A discussion and extension of Davidoff
(2001).
Language and Perceptual Categorisation
Kelly Sorensen
Christopher Thomas
November 2, 2004
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Outline
1. Jules Davidoff
2. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
3. Discussion of “Language and Perceptual
Categorisation”
4. Discussion of Linguistic Relativism
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Prof. Jules Davidoff
Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths College,
University of London
Research:
mental representation of objects
relationship between the stored (memory)
knowledge concerning objects and their
recognition, categorisation and nameability
effects on the way speakers of a language
perceive, categorize and remember colors
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Outline
1. Jules Davidoff
2. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
3. Discussion of “Language and Perceptual
Categorisation”
4. Discussion of Linguistic Relativism
4
Sapir-Whorf examples
Eskimos have four different words for snow,
where English has just one
aput for snow on the ground
qana for falling snow
piqsirpoq for drifting snow
qimuqsuq for a snowdrift
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Whorf’s conclusion
"We have the same word for falling snow, snow
on the ground, snow packed hard like ice,
slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow -whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo,
this all-inclusive word would be almost
unthinkable; he would say that falling snow,
slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and
operationally different, different things to
contend with; he uses different words for
them and for other kinds of snow."
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Whorf’s conclusion
difference in
vocabulary
difference in
attitude or
perception
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Introduction to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
 In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states
that there are certain thoughts of an individual in
one language that cannot be understood by
those who live in another language.
 The hypothesis states that the way people think
is strongly affected by their native languages.
 It is a controversial theory championed by linguist
Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf.
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Historical Notes
 Whorf was fighting against cultural evolutionary
theory saying that Western thought is the highest
form of thought
 “… Sapir and Whorf […] rejected hierarchical,
quasi-evolutionary rankings of languages and
cultures .in particular the European, especially
Humboldtian, obsession with the superior value
of inflectional languages for the cultural or mental
advancement of a people.” (Lucy 1997)
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Historical Notes
 After vigorous attack from followers of Noam
Chomsky in the following decades, the
hypothesis is now believed by most linguists only
in the weak sense that language can have some
small effect on thought.
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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I
 Linguistic relativity:
• Structural differences between languages are
paralleled by nonlinguistic cognitive differences
(the structure of the language itself effects
cognition)
• The number and the type of the basic colour
words of a language determine how a subject
sees the rain bow
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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis II
 Linguistic determinism = extreme
"Weltanschauung“ version of the hypothesis:
• The structure of a language can strongly
influence or determine someone’s World View
• A World View describes a (hopefully)
consistent and integral sense of existence and
provides a theoretical framework for
generating, sustaining and applying knowledge
• The Inuit can think more intelligently about
snow because their language contains more
sophisticated and subtle words distinguishing
various forms of it, etc.
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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis III
 Arbitrariness
• The semantic systems of different languages
vary without constraint.
• This hypothesis must be tacitly assumed,
because otherwise the claim that Linguistic
Relativity makes is rather undramatic.
• For each decomposition of the spectrum of the
rain bow a natural system of colour words is
possible
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Outline
1. Jules Davidoff
2. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
3. Discussion of “Language and Perceptual
Categorisation”
4. Discussion of Linguistic Relativism
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Why/how do we determine category membership?
Davidoff (2001) argues:
 that it is linguistic similarity rather than perpetual
similarity that is critical for perceptual
categorization
 against the view that there are underlying,
universal, neurophysiological mechanisms which
determine how color is categorized
15
The case for universal color categories:
Is based on knowledge of how wavelength-sensitive
neurons function.
• Based on the opponent-process mechanism of
neurons, it has been argued that there are two
elemental achromatic categories
1. Black
2. White
• and four elemental color categories
1. Red
2. Green
3. Yellow
4. Blue
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The case for universal color categories cont.:
• There are two wavelengths for which opponentprocess neurons R-G give no output.
• There is also a wavelength for which the
opponent-process neurons Y-B give no output.
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Problems with the case for universal color
categories:
 Wavelengths chosen to represent the colors blue,
yellow, and green are not consistent with what is
expected based on neurophysiology
 Conclusions about neurons are weakened by
individual’s previous exposure to the concept of
blue, yellow, or green
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Problems with the case for universal color
categories:
 Neurophysiology data show that neurons can
respond selectively to particular wavelengths or
combinations of wavelengths and brightness; no
evidence, however, that neurons respond
categorically.
Davidoff thus concludes that perceptual
categories cannot be based strictly upon
observation.
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The philosophical argument
The ‘Sorites paradox”
• Take a series of colors of decreasing wavelength
with the change below the threshold for the
human visual system
• Agree that a patch at one end can be called ‘red”
• If red is the observational or perceptual category,
then the next patch must also be called red, and
so on.
• Continuing with the logic we come to the illogical
conclusion that all colors in the series are red,
even the ‘blues” at the other end of the series
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The neuropsycological evidence
Patients with language impairments caused by
brain damage often behave as if the Sorites
paradox is a reality, sorting by perceptual
similarity without regard for categorical
boundaries.
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Cross-cultural theories
 Whorfian view-”We dissect nature along the
lines laid down by our language.”
 Rosch- argued for a universal rather than
language based color categories due to cognitive
similarities between languages with few color
terms and English.
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Rosch’s universal theory
 Based upon studies of the Dani who
• have only two basic color terms but
remembered colors in ways very similar to the
English speakers
• Showed superior learning and memory for
focal colors for which they had no linguistic
terms
 Results were widely accepted as proof of
universal color categories
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Problems with Rosch’s universal theory
Davidoff argues that there are potentially serious
flaws in both the design and interpretation of
Rosch’s studies
 Conflicting results found for the first study on
two measures based on the multi-dimensional
scaling of the same data
• Graphical demonstration showed support
for universalist view
• Statistical results did not
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Problems with Rosch’s universal theory cont.
 No explanation is given for conflicting results
 Dani speakers perform poorly on the statistical
measures for subsequent studies as well
 Researchers unable to replicate findings with
Berinmo population from New Guinea
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Categorical perception
 Stimuli from the center of perceptual categories
are classified faster than those at the edges,
consequently discrimination of stimuli is better
across than within categories
 In studies with Berinmo and English speakers,
classification was consistently more closely
aligned with the linguistic categories than with the
underlying perceptual universals
30
Empirical support for Whorfian view (theory of
linguistic similarity)
 1st experiment
• When making judgements of similarity between a
group of three stimuli, participants judged two
stimuli from the same linguistic category to be
more similar, even thought the perceptual
distance between each pair of stimuli were held
equal
• No reliable tendencies were observed for those
belonging to groups which make no linguistic
distinctions between the categories used
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Empirical support for Whorfian view (theory of
linguistic similarity) cont.
 2nd experiment
English speakers
1. found the division between green and blue
easier to learn than the arbitrary division of
green
2. found the division between yellow and green
easier to learn than the division between the
Berinmo color categories of nol and wor
32
Empirical support for Whorfian view (theory of
linguistic similarity) cont.
Berinmo speakers
1. Demonstrated no difference in difficulty
for learning the green-blue division and
the arbitraty green division
2. Found the nol-wor division significantly
easier to learn than the yellow-green
division
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Empirical support for Whorfian view (theory of
linguistic similarity) cont.
 3rd experiment
• Demonstrated an effect of linguistic category
in recognition memory
1. English speakers showed significantly
superior recognition for targets from crosscategory pairs than for those from withincategory pairs for the green blue boundary,
but not for the nol-wor boundary
2. Berinmo speakers showed the opposite
effect
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English and Berinmo Color Categories
Berinmo
English
comparison
color categories
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Davidoff’s conclusions from these 3 experiments
 Categorical perception shows the influence of
language on perception
 The structure of linguistic categories distorts
perception by stretching perceptual distances at
category boundaries
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Interference studies
 Has examined whether categorical perception
can be disrupted with verbal interference
 Verbal interference removed the cross-category
advantage for speakers whose languages
classifies the colors as belonging to different
categories
 It appears that verbal coding (representation of
information verbal) facilitates recall (information is
likely encoded both visually as well as verbally)
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Constraints on Whorfian view
 The argument for color categories being a
product of language does not mean that
categorization is unrelated to properties of the
visual system
• Similar items (as defined by perceptual
discrimination) are universally grouped
together (e.g. would not have yellow and blue
together without also having green between)
• Even perceptual categorization tasks can
sometimes be solved simply by perceptual
similarity or common association
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Overall conclusions of the author
 Perceptual categorization is determined by
linguistic relativity
 Being able to attend to color is different from
understanding color categories
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Overall conclusions of the author
 Cross-lingual evidence supports the Whorfian
hypothesis in the number domain, in space, in
time, and in speech perception
 Language and cognition interact; children
generalize abstract terms only if they have
learned a label for the concrete-learning situation
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Questions for future research
 Can human-primates form perceptual
categories?
 There is evidence that neonates show color
categorization. Does this reflect categorization of
a different type?
 Are there capacity constraints on perceptual
categorization?
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Questions for future research
 Verbal interference affects categorization in
memory tasks. Is the same true for perceptual
tasks?
 Which brain areas are involved in perceptualcategorization?
42
Outline
1. Jules Davidoff
2. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
3. Discussion of “Language and Perceptual
Categorisation”
4. Discussion of Linguistic Relativism
43
More Evidence in favor of linguistic relativism
 Chinese children count earlier than American
children
• (In part) because Chinese numbers are more systematic
44
More Evidence in favor of linguistic relativism
Mayans’ similarity judgments are more influenced
by material (as appropriate for mass nouns),
rather than shape (as appropriate for count
nouns)
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But then …
 What does this evidence really say about the
influence of language on thought?
 Especially in the case of colors, is it more a
matter of what we’ve learned?
 Painters can name more colors.
 We can look at colors from different points of
view
• Warm or cold colors
• Pastel or vivid colors
46
Pinker against Sapir-Whorf
 Supposed limitations on expression in various
languages are based on faulty linguistic
understanding.
• Hopi does have words for time, etc.
• Translation between languages is possible
(even if difficult to do elegantly).
47
http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/Spring_2002/ling001/thought.html
Pinker against Sapir-Whorf
 Thought is possible without language.
• Adults who have grown up without language.
• Babies before they learn language.
• Primates and other animals that never learn
language.
• Adults who reason and create in visual or other
modes.
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http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/Spring_2002/ling001/thought.html
Pinker against Sapir-Whorf
 Language is an inadequate medium for the direct
encoding of thought.
• We often can't think of the right word to
express ourselves.
• Language contains ambiguity, homophony, etc.
• Manipulation of visual images is done directly.
•  Pinker suggests a nonverbal language
which he calls Mentalese
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http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/Spring_2002/ling001/thought.html
Questions
 Do euphemisms make us think differently about a
fact?
• negative growth, collateral damage, peace
force
• retarded, mentally disabled, mentally
challenged
 Does the convention of using the male form
support patriarchic views or is it just an
indication?
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Questions
 Can we think about categorization without
language?
• For visually similar items
• For abstract categorizations
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The common denominator
 In an experiment similar to Davidoff’s, Kay and
Kempton came to the following conclusions:
• The extreme ("Weltanschauung") version of
this idea, that all thought is constrained by
language, has been disproved
• The opposite extreme – that language does
not influence thought at all – is also widely
considered to be false
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Synthesis?
 Looking at Pinker’s objections, is there something
underlying language that is more influential?
 Is it the language that influences our perception
or rather the culture we live in?
 Lakoff suggests that cultures have deeply rooted
conceptual metaphors that
find their expressions in the language
guide our perception
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References
 Paul Kay, Willett Kempton: What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?
American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 86, No.1, March 1984, 6579
 http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/Spring_2002/ling001/thought.html
 Jules Davidoff: Language and Perceptual Categorisation.
TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.5 No.9 September 2001, 382-387
 George Lakoff & Mark Johnson. (1980) Metaphors We Live By.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 John A. Lucy. Linguistic Relativity. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.
26:291-312
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