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Re: [ontolog-forum] language and thinking

To: ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Mon, 30 Aug 2010 17:44:29 -0400
Message-id: <4C7C263D.10204@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Ed and John B.,    (01)

EG> And yet, there are occasional persons over 40 who can still
> master the distinction and production of foreign sounds so
> well as to pass as native speakers.    (02)

That kind of skill depends heavily on early learning of two or
more languages, so that the person has a larger stock of phonemes
and the ability to make finer distinctions among them.    (03)

JB> I'm a bit surprised that Everett had his own children in
> the class but made no mention of having Pirahã children in it. Did
> Everett not realize that he, himself, had learned to count as a child?    (04)

He did have some of the Pirahã children in the class.  They learned
the Portuguese words for the numbers from 1 to 10, but they didn't
learn how to use them to count, and they didn't apply them consistently.
In any case, Everett's courses were purely voluntary, and the children
(or adults) would walk in or out as they pleased.    (05)

For a more informal discussion with more detail about the social
conditions, see the article from the _New Yorker_:    (06)

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_colapinto    (07)

EB> but the problem is that language and culture reinforce one
> another.  (Swahili, for example, makes many distinctions in kinds
> of "walking", precisely because they distinguish characteristics of
> movement that have impact on success in hunting and other activities
> of that society.)    (08)

Yes.  Everett emphasizes that the Pirahã culture and environment
have had a strong influence on the language.  So it's not clear
which is the chicken and which is the egg.    (09)

But the issues are much deeper than learning a few extra words.
The Pirahã learned some Portuguese number words, but they can't
grasp the idea of counting.  (But note that there are many
Americans who can count, but who can't understand algebra.
They think that x and y represent specific numbers, and they
can't grasp the idea of a variable.)    (010)

EB> I don't think of myself as a Whorf-ian.  I think the modern view is 
> there is co-development of language and culture, and most societies now
> find themselves regularly in contact with others, with the consequence
> of continuing evolution of both language and culture.    (011)

Whorf would definitely agree.  He did extensive field work with the
Hopi, and showed how the Hopi language and culture were related.
He also recommended some "cultural engineering":  since the Hopi
couldn't understand the Western view of time, he proposed a clever
way of teaching them the notion of measured time:    (012)

  1. Set up a free bus that would make scheduled stops around
     the Hopi reservation.    (013)

  2. Post the schedule and a clock at each bus stop.    (014)

After a while, the Hopi got the message that learning how
to tell time would be useful.    (015)

John    (016)

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