Think I've quoted this article from the Boston Globe (Debate opens anew on language and its effect on cognition) before, but a quick search brings up nada. Which is odd, since I remember looking up Lera Boroditsky's work, and she's quoted in the piece, and this bit at the end:
"Since September 11, the English-speaking world is waking up to the fact that other cultures not only speak differently, they think differently," said Susan Bassnett, a specialist on translation at the University of Warwick. "One of the problems of global English is that native English speakers are losing their skills in foreign languages and so are increasingly unable to access those alternative realities."
Well, that's one of the cheat codes for this entire site, right there. . .
. . . meaning the right-wingers will either miss the point entirely, or ignore it completely. Used to find that sort of thing amusing, at least -- mentioning the erotica modeling tends to make them lock up completely, reboot, then continue from the point they were at before as if nothing had happened -- but now it just seems really, really sad.
Any road up, the main point of the article is resurgence of the Whorfian Hypothesis, more or less, if you squint a little:
Boroditsky is one of the researchers presenting her work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference at the Hynes Veterans Convention Center this week. Last year, she published a study in which she asked people to answer simple time sequence questions while watching a video screen. When objects on the screen move vertically, the Mandarin speakers are able to answer faster than English speakers - implying that their brains processed time questions differently, and hinting that there could be other differences.
In some ways, this idea is not a new one. It first arose early in the 20th century in the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, an engineer who studied the Hopi Indians. The Hopi language does not have past, present, and future tenses, and Whorf theorized that the Hopi had a profoundly different notion of time than English speakers.
His idea - that language determined thought - became known as the "Whorfian hypothesis." At a time when the image of the noble savage held sway, the theory was both beguiling and influential. It took the romantic notion of a national character - that the French, for example, have a particular way of thinking - and extended it to all the planet's disparate tribes.
Arriving before the tools of modern linguistics and anthropology had been developed, the Whorfian hypothesis was used to support theories that ranged from arrogant to outright racist, such as the idea that "primitive" peoples were incapable of thinking about abstract ideas.
But as science progressed, Whorfian thinking crumbled. Anthropologists documented the cultural and verbal sophistication of supposedly primitive tribes. And linguists also came to realize that thoughts are much richer than language, undercutting the very notion that people would need a word to think a thought.
I'd write up something comparing the misuse of Whorf's work with the misuse of Darwin's -- there are still adherents of Social Darwinism out there, you know, which tends to argue against the theory -- but that would require, like, research, and thinking, and stuff.
And despite the fact that it's now 12:20 Monday morning, I'm still at work. . .
Update: Course Description
I realize that "Modes of Assertion" is a rather cryptic title for the course. What we will explore are ways of modulating the force of an assertion. This will engage us in formal semantics and pragmatics, the theory of speech acts and performative utterances, and quite a bit of empirical work on a not-too-well understood complex of data.
"He obviously made a big mistake." "It is obvious that he made a big mistake."
If you're like me you didn't feel much of a difference. But now see what happens when you embed the two sentences:
"We have to fire him, because he obviously made a big mistake."
"We have to fire him, because it is obvious that he made a big mistake."
One of the two examples is unremarkable, the other suggests that the reason he needs to be fired is not that he made a big mistake but the fact that it is obvious that he did.
We will try to understand what is going on here and look at related constructions not just in English but also German (with its famous discourse particles like ja) and Quechua and Tibetan (with their systems of evidentiality-marking, as recently studied in dissertations from Stanford and UCLA).
All the kids are about Quechua these days. It's trendy.
And if you check the link, I corrected an obvious big mistake in the text. . .
I have some down time at the moment. This is how I spend my down time. Looking up linguistics courses at MIT.
Doesn't. . . doesn't everyone do that?