LINGUIST List 15.163

Sun Jan 18 2004

Disc: New: Gil & Boroditsky: Indonesian Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Denis Donovan, No deep structure?
  2. Whitney Anne Postman, Economist Article: Indonesian Linguistics

Message 1: No deep structure?

Date: Sat, 10 Jan 2004 06:00:48 -0500
From: Denis Donovan <>
Subject: No deep structure?

Re: (Linguist 15.22)

A friend forwarded this article to me. Here's the link -- but it's


January 8th 2004
The Economist

Languages may be more different from each other than is currently
supposed. That may affect the way people think

IT IS hard to conceive of a language without nouns or verbs. But that
is just what Riau Indonesian is, according to David Gil, a researcher
at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig.
Dr Gil has been studying Riau for the past 12 years. Initially, he
says, he struggled with the language, despite being fluent in standard
Indonesian. However, a breakthrough came when he realised that what he
had been thinking of as different parts of speech were, in fact,
grammatically the same. For example, the phrase "the chicken is
eating" translates into colloquial Riau as "ayam makan". Literally,
this is "chicken eat". But the same pair of words also have meanings
as diverse as "the chicken is making somebody eat", or "somebody is
eating where the chicken is". There are, he says, no modifiers that
distinguish the tenses of verbs. Nor are there modifiers for nouns
that distinguish the definite from the indefinite ("the", as opposed
to "a"). Indeed, there are no features in Riau Indonesian that
distinguish nouns from verbs. These categories, he says, are imposed
because the languages that western linguists are familiar with have

This sort of observation flies in the face of conventional wisdom
about what language is. Most linguists are influenced by the work of
Noam Chomsky--in particular, his theory of "deep grammar". According
to Dr Chomsky, people are born with a sort of linguistic template in
their brains. This is a set of rules that allows children to learn a
language quickly, but also imposes constraints and structure on what
is learnt. Evidence in support of this theory includes the tendency
of children to make systematic mistakes which indicate a tendency to
impose rules on what turn out to be grammatical exceptions (eg, "I
dided it" instead of "I did it"). There is also the ability of the
children of migrant workers to invent new languages known as creoles
out of the grammatically incoherent pidgin spoken by their
parents. Exactly what the deep grammar consists of is still not clear,
but a basic distinction between nouns and verbs would probably be one
of its minimum requirements.


Dr Gil contends, however, that there is a risk of unconscious bias
leading to the conclusion that a particular sort of grammar exists in
an unfamiliar language. That is because it is easier for linguists to
discover extra features in foreign languages--for example tones that
change the meaning of words, which are common in Indonesian but do not
exist in European languages--than to realise that elements which are
taken for granted in a linguist's native language may be absent from
another. Despite the best intentions, he says, there is a tendency to
fit languages into a mould. And since most linguists are westerners,
that mould is usually an Indo-European language from the West.

It need not, however, be a modern language. Dr Gil's point about bias
is well illustrated by the history of the study of the world's most
widely spoken tongue. Many of the people who developed modern
linguistics had had an education in Latin and Greek. As a consequence,
English was often described until well into the 20th century as having
six different noun cases, because Latin has six. (A noun case is how
that noun's grammatical use is distinguished, for example as a subject
or as an object.) Only relatively recently did grammarians begin a
debate over noun cases in English. Some now contend that it does not
have noun cases at all, others that it has two (one for the
possessive, the other for everything else) while still others maintain
that there are three or four cases. These would include the nominative
(for the subject of a sentence), the accusative (for its object) and
the genitive (to indicate possession).

The difficulty is compounded if a linguist is not fluent in the
language he is studying. The process of linguistic fieldwork is a
painstaking one, fraught with pitfalls. Its mainstay is the use of
"informants" who tell linguists, in interviews and on paper, about
their language. Unfortunately, these informants tend to be
better-educated than their fellows, and are often fluent in more than
one language. This, in conjunction with the comparatively formal
setting of an interview (even if it is done in as basic a location as
possible), can systematically distort the results. While such
interviews are an unavoidable, and essential, part of the process, Dr
Gil has also resorted to various ruses in his attempts to elicit
linguistic information. In one of them, he would sit by the ferry
terminal on Batam, an Indonesian island near Singapore, with sketches
of fish doing different things. He then struck up conversations with
shoeshine boys hanging around the dock, hoping that the boys would
describe what the fish were doing in a relaxed, colloquial manner.

The experiment, though, was not entirely successful: when the boys
realised his intention, they began to speak more formally. This
experience, says Dr Gil, illustrates the difficulties of collecting
authentic information about the ways in which people speak. But those
differences, whether or not they reflect the absence of a Chomskian
deep grammar, might be relevant not just to language, but to the very
way in which people think.


A project that Dr Gil is just beginning in Indonesia, in collaboration
with Lera Boroditsky, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, is examining correlations between the way concepts are
expressed in languages and how native speakers of these languages
think. This is a test of a hypothesis first made by Benjamin Lee
Whorf, an early 20th-century American linguist, that the structure of
language affects the way people think. Though Whorf's hypothesis fell
into disfavour half a century ago, it is now undergoing something of a

Dr Boroditsky's experiment is simple. People are shown three pictures,
one of a man about to kick a ball, one of the same man having just
kicked a ball, and a third of a different man who is about to kick a
ball. They are then asked which two of the three are the most similar.
Indonesians generally choose the first two pictures, which have the
same man in them, while English speakers are likely to identify the
two pictures that show the ball about to be kicked--an emphasis on the
temporal, rather than the spatial, relationship between the principal
objects in the picture.

Dr Gil believes that this might be because time is, in English, an
integral grammatical concept--every verb must have a tense, be it past,
present or future. By contrast, in Indonesian, expressing a verb's
tense is optional, and not always done. In support of Whorf's idea, Dr
Gil half-jokingly cites the fact that Indonesians always seem to be
running late. But there is more systematic evidence, too. For example,
native Indonesian speakers who also speak English fall between the two
groups of monoglots in the experiment. Dr Gil supposes that their
thought processes are influenced by their knowledge of both English and
Indonesian grammar.

Demonstrating any sort of causal link would, nevertheless, be hard.
Indeed, the first challenge the researchers must surmount if they are
to prove Whorf correct is to show that English and Indonesian speakers
do, in fact, think differently about time, and are not answering
questions in different ways for some other reason. If that does prove
to be the case, says Dr Gil, their remains the thorny question of
whether it is the differences in language of the two groups that
influences their conception of time, or vice versa.

Dr Boroditsky and Dr Gil are not intending to restrict their study to
ideas about time. They plan, for example, to study gender. English,
unlike many other languages, does not assign genders to most nouns.
Does this affect the way English-speakers think of gender? Languages
also differ in the ways they distinguish between singular and plural
nouns. Indeed, some do not distinguish at all, while others have a
special case, called the dual, that refers only to a pair of
something. Descriptions of spatial relations, too, vary, with
languages dividing the world up differently by using different sorts
of prepositions. The notion that grammar might affect the way people
think may seem far-fetched, and even unappealing to those who are
confident of their own free will. But if Dr Gil is right and there do
exist languages, like Riau Indonesian, without nouns or verbs, the
difficulty of conceiving just that fact points out how much grammar
itself shapes at least some thoughts

Denis M. Donovan, M.D., M.Ed., F.A.P.S.
The Children's Center for Developmental Psychiatry
6675 - 13th Avenue North, Suite 2-A
St. Petersburg, Florida 33710-5483

Phone:	727-345-2400
FAX:	727-345-8808
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Message 2: Economist Article: Indonesian Linguistics

Date: Mon, 12 Jan 2004 20:50:52 -0500 (EST)
From: Whitney Anne Postman <>
Subject: Economist Article: Indonesian Linguistics

Re: (Linguist 15.22)

The article ''Babel's children'' in The Economist (1/8/04) on the work
of David Gil and Lera Boroditsky raises some extremely important
issues in Indonesian linguistics as well as linguistics at large, but
also some serious problems. I'd like to contend that Dr. Gil's
fieldwork on Riau Indonesian, as rich as it is in fascinating
dialectal facts, does not actually pose a major challenge to the
Generative framework, as claimed in the article.

On the one hand, Dr. Gil is absolutely right in cautioning linguists
against imposing a pre-set, familiar pattern (i.e., Indo-European,
according to Dr. Gil) onto less familiar, typologically distinct
languages. Yet on the other hand, the opposite trend of
over-interpreting apparent differences, let's call it 'linguistic
exoticism', is equally risky.

The example from the article, 'ayam makan' (literally, 'chicken eat'),
is held up as an illustration of how Riau Indonesian does not
distinguish between the grammatical categories of nouns and verbs. Yet
this conclusion is unwarranted. It is indeed interesting, as Dr. Gil
points out, that no free or bound morphology exists in Riau Indonesian
that would mark either of the two lexical items in this phrase as
nominal or verbal. Nevertheless, it seems impossible to get around the
interpretation of 'makan' ('eat') as a predicative (hence verbal)
item, and 'ayam' ('chicken') as a referential (hence nominal) item
which must be an argument of either 'makan' or a phonetically null
existential verb. Thus the contrast between Riau Indonesian and
Indo-European languages that overtly mark nouns as nouns and verbs as
verbs could be argued to hold only at a superficial
morpho-phonological level, but not at a deeper semantic level.

These cross-linguistic grammatical issues are expertly addressed in
Mark C. Baker's inspired (2003) book, ''Lexical Categories: Verbs,
Nouns and Adjectives'', Cambridge University Press (see LINGUIST List
issues 14.611 and LINGUIST List 14.3245).

As for their investigation of the relationship between language and
thought, Gil and Boroditsky are appropriately more tentative. If
profound differences in ways of thinking are discovered between
speakers of English and speakers of Indonesian, alternative factors
besides language must be considered. Plausible candidates are
historical, economic and geographical factors, among others. In any
case, this provocative work should be based on more scrupulous
analyses of Indonesian dialects.

Whitney Anne Postman
NYU School of Medicine 

Subject-Language: Indonesian; Code: INZ 
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