LINGUIST List 14.3363

Sat Dec 6 2003

Review: Cognitive Science:Gentner & Goldin-Meadow(2003)

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  1. Katharine Beals, Language In Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought

Message 1: Language In Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought

Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 13:44:00 -0500 (EST)
From: Katharine Beals <>
Subject: Language In Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought

Gentner, Dedre and Susan Goldin-Meadow, ed. (2003) Language in Mind:
Advances in the Study of Language and Thought, MIT Press.

Announced at

Katharine Beals, Ph.D., Autism Language Therapies


''Language in Mind'', edited by Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow,
collects 16 recent essays by premier scholars exploring the influence
of language on thought. Here Whorf's hypothesis that linguistic
differences may cause differences in thinking, widely embraced in the
1950s and 1960s, lately the object of so much scorn and skepticism
(Pinker 1994; Devitt and Sterelny 1987), receives renewed attention.
Today's better understanding of linguistic distinctions and
psychological processes affords more precise hypotheses about language
and cognition and more scientific methods of testing them.

In the introductory chapter, Gentner and Goldin-Meadow lay out the
essays' broad thematic interconnections (''Whither Whorf''). Next, in
a section entitled ''Position Statements'', three opinion pieces
introduce some of the underlying theoretical issues.

In ''Languages and Representations'', Eve V. Clark recalls Slobin's
(1996) distinction between ''thinking for speaking'' (what we do when
we select and combine words) and other types of thought. Thinking for
understanding, remembering, and categorizing may involve less
linguistic encoding and therefore less language-specific variation.
Even a given event can induce multiple mental representations, some of
which aren't motivated by the intent to use language; these, too, are
potentially universal.

In ''Language and Mind'', Stephen C. Levinson adduces the huge
variation among the semantic structures of the world's languages as
evidence against the ''nativist'' emphasis on linguistic universals
and the ''nativist'' claim that universal, inborn concepts operate at
the level of mental computation. Decomposing the semantics of all
languages would produce a set of primitives larger than our
notoriously short short- term memories can handle. Rather, concepts
are language-specific constructs. Also language specific, given the
ease and rapidity with which we encode and decode propositions, is the
conceptual representation system closest to semantic representation.

In ''Social Cognition'', Michael Tomasello stresses the importance of
joint attention. Occurring whenever one attends to what the speaker is
attending to, joint attention does more than enable language learning.
Since there are many ways in which a speaker may attend to something,
attending to his attention teaches children multiple ways of
construing objects or events, vastly enlarging their cognitive
capacities. Language, Tomasello concludes, does not affect cognition,
but is rather a form of it (an essentially social one).

The next section, ''Language as Lens: Does the Language We Acquire
Influence How We See the World?'', addresses the question most akin to
Whorf's original hypothesis.

In ''Sex, Syntax and Semantics,'' Lera Boroditsky, Lauren Schmidt, and
Webb Phillips compare Spanish and German students, and find
significant effects of grammatical gender on memory, on object
descriptions, and on judgments of picture similarity. They do so even
when these tasks are as non-linguistic as possible, and when the
potential effects of culture are eliminated in parallel experiments
using a fictional language.

In ''Speaking versus Thinking about Objects and Actions'', Barbara C.
Malt, Steven A. Sloman, and Silvia P. Gennari analyze the naming and
sorting of artifacts and the memory and similarity judgments for
events involving motion and manner by speakers of languages that
categorize those artifacts and events differently. Only experiments
involving explicit linguistic encoding (where subjects were asked to
name the object or event) evinced language-specific differences.

Similar experiments, as well as experiments involving color and frames
of reference (Brown and Levinson 1993), are reviewed by Edward Munnich
and Barbara Landau in ''The Effects of Spatial Language on Spatial
Representation: Setting some Boundaries.'' Observing that not just
explicit linguistic encoding, but also prior or covert linguistic
encoding, can influence empirical results, they argue that none of the
experiments with language-specific outcomes have ruled out covert
encoding. Linguistic experience reorganizes linguistic
representations, they conclude, but not nonlinguistic ones.

In ''Language and Thought Online: Cognitive Consequences of Linguistic
Relativity'', Dan Slobin points out that the effects of linguistic
experience and representations, or what he calls ''thinking for
speaking,'' are nonetheless non-obvious and nontrivial. Comparing
languages whose verbs readily encode manner of motion (many Germanic
languages) with those that don't (many Romance ones), he discusses the
relative prevalence of manner verbs in the lexicons, conversations,
and narratives of the former. Noting that listeners and readers of
manner languages attend more to fine distinctions of manner of motion
and form more detailed mental images of manner in reported events, he
proposes that on-line linguistic experiences affect off-line memories
for these events and for events recorded for later reporting.

The next section, ''Language as Tool Kit: Does the Language We Acquire
Augment Our Capacity for Higher-Order Representation and Reasoning?'',
harkens back to Vygotsky (1962) more than to Whorf. More important
than cross-linguistic comparisons, here, are comparisons within a
language of speakers with different linguistic skills.

In ''Why We're So Smart,'' Dedre Gentner argues that much of human
intelligence results from two species-specific faculties: analogical
thinking and language. Experiments show that giving more than one
object the same name invites children to extract similarities from
specifics, and that naming a relationship between objects likewise
helps them to extract relational concepts (e.g. ''same'' and
''different''). Such experiences move the child beyond the immediate
and concrete, bootstrapping her into ever higher levels of complexity
and abstraction: ''[I]f a pattern discovered by analogy is named, it
becomes easier to see as part of yet another analogy.'' (p. 228).

In ''Does Language Help Animals Think?'' Stan A. Kuczaj, II and
Jennifer L. Hendry observe that while animals show cognitive skills
that don't require language-e.g. categorizing by perceptual
properties- making similarity judgments and integrating sensory
information from different modalities require symbols that abstract
away from sensory details. Perhaps also facilitated by language are
relational inferences about other points of view:
language-enculturated dolphins have pointed at things to direct
attention. Whether language actually creates new mental faculties, or
merely facilitates existing ones (perhaps affording new ways to
express an extant theory of mind), remains unclear. Of course,
different animals are more or less capable of learning and exploiting
language. Additionally, echoing Tomasello's paper, the authors remark
that the most effective training involves ''social interaction and
clear indications of the referential nature of the symbols'' as
opposed to operant conditioning (p. 246).

In ''What Makes Us Smart? Core Knowledge and Natural Language'',
Elizabeth S. Spelke argues that many core knowledge systems thought to
be unique to human cognition-those relating to objects, number,
geometry-are in fact surpassed by those of animals. What makes us
smarter than them is our language faculty. The combinatoric properties
of language allow us to connect these inherently encapsulated, domain
and task-specific systems. Only those who've mastered spatial
language, for example, can connect shape and color systems into novel
concepts like ''left of the blue wall.'' Similarly, language helps us
relate our two systems of number awareness: the precise recognition of
small numbers of distinct objects and of the effects of adding and
subtracting them, and the sense of set size that for large numbers is
only approximate. When we relate the counting routine (''one, two,
three''...) to both systems, we construct, through language, a new
knowledge system for large, exact numbers. Whether different languages
construct different concepts and conceptual systems out of their
universal building blocks (the core knowledge systems we all share)
depends on how much they vary in their combinatoric properties.

In ''Conceptual and Linguistic Factors in Inductive Projections: How
do Young Children Recognize Commonalities between Animals and
Plants'', Kayoko Inagaki and Giyoo Hatano focus on two knowledge
domains: plant and animal. Young children, who appear to lack the more
general concept of ''living things'', treat these domains as
distinct. Linguistic clues, however, can help them generalize across
domains; how readily they do so depends on phrasing (''eats/drinks''
versus ''needs food/water'').

In ''Language for Thought: Coming to Understand False Beliefs'', Jill
G. de Villiers and Peter A. de Villiers focus on the uniquely human
ability to understand and reason about false beliefs (as in ''He did
that because he thinks that the candle is an apple.''). The acid test
for the representational theory of mind, such reasoning reaches beyond
external behavior into consciousness and differing points of view.
Surprising evidence suggests that children, even older, language-
delayed deaf children, cannot entertain false beliefs until they've
acquired a specific linguistic structure: sentences with embedded
complement clauses. Only children who can process such sentences pass
false belief tests, even if all the specific structures they've
learned contain verbs of communication rather than belief (''He said
that the candle is an apple''), and even if the tests themselves avoid
language. Only the embedded complement structure, acquired rather
than innate, provides ''the right degree of representational richness
for capturing false beliefs.'' (p. 374).

The final section, ''Language As Category Maker: Does the Language We
Acquire Influence Where We Make Our Category Distinctions?'', returns
to cross-linguistic comparisons. It explores whether speakers of
different languages draw boundaries between categories in different
places, and whether concepts exist independently of language or are
constructed by it.

In ''Space under Construction: Language-Specific Spatial
Categorization in First Language Acquisition'', Melissa Bowerman and
Soonja Choi argue that many spatial categories are not innate, but
constructed by young children under linguistic guidance. Experiments
show Korean and English-speaking children from as young as 18 months
classifying spatial events more like the adult speakers of their
language than like their same-age peers, and over-generalizing
according to the language's semantic and statistical
properties. Citing Gentner's observations about naming, they propose
that children possess some innate categories (containment) and
context-specific sensitivities (awareness of tightness of fit in
specific situations). Hearing the same word for two different things
prompts children to fill in the gap between them, partially mapping
out a category; hearing different words for things prompts children to
draw category boundaries somewhere between them. These effects extend
into nonlinguistic cognition: nonverbal tasks show Korean-speaking
adults exhibiting greater awareness than their English- speaking
counterparts do of ''tightness of fit'', a distinction made only in

In ''Reevaluating Linguistic Relativity: Language-Specific Categories
and the Role of Universal Ontological Knowledge in the Construal of
Individuation'', Mutsumi Imai and Reiko Mazuka agree with Bowerman and
Choi that language helps construct concepts from universal building
blocks. Their paper compares languages that make grammatical
distinctions between objects and substances (perhaps marking the
former as count nouns that take plural endings and the latter as mass
nouns that don't), and languages that make no such
distinctions. Scrutinizing various experiments which purport to show
different sensitivities to the distinction between objects and
substances by speakers of different languages, they argue that people
of all ages nonetheless share a fundamental awareness of the
ontological differences between objects and substances. Specific
differences in categorization arise gradually as children learn the
norms of their culture.

In ''Interaction of Language Type and Referent Type in the Development
of Nonverbal Classifier Preferences'', John A. Lucy and Suzanne
Gaskins argue that other studies of linguistic influences on
categorization, including Imai and Mazuka's, have been skewed by
specific assumptions about innate, ontologically prior categories. It
is both possible and more revealing, they argue, to dispense with
these highly debatable questions entirely by starting with linguistic
structure and deducing the characterization of reality ''implicit in
it.'' (p. 465). So long as linguistic differences (e.g. the
grammatical encoding of the count-mass distinction in English vs. the
indiscriminant use of classifiers in languages like Yucatec) yield
corresponding differences in classification (e.g. the tendency of
older English speakers to classify rigid artifacts by shape and of
older Yucatec speakers to classify them by material), one can
reasonably infer an impact of language on thought.

Finally, in ''Thought before Language: Do We Think Ergative?'', Susan
Goldin-Meadow examines how people with little exposure to conventional
language classify thematic roles-- specifically, whether language-
delayed deaf children classify intransitive actors (''John'' in ''John
ran home'') like transitive actors or like transitive patients
(respectively, ''John'' and ''cat'' in ''John hit the cat''). Most
languages are ''accusative'', classifying intransitive actors with
transitive actors; ergative languages treat them like transitive
patients (English equivalent: ''Ran John home.''). The spontaneous
intentional gestures of language-delayed deaf children from two
distinct ''accusative'' cultures (American and Chinese) follow the
ergative pattern, despite the non- ergative gestural patterns with
which their parents reciprocate. The gestures produced by adults to
describe pictures without using speech, and the eye movements of
people viewing pictures, also evince ergative classification and an
ergative bias towards the patient. What in most languages outweighs
this deeply-rooted, pre-linguistic bias, Goldin- Meadow surmises, are
the competing demands for expressiveness, speedy communication, and
easy processing, better met (she doesn't say why) by accusative


Emerging from all this research is one over-arching question: how deep
and broad are these various effects of language on thought?
Potentially, extremely so. The more simply a language expresses a
concept, for example, the easier it is to perform mental operations on
it. A language's most basic concepts are its most handy building
blocks for novel, complex concepts and innovative ideas in all sorts
of domains. Languages that delineate and construct concepts
differently may foster faster, clearer, and more creative thinking in
certain areas than other languages do. Further magnifying these
cross-linguistic conceptual differences are our metaphorical mappings
from one domain to another, especially from the spatial domain from
which so many metaphors extend, and in which so much cross-linguistic
variation has been uncovered.

While most of the essays focus on linguistic effects on non-linguistic
thought, even the less debatable purely linguistic effects may, as
Slobin points out, be more significant than many of us realize. Much
of our conscious mental activity is verbal-not just whenever we think
for speaking, but often (consider all those extensive interior
monologues) when we think for ourselves. The effects of language on
memory, cognitive attention, and cognitive habits, dismissed by some
as applying only with linguistic encoding, may in fact occur all the

How great all these cross-linguistic differences are depends on how
broadly and deeply languages differ in their conceptual structures.
These studies reveal a variety of specific cross-linguistic
differences. But for all their conclusions about the classifications
of color, space, gender, artifacts, manner of motion,
objects/materials, actors/patients, we are far from a comprehensive
inventory of the semantic structures of the world's languages. Many
(if not most) basic domains, and most higher-order concepts, remain

Along a number of dimensions, languages are similar: most if not all,
for example, have embedded complement clause structures and delineate
between animates and substances and transitive actors and intransitive
patients. While they may draw different boundaries between categories,
they often agree on the core exemplars. Furthermore, nearly all
scholars concede that at some level lies a pool of primitive,
universal concepts-the building blocks for all others. Perhaps at the
other extreme as well, above a certain level of complexity, most
concepts can be expressed with more or less equal facility in all
languages. Even if the similarities between languages outweigh the
differences, however, comparing those with language to those who lack
it reveals a huge influence of Language on thought.

Deliberate attempts to manipulate thought through language show
definite limits to the power of language. Societal prejudices survive
euphemistic language and nudge euphemisms (''retarded'') back towards
the pejorative; gender-neutral language hasn't eliminated gender
discrimination and neutral terms (''co-ed'') eventually assume the
very sorts of biases they were invented to circumvent.

As Levinson points out (p. 33), language may most affect habitual or
non-reflexive thought in specific domains, rather than the more
conscious, deliberate thinking that conceptualizes such notions as
Freedom and Equality (which, as Pinker observes, are ridiculous to
brand as unthinkable if nameless).

But some of these specific domains, e.g. gender, may influence many
others. Recall the Spanish and German speakers of Boroditsky et al's
study, who characterized keys and other objects (masculine in one
language, feminine in the other) in gender-stereotypical ways: keys
were ''hard'', ''heavy'', and ''jagged'' in German; ''golden'',
''intricate'', and ''lovely'' in Spanish (p. 70). Might our
conception of other things more consequential than keys-- say,
Freedom, and our choices between pacifistic vs. militaristic routes to
it-- depend somewhat, even if ever-so-slightly, on what gender they
assume in our language?

One of the most intriguing influences of Language on thought discussed
in this book is de Villiers and de Villiers conclusion that learning
embedded complement clauses enables the calculation of false beliefs--
the prerequisite, in turn, for a full-fledged theory of mind. Teaching
my autistic son complement clauses is on my agenda (right now we're
working on the syntax of yes-no questions). It's a tantalizing thought
that once he masters embedded complements, as I'm sure he will, he
might be able to reason about false beliefs. Given how unaware he is
of what goes on in other people's minds, achieving this (as improbable
as it seems) would strongly suggest that de Villiers and de Villiers
prerequisite is not just a necessary condition, but a sufficient one.

Perhaps people with full-blown autism never learn true language, even
when they appear to be verbal. Discussing the importance of joint
attention and social context in language learning, Tomasello observes
that ''associating sounds with experience is not language''
(p. 50). But then how do autistics like my son, socially aloof and
unaware, engage in the sophisticated abstract and conditional thinking
(as he does in his many scientific experiments and innovative
solutions to problems) for which some have deemed language the sine
qua non? At any rate, highly verbal, highly autistic persons would
make intriguing subjects for future research on the influence of
language on thought.

Finally, any conclusion on this topic must consider that sometimes
what looks like linguistic influence may instead be cultural. As
Levinson points out (p. 27), ''[t]he contents of language, and much of
its form, are ... largely the products of cultural tradition''.
Myriad cultural clues assist children in constructing
language-specific concepts, he notes. For example, ''every aspect of
the environment'', and ''a thousand little details'', help children
internalize the frame of reference for their language, whether it's a
relative frame (left-right-front-back) or an absolute one
(North-South-East-West). In relative languages there's the consistent
way that books and doors open, the arrangement of silverware or the
sock drawer, the preferred side of the sidewalk, (always to the right
or left). In absolute language there's the direction in which people
point their heads when they sleep or build their windbreaks (always to
the North). In both types, additional clues come from where people
point when referencing absent entities. (p. 43).

But these observations suggest that the cognitive differences that
Levinson observes between speakers of absolute vs. relative
languages-- for instance that the former have a better sense of
direction-- may stem from culture rather than language. Similarly,
differences between Yucatec and American culture may explain the
relative bias towards materials in the former: people in industrial
societies are presumably less involved in and conscious of the
materials that compose implements than those in societies where locals
construct implements by hand. (Lucy and Gaskins claim that the fact
that 7-year-old Yucatec speakers show the language contrast before
they show the cognitive one rules out a cultural influence, but
perhaps the former are simply less involved with and aware of
materials are than the 9-year-olds the authors contrast them with).
Lastly, Tomasello's observations about how social cognition is
inextricably caught up in the effects of language on thought raises
the possibility that some of the ultimate cognitive influences are
social, not linguistic.

Besides raising these broad questions, ''Language in Mind'' proposes
reasonable answers to many smaller ones, along with dozens of
fascinating observations. Its contributors, with their more precise
understanding of linguistic distinctions and psychological processes,
and their carefully-constructed hypotheses and experiments, appear
fully capable of starting to answer the big questions convincingly.


Bickerton, D. (1995). Language and Human Behavior. Seattle: University
of Washington Press.

Devitt, M. and Sterelny, K. (1987). Language and Reality: An
Introduction to the Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Blackwell.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: Morrow.

Slobin, D. (1996). From ''thought and language'' to ''thinking for
speaking.'' In J. Gumperz and S. Levinson (Eds.), Rethinking
Linguistic Relativity (pp. 70-96). Cambridge: Cambridge University

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Whorf, B. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected Writings of
Benjamin Lee Whorf (J. Carroll, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Katharine Beals received her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University
of Chicago in 1995. After working for five years as Senior Software
Engineer with the Natural Language Group at Unisys, she founded Autism
Language Therapies (, where she
designs and creates linguistic software for children with
autism. She's also working on a book about her deaf, autistic son,
which explores such issues as language modality, cochlear implants,
and language and consciousness in deaf and autistic people.
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