings are a plant-human hybrid, a shared creation of our shared evolution. They are native to our humanity to the extent that we are native to the ecosystems we share with those psychedelic plants.

Other areas of human experience lead down similar strange avenues. Take as another example the observations of Jacques Vallée. When he was a practicing astronomer, he became interested in UFOs as some of his fellow astronomers would destroy rather than investigate anomalous observational data. This led him to look into the UFO field and that led to his studying those claiming alien abduction experiences. What he noted was that the stories told were quite similar to fairy abduction folktales and shamanic accounts of initiation. There seemed to be a shared pattern of experience that was interpreted differently according to culture but that in a large number of cases the basic pattern held.

Or take yet another example. Judith Weissman has noted patterns among the stated experiences of voice-hearers. Another researcher on voice-hearing, Tanya Luhrmann, has studied how voice-hearing both has commonalities and differences across cultures. John Geiger has shown how common voice-hearing can be, even if for most people it is usually only elicited during times of stress. Based on this and the work of others, it is obvious that voice-hearing is a normal capacity existing within all humans. It is actually quite common among children and some theorize it was more common for adults in other societies. Is pointing out the surprisingly common experience of voice-hearing an argument for nativism?

These aspects of our humanity are plain weird. It was the kind of thing that always fascinated Jung. But what do we do with such evidence? It doesn’t prove a universal human nature that is inborn and predetermined. Not everyone has these experiences. But it appears everyone is capable of having these experiences.

This is where mainstream thinking in the field of linguistics shows its limitations. Going by Everett’s descriptions of the Pirahã, it seems likely that voice-hearing is common among them, although they wouldn’t interpret it that way. For them, voice-hearing appears to manifest as full possession and what, to Western outsiders, seems like a shared state of dissociation. It’s odd that as a linguist it didn’t occur to Everett to study the way of speaking of those who were possessed or to think more deeply about the experiential significance of the use of language indicating dissociation. Maybe it was too far outside of his own cultural biases, the same cultural biases that causes many Western voice-hearers to be medicated and institutionalized.

And if we’re going to talk about voice-hearing, we have to bring up Julian Jaynes. Everett probably doesn’t realize it, but his views seem to be in line with the bicameral theory or at least not in explicit contradiction with it on conceptual grounds. He seems to be coming out of the cultural school of thought within anthropology, the same influence on Jaynes. It is precisely Everett’s anthropological field research that distinguishes him from a theoretical linguist like Chomsky who has never formally studied any foreign language nor gone out into the field to test his theories. It was from studying the Pirahã firsthand over many years that the power of culture was impressed upon him. Maybe that is a commonality with Jaynes who began his career doing scientific research, not theorizing.

As I was reading the book, I kept being reminded of Jaynes, despite Everett never mentioning him or related thinkers. It’s largely how he talks about individuals situated in a world and worldview, along with his mentioning of Bordieu’s habitus. This fits into his emphasis on the culture and nurture side of influences, arguing that people (and languages) are products of their environments. Also, when Everett wrote that his view was there is “nothing to an individual but one’s body” (Kindle Location 328), it occurred to me how this fit into the proposed experience of hypothetical ancient bicameral humans. My thought was confirmed when he stated that his own understanding was most in line with the Buddhist anatnam, ‘non-self’. Just a week ago, I wrote the following in reference to Jaynes’ bicameral theory:

“We modern Westerners identify ourselves with our thoughts, the internalized voice of egoic consciousness. And we see this as the greatest prize of civilization, the hard-won rights and freedoms of the heroic individual. It’s the story we tell. But in other societies, such as in the East, there are traditions that teach the self is distinct from thought. From the Buddhist perspective of dependent (co-)origination, it is a much less radical notion that the self arises out of thought, instead of the other way around, and that thought itself simply arises. A Buddhist would have a much easier time intuitively grasping the theory of bicameralism, that thoughts are greater than and precede the self.”

Jaynes considered self-consciousness and self-identity to be products of thought, rather than the other way around. Like Everett, this is an argument against the old Western belief in a human soul that is eternal and immortal, that Platonically precedes individual corporality. But notions like Chomsky’s universal grammar feel like an attempt to revamp the soul for a scientific era, a universal human nature that precedes any individual, a soul as the spark of God and the divine expressed as a language imprinted on the soul. If I must believe in something existing within me that pre-exists me, then I’d rather go with alien-fairy-elves hiding out in the tangled undergrowth of my neurons.

Anyway, how might Everett’s views of nativism/non-nativism been different if he had been more familiar with the work of these other researchers and thinkers? The problem is that the nativism/non-nativism framework is itself culturally biased. It’s related to the problem of anthropologists who try to test the color perception of other cultures using tests that are based on Western color perception. Everett’s observations of the Pirahã, by the way, have also challenged that field of study — as he has made the claim that the Pirahã have no color terms and no particular use in discriminating colors. That deals with the relationship of language to cognition and perception. Does language limit our minds? If so, how and to what extent? If not, are we to assume that such things as ‘colors’ are native to how the human brain functions? Would an individual born into and raised in a completely dark room still ‘see’ colors in their mind’s eye?

Maybe the fractal elves produce the colors, consuming the DMT and defecating rainbows. Maybe the alien-fairies abduct us in our sleep and use advanced technology to implant the colors into our brains. Maybe without the fractal elves and alien-fairies, we would finally all be colorblind and our society would be free from racism. Just some alternative theories to consider.

Talking about cultural biases, I was fascinated by some of the details he threw out about the Pirahã, the tribe he had spent the most years studying. He wrote that (Kindle Locations 147-148), “Looking back, I can identify many of the hidden problems it took me years to recognize, problems based in contrasting sets of tacit assumptions held by the Pirahãs and me.” He then lists some of the tacit assumptions held by these people he came to know.

They don’t appear to have any concepts, language, or interest in God or gods, in religion, or anything spiritual/supernatural that wasn’t personally experienced by them or someone they personally know. Their language is very direct and precise about all experience and the source of claims. But they don’t feel like they’re spiritually lost or somehow lacking anything. In fact, Everett describes them as being extremely happy and easygoing, except on the rare occasion when a trader gives them alcohol.

They don’t have any concern or fear about nor do they seek out and talk about death, the dead, ancestral spirits, or the afterlife. They apparently are entirely focused on present experience. They don’t speculate, worry, or even have curiosity about what is outside their experience. Foreign cultures are irrelevant to them, this being an indifference and not hatred of foreigners. It’s just that foreign cultures is thought of as good for foreigners, as Pirahã culture is good for Pirahã. Generally, they seem to lack the standard anxiety that is typical of our society, despite living in and walking around barefoot in one of the most dangerous environments on the planet surrounded by poisonous and deadly creatures. It’s actually malaria that tends to cut their lives short. But they don’t much comparison in thinking that their lives are cut short.

Their society is based on personal relationships and “do not like for any individual to tell another individual how to live” (Kindle Locations 149-150). They don’t have governments or, as far as I know, governing councils. They don’t practice social coercion, community-mandated punishments, and enforced norms. They are very small tribe living in isolation with a way of life that has likely remained basically the same for millennia. Their culture and lifestyle is well-adapted to their environmental niche, and so they don’t tend to encounter many new problems that require them to act differently than in the past. They also don’t practice or comprehend incarceration, torture, capital punishment, mass war, genocide, etc. It’s not that violence never happens in their society, but I get the sense that it’s rare.

In the early years of life, infants and young toddlers live in near constant proximity to their mothers and other adults. They are given near ownership rights of their mothers’ bodies, freely suckling whenever they want without asking permission or being denied. But once weaned, Pirahã are the opposite of coddled. Their mothers simply cut them off from their bodies and the toddlers go through a tantrum period that is ignored by adults. They learn from experience and get little supervision in the process. They quickly become extremely knowledgeable and capable about living in and navigating the world around them. The parents have little fear about their children and it seems to be well-founded, as the children prove themselves able to easily learn self-sufficiency and a willingness to contribute. It reminded me of Jean Liedloff’s continuum concept.

Then, once they become teenagers, they don’t go through a rebellious phase. It seems a smooth transition into adulthood. As he described it in his first book (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, p. 99-100):

“I did not see Pirahã teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life. They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Pirahã sense of productivity (good fishermen, contributing generally to the security, food needs, and o ther aspects of the physical survival of the community). One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Pirahã youth. They do not seem to be searching for answers. They have them. And new questions rarely arise.

“Of course, this homeostasis can stifle creativity and individuality, two important Western values. If one considers cultural evolution to be a good thing, then this may not be something to emulate, since cultural evolution likely requires conflict, angst, and challenge. But if your life is unthreatened (so far as you know) and everyone in your society is satisfied, why would you desire change? How could things be improved? Especially if the outsiders you came into contact with seemed more irritable and less satisfied with life than you. I asked the Pirahãs once during my early missionary years if they knew why I was there. “You are here because this is a beautiful place. The water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahãs are nice people.” That was and is the Pirahãs’ perspective. Life is good. Their upbringing, everyone learning early on to pull their own weight, produces a society of satisfied members. That is hard to argue against.”

The most strange and even shocking aspect of Pirahã life is their sexuality. Kids quickly learn about sex. It’s not that people have sex out in the open. But it’s a lifestyle that provides limited privacy. Sexual activity isn’t considered a mere adult activity and children aren’t protected from it. Quite the opposite (Kindle Locations 2736-2745):

“Sexual behavior is another behavior distinguishing Pirahãs from most middle-class Westerners early on. A young Pirahã girl of about five years came up to me once many years ago as I was working and made crude sexual gestures, holding her genitalia and thrusting them at me repeatedly, laughing hysterically the whole time. The people who saw this behavior gave no sign that they were bothered. Just child behavior, like picking your nose or farting. Not worth commenting about.

“But the lesson is not that a child acted in a way that a Western adult might find vulgar. Rather, the lesson, as I looked into this, is that Pirahã children learn a lot more about sex early on, by observation, than most American children. Moreover, their acquisition of carnal knowledge early on is not limited to observation. A man once introduced me to a nine- or ten-year-old girl and presented her as his wife. “But just to play,” he quickly added. Pirahã young people begin to engage sexually, though apparently not in full intercourse, from early on. Touching and being touched seem to be common for Pirahã boys and girls from about seven years of age on. They are all sexually active by puberty, with older men and women frequently initiating younger girls and boys, respectively. There is no evidence that the children then or as adults find this pedophilia the least bit traumatic.”

This seems plain wrong to most Westerners. Then again, to the Pirahã, much of what Westerners do would seem plain wrong or simply incomprehensible. Which is worse, Pirahã pedophilia or Western mass violence and systematic oppression?

What is most odd is that, like death for adults, sexuality for children isn’t considered a traumatizing experience and they don’t act traumatized. It’s apparently not part of their culture to be traumatized. They aren’t a society based on and enmeshed in a worldview of violence, fear, and anxiety. That isn’t how they think about any aspect of their lifeworld. I would assume that, like most tribal people, they don’t have high rates of depression and other mental illnesses. Everett pointed out that in the thirty years he knew the Pirahã there never was a suicide. And when he told them about his stepmother killing herself, they burst out in laughter because it made absolutely no sense to them that someone would take their own life.

That demonstrates the power of culture, environment, and lifestyle. According to Everett, it also demonstrates the power of language, inseparable from the society that shapes and is shaped by it, and demonstrates how little we understand the dark matter of the mind.

* * *

The Amazon’s Pirahã People’s Secret to Happiness: Never Talk of the Past or Future
by Dominique Godrèche, Indian Country

Being Pirahã Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
by Christopher Ryan, Psychology Today

The Myth of Teenage Rebellion
by Suzanne Calulu, Patheos

The Suicide Paradox: Full Transcript
from Freakonomics

The Chomsky Problem

Somehow I’ve ended up reading books on linguistics.

It started years ago with my reading books by such thinkers as E. R. Dodds and Julian Jaynes. Their main focus was on language usage of the ancient world. For entirely different reasons, I ended up interested in Daniel L. Everett who became famous for his study of the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe with a unique culture and language. A major figure I have had an interest in for a long time, Noam Chomsky, is also in the linguistics field, but I had never previously been interested in his linguistic writings.

It turns out that Everett and Chomsky are on two sides of the central debate within linguistics. That debate has overshadowed all other issues in the field since what is known as the cognitive revolution. I was peripherally aware of this, but some recent books have forced me to try to make sense of it. Two books I read, though, come at the debate from an entirely different angle.

The first book I read isn’t one I’d recommend. It is The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe. I’ve never looked at much of his writings, despite having seen his books around for decades. The only prior book I even opened was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a catchy title if there ever was one. Maybe he is getting old enough that he isn’t as great of a writer as he once was. I don’t know. This latest publication wasn’t that impressive, even as I think I understood and agreed with the central conclusion of his argument posed as a confused angry rant.

It’s possible that such a book might serve a purpose, if reading it led one to read better books on the topic. Tom Wolfe does have a journalistic flair about him that makes the debate seem entertaining to those who might otherwise find it boring — a melodramatic clashing of minds and ideas, sometimes a battle of wills with charisma winning the day. His portrayal of Chomsky definitely gets one thinking, but I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. Fortunately, another book by an entirely different kind of author, Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky, takes on a similar understanding to Chomsky’s linguistics career and does so with more scholarly care.

Both books helped me put my finger on something that has been bothering me about Chomsky. Like Knight, I highly respect Chomsky’s political activism and his being a voice for truth and justice. Yet there was a disconnect I sensed. I remember being disappointed by a video I saw of him being asked by someone about what should be done and his response was that he couldn’t tell anyone what to do and that everyone had to figure it out for themself. The problem is that no one has ever figured out any major problem by themselves in all of human existence. Chomsky knows full well the challenges we face and still, when push comes to shove, the best he has to offer is to tell people to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate once again. That is plain depressing.

Knight gives one possible explanation for why that disconnection exists and why it matters. It’s not just a disconnection. After reading Knight’s book, I came to the conclusion that there is a dissociation involved, a near complete divide within Chomsky’s psyche. Because of his career and his activism, he felt compelled to split himself in two. He admits that this is what he has done and states that he has a remarkable talent in being able to do so, but he doesn’t seem grasp the potentially severe consequences. Knight shows that Chomsky should understand this, as it relates to key social problems Chomsky has written about involving the disconnect of the knowing mind — between what we know, what we think we know, what don’t know, and what we don’t know we know. It relates to what Knight discussion of Orwell’s problem and Plato’s problem:

He shows no appetite for dwelling on contradictions: ‘Plato’s problem . . . is to explain how we know so much, given that the evidence available to us is so sparse. Orwell’s problem is to explain why we know and understand so little, even though the evidence available to us is so rich.’[36]

How do we know so little? That’s Orwell’s problem. How do we know so much? That’s Plato’s. Chomsky makes no attempt to reconcile these two problems, leaving the contradiction between their flatly opposed assumptions unresolved. Which problem is chosen depends on who is speaking, whether activist or scientist. Chomsky’s ‘two problems’ seem not only different but utterly unconnected with one another, as if to deliberately illustrate the gulf between the two compartments of his brain.

I’m not sure I fully understand what this division is and what the fundamental issue might be. I do sense how this goes far beyond Chomsky and linguistics. Knight points out that this kind of splitting is common in academia. I’d go further. It is common throughout our society.

Dissociation is not an unusual response, but when taken to extremes the results can be problematic. An even more extreme example than that of Chomsky, as used by Derrick Jensen, is the Nazi doctors who experimented on children and then went home to play with their own children. The two parts of their lives never crossed, neither in their experience nor in their minds. This is something most people learn to do, if never to such a demented degree. Our lives become splintered in endless ways, a near inevitability in such a large complex society as this. Our society maybe couldn’t operate without such dissociation, a possibility that concerns me.

This brings my mind back around to the more basic problem of linguistics itself. What is linguistics a study of and what is the purpose toward what end? That relates to a point Knight makes, arguing that Chomsky has split theory from meaning, science from humanity. Between the Pentagon-funded researcher and the anti-Pentagon anarchist, the twain shall never meet. Two people live in Chomsky’s mind and they are fundamentally opposed, according to Knight. Maybe there is something to this.

Considering the larger-than-life impact Chomsky has had on the linguistics field, what does this mean for our understanding of our own humanity? Why has the Pentagon backed Chomsky’s side and what do they get for their money?