Bryn Mawr College

Center for Science In Society

To facilitate the broad conversations, involving both scientists and non-scientists, which are essential to continuing explorations of
  • the natural world and humanity's place in it,
  • the nature of education,
  • the generation, synthesis, and evaluation of information,
  • technology and its potentials,
  • the relationships between forms of understanding.

Language: A Conversation

Meeting Notes
29 April 2002

Doug Blank (Computer Science), Anne Dalke (English), Ruth Guyer (General Studies, journalist), Eric Raimy (Linguistics), Kathryn Rowe (English), George Weaver (Philosophy)

One Summary View (prepared by Eric Raimy; views by other participants encouraged and can be sent either by email or posted using our working group forum area):

The last meeting of the Language Working Group for the Spring 2002 semester discussed the article "Turning the Tables: language and spatial reasoning" by Peggy Li and Lila Gleitman.  Anne began the discussion by asking whether this article was a 'test case' for the claims made by George Lakoff in the previous week's readings (Philosophy in the Flesh).  Although this article was billed by Eric as a 'test case' it is not one for Lakoff's views.  If Lakoff is right then the only way to test whether our knowledge is limited by our 'embodied' minds would be to create a different type of 'mind' (possibly through computer modelling as suggested in the previous summary) and see what type of knowledge comes from it.  This point raised the question of how can we tell the limits of thought?  Doug suggested that we could do this by tracing knowledge/ideas through time.  Doug suggsted that 'information' in its present usage (in computer science) is a new idea.  Kathryn pointed out that the meaning of 'information' derives from its usage in the 16th century where it meant knowledge that could be bought or transferred.  'Information' in this usage became important at this time because of its relevance to politics and espionage.  The group agreed that we can see the derivation of the present usage from this historical example and had a difficult time of coming up with an example of a truly 'new' idea...

Although the present reading is not a test case for Lakoff it is a test case for the Whorf-Sapir linguistic relativity hypothesis.  The particular instantiation of the W/S Hypothesis that Li and Gleitman were testing was whether the frequency of use of a construction in language affects the way a person thinks.  The particular test case here is spatial reasoning.  The background facts are that there is a continuum of spatial language terms that languages fall on with the two poles being 'allocentric' and 'egocentric'.  A purely 'allocentric' language only uses spatial terms that make reference to a landmark (like the use of 'uphill/downhill' and 'across the hill' used in Tzeltal or 'uptown/downtown' and 'across town' in Manhattanite English) and a purely 'egocentric' language only uses terms like 'in front of me', 'behind me', 'to the left of me', etc.  It should be noted that there are no 'absolute' allocentric or egocentric languages and that all languages have both types of spatial terms.  This is the main reason why Li and Gleitman are investigating whether the frequency of usage affects thought.

The bulk of the discussion of the article was an exchange between Eric and Kathy about how to interpret the results of the experiments.  The main issue was the social aspect of the experimental task in Li and Gleitman's experiments.  Kathy was explaining the importance and relevance of the fact that many of the English subjects in the experiments asked for guidance.  The nature of the experiment created an ambiguous task that could be done either in an 'allocentric' or 'egocentric' spatial system.  The fact that the subjects recognized this and asked for clarification was very important to Kathy.  She proposed that this behavior indicated that there was a third type of 'socially created' (?) spatial system that was distinct from the 'allocentric' and 'egocentric' systems that Li and Gleitman posited.  Eric was confused and did not understand this position and asked continuously for clarification.  [Note: Since I'm writing this summary I'm probably misrepresenting what Kathy's point was because I'm still not sure I understand her position.  I encourage Kathy to post to the Forum area to correct and clarify any misrepresentation of her position.  I'm sure there are inaccuracies here but they are the result of my lack of understanding and not purposeful.]

Relating to the exchange between Eric and Kathy, the question of what the ordering between thought and language was was raised.  Eric staked out the position that thought always preceded language but no one else in the group fully accepted it.  The alternative was to have thought and language in some sort of parallel existence with neither of them being primary to the other.  Eric thought the whole point of the article was to show that thought was the underlying basis for language.  By showing that English speakers can be manipulated to use either 'allocentric' or 'egocentric' spatial language depending on the environment/situation they are put in, Eric accepts that this provides strong evidence that the thought system delimits what can be expressed in language.  Since thought delimits the expressions available to language, it must then 'precede' or be more basic than language.

The discussion at this point became much more free flowing and random.  The group considered how unexplainable phenomena like ESP affect our scientific models with no real consensus or conclusions drawn.  The meeting drew to a close with Anne dropping the big questions on the group.  "What does it mean to think?"  "What is thought?"  These are mysteries right now and the question before us is whether our present understanding of the world is limited and that is why these are mysteries or whether Lakoff is right and that these questions will always be mysteries because of the limits on what we can think...