Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Language and thought

This is a short, but interesting article on

language in The Economist. It reports on a tribe in Brazil that refuses to be assimilated; they barter, have no concept of money, and, hence, it would seem, do not need to use numbers. No nimble thought here (what is language, what is the world without language, what do Chomsky and Whorf, never mind Aristotle and Rousseau, have to do with it?), but such things rarely make the weekly news.

"The Pirahã, a group of hunter-gatherers who live along the banks of the Maici River in Brazil, use a system of counting called “one-two-many”. In this, the word for “one” translates to “roughly one” (similar to “one or two” in English), the word for “two” means “a slightly larger amount than one” (similar to “a few” in English), and the word for “many” means “a much larger amount”. In a paper just published in Science, Peter Gordon of Columbia University uses his study of the Pirahã and their counting system to try to answer a tricky linguistic question.

This question was posed by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. Whorf studied Hopi, an Amerindian language very different from the Eurasian languages that had hitherto been the subject of academic linguistics. His work led him to suggest that language not only influences thought but, more strongly, that it determines thought."

Discussions - 1 Comment

The extreme Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in which language actually determines thought has been pretty much discredited. The article that you cite illustrates why this is pretty well. The milder version of the hypothesis i.e. that language influences thought is commonsensical and generally accepted.

My analogy on this is that language functions as "hooks" on which you "hang" thoughts. Doesn’t mean you can’t have them. Just makes them harder to hold on to.

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