Saturday, June 27, 2009

Does language shape our worldview?

Lera Boroditsky thinks so. And she presents a fascinating example:
Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don't end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space. So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.

To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they'll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role.3 So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don't use words like "left" and "right"? What will they do?

The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

6 comments:

Krishnan said...

Fascinating stuff !

SloganMurugan said...

In Central Travancore, I have observed people speak in a similar way. In Malayalam.

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Thomas Marley said...

so many fallacious arguments here it is difficult to finish. The basis of all of them are a classic "after this, therefore because of this" fallacy. Just because a different culture's lanugage is different from ours and so is their worldview, it does not follow that the language is creating their worldview. Did you not ever consider that the language rather reflects the customs of a culture?

Imagine we all (English speakers) decide to form a club together where we all speak in terms of cardinal directions instead of relative ones (left, right, etc.). And we do this all the time. Are we not speaking English? Of course we are. But would we not be much more "spatially aware"? Yes, that too, of course. In the same way, is it not much more likely that the Kuuk Thaayorre are speaking in terms of their worldview? How do you even come close to justifying the causal directionality of your conclusion, that is, the far, far bolder hypothesis that it is their language which shapes their worldview. Similarly, if you taught a child to read books in English from left to right surely she would arrange the cards in the same way as the Hebrew speakers. In no way does it follow that they think of time in a different way.
I very much agree with the previous poster that this is fascinating stuff. Yet I think you would do better to review the basics of argumentation before you make such claims.

Thomas Marley said...

So many fallacious arguments here I find it is difficult to finish reading even such a brief post. The basis of all your faulty argumentation is a classic "after this, therefore because of this" fallacy. Just because a different culture's lanugage is different from ours and so is their worldview, it does not follow that the language is creating their worldview. Did you not ever consider that the language rather reflects the customs of a culture?

Imagine we all (English speakers) decide to form a club together where we all speak in terms of cardinal directions instead of relative ones (left, right, etc.). And we do this all the time. Are we not speaking English? Of course we are. But would we not be much more "spatially aware"? Yes, that too, of course. In the same way, is it not much more likely that the Kuuk Thaayorre are speaking in terms of their worldview? How do you even come close to justifying the causal directionality of your conclusion, that is, the far, far bolder hypothesis that it is their language which shapes their worldview. Similarly, if you taught a child to read books in English from left to right surely she would arrange the cards in the same way as the Hebrew speakers. In no way does it follow that they think of time in a different way.
I very much agree with the previous poster that this is fascinating stuff. Yet I think you would do better to review the basics of argumentation before you make such claims.

Hari said...

Thomas Marley -- You raise some excellent points. I concede that I did not rigorously think through what is being claimed when I posted this piece; I was carried away by the novelty of the claim.