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Re: [ontolog-forum] Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Phil Murray <pcmurray2000@xxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 24 Feb 2013 10:08:49 -0500
Message-id: <512A2D01.50507@xxxxxxxxx>
Speaking as an outsider ... this is an interesting thread, but many of 
the observations seem to imply restrictive contexts or are at odds with 
direct observation.    (01)

John S. begins with an excerpt from Chen's paper, including: "English 
requires speakers to encode a distinction between present and future 
events ...[snip]"    (02)

No, it doesn't, strictly speaking. You can say, "It rains tomorrow." and 
be understood perfectly by almost every English speaker, even if the 
sentence occurs in isolation. But you will probably be thought of as 
someone who has limited familiarity with "standard" English.    (03)

JS: "The strong [Sapir-Whorf] hypothesis implies that a person's native 
language makes
it difficult or impossible to think outside the constraints of that 
language."    (04)

John notes that this assertion is probably untenable. One reason, I 
think, is that it assumes or implies some "perfect" condition of 
unchanging, complete mastery of some unchanging language.    (05)

It is difficult not to notice that natural languages strongly influence 
how people think. But when people slow down and reflect on the 
vocabulary (and, less frequently, the syntax) of their own natural 
languages, they are often fully aware that the standard natural language 
is not sufficient to describe what they are observing or what they want 
to convey. So they produce variations on existing vocabulary, create new 
terms, or create circumlocutions.    (06)

What's more, we should not confuse lack of knowledge of specific facts 
with incomplete tools in the language used to express an idea. Nor with 
insufficient vocabulary.    (07)

JS: "Brain scans show that such study [of music, mathematics, or any 
branch of science] does indeed make detectable changes in the brain."    (08)

I suspect that *every* significant novel experience makes detectable 
changes in the brain, especially when we are younger. I have nothing to 
prove that, however.    (09)

Jack Park: Quoting the Wikipedia article that Jack pointed to: "[Loglan] 
was developed beginning in 1955 by Dr James Cooke Brown with the goal of 
making a language so different from natural languages that people 
learning it would think in a different way if the hypothesis were true."    (010)

But isn't the rationale for Loglan virtually untestable in the real 
world??? Wouldn't you have to isolate a group of people from birth from 
all influences from the external world? And maintain that isolation for 
decades???    (011)

Regarding Steven Ericsson-Zenith's interesting insertion of the topic of 
computer languages: It's very clear that specific computer languages 
constrain the solutions that programmers produce. But I doubt that a 
specific language limits what a good programmer thinks should be 
possible. This is why programmers grumble about their language they are 
required to use, at times, and why new programming languages -- and new 
features for older languages -- emerge.    (012)

And don't we simply assume that some computer languages are better for 
some requirements than others? Don't computer scientists prefer some 
languages over others, as Rich Cooper notes about himself? Isn't that a 
case of pre-selection?    (013)

In general, doesn't language evolve to reflect culture???  Isn't that 
more true than the assertion that any specific natural language 
intrinsically limits what can be thought by a speaker of that language?    (014)

Meaning *precedes* language, but they become intricately 
intertwined.However, our awareness of that interdependency is often 
limited ... and often changing. (See also, Rich Cooper's observation 
that "I can ride a bike, but I couldn’t explain to my kids HOW I ride a 
bike.")    (015)

Just my two cents.    (016)

       Phil Murray    (017)

John F Sowa wrote:
> Folks,
> 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.
> In any case, some comments:
> Jack P
>> The language Loglan
>> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loglan
>> sprang out of that; Loglan provoked "forks" of various kind
> 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.
> 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".
> 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.
> I agree.  That's related to studying Loglan, music, mathematics,
> or the patterns of the London streets.
> 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.
> 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.
> 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".
> 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.
> 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".
> Rich C
>> It seems normal to have one part of your linguistic brain listening...
> 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.
> Leo
>> 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.
> 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".
> John
> _____________________________________________________________________
> http://faculty.som.yale.edu/keithchen/papers/LanguageWorkingPaper.pdf
> The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings
> Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets
> M. Keith Chen
> Yale University, School of Management and Cowles Foundation
> 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.
> 1 Introduction
> 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'.
> 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? ...
> 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”....
> 6.1.1 Skepticism of the Weak Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
> 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”.
> 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...
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