Wednesday, September 07, 2005

All in the mind?

The link between language and thought is a fascinating one. Linguists and psychologists have argued for decades about the effects of language on the way we think and the way we experience the world around us. Linguistic relativists like Sapir and Whorf argue that language can influence thought (so, according to Whorf who worked as a fire prevention officer, if we see a word like "empty" on a barrel we'll assume it contains nothing, even if we know it contains highly flammable petrol fumes, and our behaviour may become more reckless as a result). The relativists also argue that languages are different around the world and reflect different cultural outlooks, so a tribe in one area of the world whose environment contains little need for words describing knives and forks, won't have those words.

On the other side, linguistic universalists argue that all languages are linked by what Noam Chomsky calls a "deep structure", so however different languages like French, Cantonese and English might appear, they share linguistic universals. Universalists argue that the influence of language on thought is negligible, as thought controls language.

A report in The Guardian yesterday (which doesn't seem to be online) offers support to the relativist position. Apparently patients who are told that they will receive "moderate" pain respond less to the pain administered to them than those patienst who are told they will receive "severe" pain. In other words, if you're getting the same amount of pain given to you, the language used to describe that pain seems to have an influence on what you feel. Quite who would want to volunteer for such a bizarre experiment I don't know...

This experiment is supported by another article (which is online - huzzah!) about language and asthma. Similar experiments by the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus also offer support to linguistic relativism:

For more than three decades, I have been studying memory and the ways it can go awry. My first studies of eyewitness testimony addressed several key questions: When someone sees a crime or accident, how accurate is his or her memory? What happens when this person is questioned by police officers, and what if those questions are leading in some way? While others in the field of memory were studying memory for words or nonsense syllables, or sometimes sentences, I began showing people films of traffic accidents and questioning them in various ways. The question “Did you see the broken headlight?” led to more false reports of a broken headlight than the same question asked with the verb hit. “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” led to higher estimates of speed than a more neutral question that used the verb hit. Moreover, the “smashed” question led more people to later falsely claim that they had seen broken glass when there was none. My early papers concluded that leading questions could contaminate or distort a witness’s memory (see Loftus, 1979/1996, for a summary of this early research).
Useful for:
ENA1 - Language and Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates (esp. Language & Ideology)

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