In the News: Language and Cognition

Guy Deutscher’s August 29th New York Times Magazine article, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” examines the relationship between language and cognition — a key issue in Strategic Frame Analysis.

Michael Erard (Linguist): Guy Deutscher’s recent NYT Magazine article was a positive plug for an idea that’s been hotly contested on and off for the last 70 years, the notion that language determines reality. The idea came from Benjamin Whorf, who can be read as arguing that among human groups, there isn’t one objective reality. Rather, there are as many realities as there are groups of people speaking different languages, since the language a person speaks determines how he or she perceives reality. “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages,” begins what is perhaps Whorf’s most famous passage. “The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds– and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.”

Whorf’s idea was a sort of science fiction — inadvertently, of course, since Whorf would now be called a linguistic anthropologist, not a fiction writer, but science fictional nonetheless. By that I mean, he wonders, “what if the world is some other way from the way we think of it?” And to imagine that alternative world, he uses a genuine cultural or linguistic difference as its seed.

Calling this “science fiction” isn’t to say that Whorf made it up. Neither is it to say that real science can’t be deployed to try to make sense of his claim — indeed, many people have, in the decades since Whorf published his article, “Science and Linguistics,” tried to prove one way or another how languages create their own realities. To do so, they’ve had to take a detour: since people (and their cognitive processes) are the only things that both use language and perceive reality, all of the ethnographic and experimental research has, by necessity, been tried to get at how people think and what shapes that. The last 80 years has turned science fiction into psychology.

So what’s been found? Limited support for a less extreme version of the idea that Whorf has been credited with — a pretty tame finding, overall. It does turn out that some grammatical structures do slightly bias how people remember events, how they perceive certain parts of the world, and how they attribute causality. These grammatical structures exist so deeply, they’re not things that the untrained eye notices all that well. Which is just as well, because language doesn’t determine thought unconditionally. The science fiction premise is a flop: we’re all living in the same reality, after all.

This is because we don’t have only language in our heads, mediating our perception. We have some other powerful things that help condition thinking. One of them is culture. Another one of them are cognitive biases that predate language in the developing human organism, and which probably predated language in evolutionary terms.

For us at FrameWorks, the arrow definitely goes from language to thought — after all, we do communications. But what makes FrameWorks and Strategic Frame Analysis different from what other PR shops do is that we attempt to take into account all of the things that people have in their heads — language, culture, and biology — and harness them for a vision of the future that we and our funders believe can come true.

Nat Kendall-Taylor (Anthropologist): It is interesting to note the critique of the Whorfian hypothesis that is made early in this article. It is this critique–against the deterministic bent of the Whorfian hypothesis—that gave rise to much of the work in the fields of psychological anthropology, linguistic anthropology and cognitive linguistics. It is upon these literatures that the FrameWorks’ methodology relies. Drawing from this more recent social science theory, FrameWorks’ theoretical and methodological foundation rests not on a complete refutation of the Whorfian hypothesis, but rather a modification of this proposed relationship between language and thought. In this way, FrameWorks’ theory and practice does not propose a role for language as creating or preventing cognitive capabilities, but rather that language and the packages of ideas vested in linguistic expressions, emphasize and promote certain perceptions while obfuscating and deemphasizing others. In this way the response to the Whorf’s piece has landed, with relative consonant, on the idea that language and cognition are connected, but in less absolute and more nuanced way that attributes language a molding and prioritizing function rather than a binary, on-off or deterministic one. We would say this role of language as “predisposer” or cognitive “guide,” makes language even more important than the deterministic concept proposed by Whorf because it give language an on-going and multifaceted role in how people make sense of the worlds around them. At the very least social science’s reaction to Whorf has made research on communications decidedly more nuanced and complicated.

The author writes “This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.” This maxim captures what is truly the essence of the FrameWorks’ approach to communications science—that media, through the use of language, has the power to, overtime, shape the way we think about issues, by exercising or allowing to atrophy certain patterns of thinking that we have available for making sense of a given issue.

The article, as well as the Whorfian hypothesis which it discusses, implicitly takes a stance on directionality—it discusses the shaping role of language on cognition. While this direction from language to cognition and meaning making is surely a foundation of framing a-la FrameWorks, we actually flip this directionality in how we study meaning making. We look for patterns of thinking in mind by examining patterns of talk. In so doing we take the theoretical position, that the connection between language and thought is not unidirectional, but that stable and persistent patterns of thinking shape patterns of talking as well. This feedback loop is an essential fixture of the FrameWorks’ approach. We study models in mind through their power and function to shape patterns of talking but then give power back to language in its Whorfianesque power to shape thinking.

In conclusion, this article makes the point very nicely that language “obliges” or “compels” cognition in two important ways: 1) attentional—language compels us to selectively interpret our environments—paying attention to some things and unintentionally not attending to other things equally present, and 2) interpretive—the cues in language predispose us to think about things around us in certain patterned ways that are stable within cultures but that vary between them. These two functions are essential to FrameWorks’ approach to both descriptive and prescriptive communications research.

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One thought on “In the News: Language and Cognition

  1. I have found this blog to be an immensely interesting read. As an amateur (in the real sense of the word) I have always been challenged by the mechanics of communication. Realizing that our specie, born as other creatures, with a conscious or unconscious will to survive flails the air of existence in order to communicate the idea of need. This is one of the earliest motivations to learn a symbol that, when repeated, will achieve its goal. And so the brain begins on a lifelong journey of gathering symbols and their culturally labeled meanings. And so that “Idea” can be broadcast we use language (far beyond the mere use of “tongue-age”). Strangely, the more the symbols are culturally codified the more they dictate the behavior of the group. Scotty

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