How Language Shapes Thought
by Adam Robbert
I was just sent a great essay entitled “How Language Shapes Thought: The Languages We Speak Affect Our Perceptions of the World” which has proven to be a great read. There have been variations of this thesis emerging in linguistics since at least the 1930′s following the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” that, broadly stated, suggested the languages people use shape their relationships to other people, their sense of space and time, and their relationship to the more than human world.
To me this sounds like a rather obvious supposition, however it is only recently that linguists and cognitive scientists have been able to collect the empirical data to support such a view. This article, for example, argues the following:
People communicate using a multitude of languages that vary considerably in the information they convey. Scholars have long wondered whether different languages might impart different cognitive abilities. In recent years empirical evidence for this causal relation has emerged, indicating that one’s mother tongue does indeed mold the way one thinks about many aspects of the world, including space and time. The latest findings also hint that language is part and parcel of many more aspects of thought than scientists had previously realized (p. 63).
And further concludes by stating:
What researchers have been calling “thinking” this whole time actually appears to be a collection of both linguistic and nonlinguistic processes. As a result, there may not be a lot of adult human thinking where language does not play a role. A hallmark feature of human intelligence is its adaptability, the ability to invent and rearrange conceptions of the world to suit changing goals and environments. One consequence of this flexibility is the great diversity of languages that have emerged around the globe. Each provides its own cognitive toolkit and encapsulates the knowledge and worldview developed over thousands of years within a culture. Each contains a way of perceiving, categorizing and making meaning in the world, an invaluable guidebook developed and honed by our ancestors. Research into how the languages we speak shape the way we think is helping scientists to unravel how we create knowledge and construct reality and how we got to be as smart and sophisticated as we are. And this insight, in turn, helps us understand the very essence of what makes us human (p. 65).
I think the future of linguistic research of this variety will start to look more like media ecology (broadly construed) than the current cognitive linguistic emphasis on universal grammers. In this sense, the particularity of a language group (including its unique grammer and lexical output) seems to have just as much impact on human cognitive development as any deeper, underlying structure to produce language as such. I think there are good grounds to suggest then that, just as media ecology has emerged as the study of “media as ecology,” we can also say that a new kind of “linguistic ecology” is emerging that treats language as an ecological domain recursively linked to other ecological domains (including knowledge ecologies!)
What does this look like? Well, the media ecologists are well and far ahead when it comes to the type of research programs I am suggesting vis-a-vis the study of knowledge ecologies. Fortunately, it seems that media ecology research can provide a template for how to research knowledge ecologies. There is already a great deal of historical evidence, for example, on the difference between oral and literate cultures (cf. Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy). For Ong, the differences between orality and literacy are not surface-level “aesthetic” differences that can be united by a deeper structure in human cognition. Rather, Ong puts mediums of communication on par with the human enactment of things like causality, temporality, and sensory perception. Oral communication, for example, stresses auditory sensation and the immediacy of sound as a resonating, vibrating medium of exchange. Literate communication, on the other hand, stresses the visual sensation, requires a concept of linearity, and emphasizes a disjunction between subjects.
I think what we are seeing with the emergence of new research programs into the nature of language is an increased awareness that languages, ideas, words, paradigms — I’m not entirely clear how to sort these terms — act in a Latourian sense that reveals a much more subtle plain of activity than what is generally construed by the natural sciences of ecology. As I have proposed before, I think the way forward (in part) lies in articulating not just one ecology but three ecologies; a material, media, and knowledge ecology. These three ecologies require an awareness of what Graham Harman calls “undermining” and “overmining.” In the above article, for example, it seems clear that the effect of language on human cognitive development cannot be reduced only to underlying, universal structures of human cognition. Nor can languages be reduced to sociocultural contexts and historical events. It seems, rather, that even individual words can have impacts on human perceptions and cognitive development.
The surprising conclusion here is, and this won’t come as a surprise if you already accept the thesis of extended cognition, that words are in some sense “outside” of individual human speakers even though they appear to be generated from “inside” human skulls. Languages, worldviews, paradigms, and lexicons in some sense constitute a different sort of “object” replete with their own autonomous effects on material worlds. I would argue that, up until recently, Latour has skirted the issue of actors that occupy an ambiguous place in peoples psyches (he doesn’t have much an articulated psychology), though it seems that we are now in a place to consider what an ecology of knowledge may look like alongside of the greater ecologies of actuality, and in that sense include what Latour calls a “cosmogram” alongside of other actors like stethoscopes, MRI machines, and iPhones.