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Re: [ontolog-forum] Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

To: ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
From: John F Sowa <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 24 Feb 2013 00:28:27 -0500
Message-id: <5129A4FB.5070300@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Folks,    (01)

I'm sorry that I used the subject line "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" because
it distracted attention from an article (URL + excerpts below), which
I hoped that somebody might look at.  It shows how the issue can be
analyzed with a testable hypothesis and lots of empirical data.    (02)

In any case, some comments:    (03)

Jack P
> The language Loglan
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loglan
> sprang out of that; Loglan provoked "forks" of various kind    (04)

I agree that learning Loglan could lead people to new ways of
thinking.  But that is true of disciplined study of any kind.
People who study music, mathematics, or any branch of science
do learn how to think in patterns that are distinctly different
from those who don't.    (05)

Brain scans show that such study does indeed make detectable changes
in the brain.  Even the study required to become a taxi driver in
London makes a detectable increase in the hippocampus, which is
involved in storing memories -- e.g., all the streets in London.
For more info, google "London taxi drivers hippocampus".    (06)

Steven E-Z
> I suggested the same is true of engineering languages, where I
> claimed anecdotally that the effect is observable. There is the
> obvious effect, engineering languages affect problem solving behavior,
> but I also claimed that the affect was more pervasive than that,
> arriving at the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a generalization.    (07)

I agree.  That's related to studying Loglan, music, mathematics,
or the patterns of the London streets.    (08)

Pat H
> I have, at many times in my life, had to think and act while my
> mental linguistic system was not functioning at all, and found that
> my thinking was unimpaired by a temporary (epilepsy-induced) total
> aphasia. But in any case, this idea that thought somehow *is* language
> seems unlikely on a variety of grounds.    (09)

I agree.  And so would Temple Grandin -- an autistic woman who had a
severe handicap in learning language, but still managed to earn a PhD
in animal husbandry.  She wrote several books (with editing help
from coauthors) about the way she thinks in terms of mental imagery.    (010)

Despite her handicap (or as she would say, perhaps because of it),
she became a highly successful consultant in cattle raising because
she could imagine how the animals would perceive and reason about
their circumstances.  For more info, google "Temple Grandin".    (011)

Simon S
> the SEP article on Philosophy of Linguistics, which does a fairly good
> job of showing that "the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" isn't even a hypothesis.    (012)

Neither Sapir nor Whorf called what they were doing a hypothesis.
But they published observations that are more insightful than many
publications about "the Saprir-Whorf hypothesis".    (013)

Rich C
> It seems normal to have one part of your linguistic brain listening...    (014)

Various parts of the brain are specialized for various functions.
The simultaneous translators at the United Nations can perform some
amazing feats after years training.  They actually use their *right*
hemisphere to interpret the source language while simultaneously
using their *left* hemisphere to generate speech in the target
language.  But that is a highly unnatural specialization that
requires as much daily practice as Olympic gymnastics.    (015)

> I think the Whorf or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or non-hypothesis) suffers
> greatly. But the [SEP] article does tease out some of the usual positions.    (016)

The claim that the patterns of language influence thought seems to be
well supported.  To avoid endless debate, it's probably better to avoid
using the term "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis".    (017)

_____________________________________________________________________    (018)

http://faculty.som.yale.edu/keithchen/papers/LanguageWorkingPaper.pdf    (019)

The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings
Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets    (020)

M. Keith Chen    (021)

Yale University, School of Management and Cowles Foundation    (022)

Abstract:  Languages differ widely in the ways they encode time.
I test the hypothesis that languages that grammatically associate
the future and the present foster future-oriented behavior. This
prediction arises naturally when well-documented effects of language
structure are merged with models of intertemporal choice. Empirically,
I find that speakers of such languages save more, retire with more
wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese. This
holds both across countries and within countries when comparing
demographically similar native households. The evidence does not
support the most obvious forms of common causation. I discuss
implications for theories of intertemporal choice.    (023)

1 Introduction    (024)

Languages differ in whether or not they require speakers to
grammatically mark future events.  For example, a German speaker
predicting rain can naturally do so in the present tense, saying:
_Morgen regnet es_ which translates to 'It rains tomorrow'. In
contrast, English would require the use of a future marker like
'will' or 'is going to', as in: 'It will rain tomorrow'.    (025)

In this way, English requires speakers to encode a distinction
between present and future events, while German does not.  Could
this characteristic of language influence speakers’ intertemporal
choices? ...    (026)

Specifically, I adopt a criterion which distinguishes between
languages which Dahl (2000) calls “futureless”, and those which are
not. Dahl defines “futureless” languages as those which do not require
“the obligatory use [of grammaticalized future-time reference] in
(main clause) prediction-based contexts”....    (027)

6.1.1 Skepticism of the Weak Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis    (028)

While many studies support at least a weak form of the SWH, there are
a number of scholars who argue that on balance, the idea that cognition
is shaped by language is misguided. Most prominently, in his seminal
work _Syntactic Structures_ (1957), Chomsky argues that humans have
an innate set of mechanisms for learning language, and that this
constrains all human languages to conform with a “universal grammar”.    (029)

Taken in strong form, a universal grammar would largely eliminate the
scope for language to affect cognition. In _The Language Instinct_
(1994), Pinker argues exactly this: that humans do not think in the
language we speak in, but rather in an innate “mentalese” which
precedes natural language. He concludes that: “there is no scientific
evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of
thinking”. While a rich literature since 1994 has disputed this claim,
support for the SWH remains an hotly debated topic...    (030)

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