PSY 369: Psycholinguistics
Language, culture, and cognition
Lanuage and thought
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How are language and thought related?
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Are inner speech and thought the same thing?
How does language impact thought?
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Are there things that we can’t think about because our
language imposes particular constraints?
Does our language affect how we perceive the world?
Can two people who speak different languages
communicate?
The question has been debated for a long time
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And still is today
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New York Times article
Some history
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Plato & Socrates THINKING = INNER SPEECH
Socrates: And do you accept my description of the process of thinking?
Theaetetus: How do you describe it?
Socrates: As a discourse that the mind carries on with itself about any
subject it is considering. … I have a notion that, when the mind is
thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering
them. … So I should describe thinking as a discourse, … not aloud to
someone else, but silently to oneself.
Some history
Aristotle: SPEECH IS THE SYMBOL OF THOUGHT
Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are
the symbols of spoken words. Just as all men have not the same
writing, so all men have not the same speech sounds; but the mental
experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as
also are those things of which our experiences are the images.
Some history
John B. Watson (1913, early behaviorist):
… thought processes are really motor habits in the larynx, improvements,
short cuts, changes, etc., in these habits are brought about in the same
way that such changes are produced in other motor habits. This view
carries with it the implication that there are no reflective processes
(centrally initiated processes).
But see Smith, Brown, Thomas, and Goodman (1947) – used curare to
temporarily paralyze all voluntary muscles, but participant (first author
Smith) reportedly could still think and solve problems
Some history
Vygotsky (Russian developmental psychologist)
• Language and thought have different origins
• Pre-linguistic child thinks independently of language
• Words are not symbols for thought, instead are properties of
objects
• Speech sounds are not thought
• Language is acquired from the child’s social grouping
• Later speech and thought become connected
• Speech becomes representational
• Children’s monologues are internalized and become “inner
speech”
Some history
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Franz Boas, father of American Anthropology
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Edward Sapir, student of Boas
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“grammatical meaning [can] only be understood in terms of
the system of which it is part”
“the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously build up on
the language habits of the group.”
Benjamin Lee Whorf, student of Sapir (and insurance
claims adjustor)
Benjamin Lee Whorf
“We cut up and organize the spread and flow of events as we do 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.”
“Every language is a vast pattern system, different from others, in which are
culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only
communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of
relationships and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house
of his consciousness.”
“From this fact proceeds what I have called the ‘linguistic relativity principle,’
which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are
pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations … and hence
are not equivalent as observers …”
Does language affect thought?
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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
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Linguistic determinism
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Language determines thought (memory, perception, & action)
Linguistic relativity
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Different languages map onto the world differently, resulting in
different cognitive structures
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Whorf posited that cultural thinking differences were the direct
result of differences in their languages
 Speakers of different languages see the world in different,
incompatible ways, because their languages impose different
conceptual structures on their experiences.
Weak version(s) of the hypothesis:
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Language influences thinking & how we perceive the world
7 min video
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
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What evidence led Whorf to this conclusion?
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The bulk of his evidence was drawn from cross-cultural
comparisons
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He studied several Native American cultures.
But he also used examples drawn from his days as an
insurance investigator
Does language affect thought?
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Whorf’s famous example
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“Empty gasoline drums”
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“Yet the ‘empty’ drums are perhaps more dangerous (in
comparison to the full drums), since they contain explosive
vapor. …The word ‘empty’ is used in two linguistic patterns:
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(1) as a virtual synonym for ‘null and void, negative, inert,’
(2) applied in analysis of physical situations without regard to, e.g.,
vapor, liquid vestiges, in the container.
The situation is named in one pattern (2) and the name is then
‘acted out’ in another (1), this being the general formula for the
linguistic conditioning of behavior into hazardous forms.”
(Whorf, 1956, p. 135)
Does language affect thought?
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Whorf’s famous example
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“Empty gasoline drums”
Linguistic form
empty
Linguistic meanings
Container no longer
contains intended
contents
null and void,
negative, inert
Mental interpretations
drum no longer
contains gasoline
drum is no longer
dangerous; okay to
smoke cigarettes
Nonlinguistic observables
gasoline drum
without gasoline
worker smokes
cigarettes
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
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Some of the evidence:
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Whorf claimed Inuit have several terms for snow
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Qanuk ‘snowflake’
Qanir ’to snow’
Qanunge ‘to snow’
Qanugglir ‘to snow’
Kaneq ‘frost’
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Kaner ‘be frosty’
Kanevvluk ‘fine snow’
Natquik ‘drifting snow’
Natquigte ‘for snow to drift
along the ground’
And more
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
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Some of the evidence:
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Whorf claimed Inuit have several terms for snow
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However, there are many different Inuit languages and not
all posses the same number of terms.
Boas (1911) reported one group with four root terms.
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This number is probably matched or surpassed by skiers
regardless of their language.
See Pullum’s Great Eskimo Hoax (1991)
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
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Specialization based on experience
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Different groups within a culture vary in terms of the
number of words they use for things
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Consider memory
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Most people are aware of two kinds of memory, short term
and long term.
As we discovered previously cognitive psychologists have
many terms: Sensory registers, Iconic and echoic, short-term
or working or primary memory, long-term, verbal and
imagistic, declarative, procedural, and episodic.
It would be fair to say that the layman and the cognitive
psychologist think differently about memory.
Testing the theory
Two major approaches have been employed to test
the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
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Test the strong view – language determines thought by seeing
if the cognitive system can make distinctions that are not
linguistically represented
Test a weaker view – that language influences thought.
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Two of the domains in which this issue has been studied
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Color terms
Counting and arithmetic
Others include: time/space language & grammatical categories
Cultural Variations
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If your language didn’t have separate names for these,
would you see them the same way?
Color Terms
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Much of the initial research focused on an aspect of
language which varies widely across cultures
 Color Terms
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There are a few languages which have only two color
terms, and some with three.
Most languages draw their color names from 11 specific
colors.
Color Terms
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Berlin and Kay (1969): Color hierarchy
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Rules: Consist of only one morpheme, not contained within
another color word, not restricted to a small number of
objects, and commonly known
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In 2 color term languages the terms correspond to Black & White
In 3 color term languages they correspond to Black, White & Red
Languages with additional terms items are added as follows: yellow,
green, blue then brown, then purple, pink, orange, and gray.
This data runs contrary to Whorf’s hypotheses
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They suggest a universal physiological basis for color
naming, independent of language
Color Terms
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Brown & Lenneberg (1954): So do naming practices
influence our ability to distinguish or remember
colors?
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If something in a culture is named frequently it may be labeled
with a brief name, less frequently with a longer name, and
infrequently with a phrase rather than a single word
The process of naming in this manner is known as codability.
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Codability = how easily a concept can be described in a
language, related to the length of the word.
Asked people to name 24 colors (8 central, 16 others). Those
with longer names were named with hesitations and less
consistency
Color Terms
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Hieder (1972) (Rosch, 1973 [same person])
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Dani tribe of New Guinea use only two color names
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Mili – cool/dark shades (e.g., blue, green, black)
Mola – warm/light shades (e.g., red, yellow, white)
They had no difficulty in recognizing color chips that were from
an initial presentation from among distracters even though they
had no names for the colors.
Additionally, they were better at recognizing focal colors (e.g.,
the best example of blue) than non-focal colors (just as we
English speakers are)
This data does not support the strong view of Whorf’s
hypothesis.
Check out: ISU’s Mind Project Virtual Anthropology Lab
Color Terms
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Comparative judgments among colors are affected
by color naming practices
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Kay & Kempton, (1984)
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G
G
G
G
G
B
B
B
B
Investigated English and Tarahumara
In Tarahumara there are no separate terms for blue and green
The task was see 3 chips pick the one least similar in color
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Some trials had chips English speakers would call C1 green, C2
blue and C3 was a focal example of green but farther away in
light spectrum from C1 than was the case for C1 vs. C2
Color Terms
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Comparative judgments among colors are affected
by color naming practices
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Kay & Kempton, (1984)
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G
G
G
Investigated English and Tarahumara
In Tarahumara there are no separate terms for blue and green
The task was see 3 chips pick the one least similar in color
Predictions:
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G
G
B
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Results:
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B
B
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B
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Visual stimuli as only basis pick C3 as odd
Naming practices influence pick C2 as odd
Tarahumara speakers pick C3
English speakers tended to pick the chip they would label blue (C2)
even though in the spectrum it was closer to C1 than was C3
Support for a weak version of the Whorfian hypothesis
Color Terms
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Winawer, Boroditsky and others (2007)
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English and Russian divide up blues differently
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Results
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Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (”goluboy”)
and darker blues (”siniy”).
Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colors when they fell
into different linguistic categories (one siniy and the other goluboy) than
when they were from the same linguistic category (both siniy or both
goluboy).
English speakers tested on the identical stimuli did not show a category
advantage in any of the conditions.
Support for a weak version of the Whorfian hypothesis, categories in
language affect performance on simple perceptual color tasks
Color Terms
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Siok, Kay and others (2009)
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fMRI study
Results:
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Lexical color information was accessed in color
discrimination
It also enhanced the activation of color region
V2/3
Discussion:
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“Language, by enhancing the activation level
of the visual cortex, differentially influences the
discrimination of colors presented in the left
and right visual hemi-fields.”
Support for a weak version of the Whorfian
hypothesis, categories in language affect brain
activation during perceptual color tasks
Higher Cognitive Processes
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Color naming may not seem like a very complex
cognitive process:
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What about more complex mental processes?
 Counting and other Arithmetic processes
Counting & Arithmetic
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Greenberg (1978) has identified some cultures where
the only number terms correspond to one, two, many.
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Piraha tribe; Gordon (2004) (in conjunction with ISU’s Dan Everett)
 Hoi (falling tone = one), hoi (rising tone = two), aibai (= many)
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Matching tasks - show an array of objects, they have to put
objects down to match the array
Results - relatively good matching up to 2 or 3, but performance
was considerably poorer beyond that up to 8 to 10 items
Different languages terms for numbers also has effects on arithmetic
Counting & Arithmetic
Miller & Stigler (1987)
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English and French have complex names for numbers
Japanese,Chinese and Korean have simpler systems
From Miller & Stigler
(1987)
Counting & Arithmetic
Miller & Stigler (1987)
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The greater regularity of number names in Chinese,
Japanese and Korean as compared to English or French
facilitates the learning of counting behavior beyond 10 in
those languages.
Another advantage is earlier mastery of ‘place value’
(understanding that in # 23 there are 2 tens and 3 ones)
Counting & Arithmetic
Miller & Stigler (1987)
Conclusions
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At this point it is apparent that the strong view of
Whorf’s hypothesis is not supported.
Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, 1994)
• “The famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism … is
wrong, all wrong. … There is no scientific evidence that languages
dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking.”
• “Most of the experiments have tested banal “weak” versions of the
Whorfian hypothesis, namely that words can have some effect on
memory or categorization. Some of these experiments have actually
worked, but that is hardly surprising.”
Conclusions
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At this point it is apparent that the strong view of
Whorf’s hypothesis is not supported.
However, there is continued support for the weaker
version(s) of the hypothesis
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The data from areas of investigation concerning color naming,
counting & arithmetic, reasoning, visual memory, and other areas
(e.g., social inference) indicate that the use of certain specific terms
can influence how we think
 The question that remains is how much of the differences are
because of the language and how much due to the culture?
 Problems
 Language cannot be randomly assigned
 Therefore we cannot rule out some third variables
such as culture.
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PSY 369: Psycholinguistics