Conceptualization as a Byproduct of Language?

This article from a couple of years ago (which I have only just discovered) paints a delightfully fascinating picture of the connection between language and conceptions of reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the language a person has affects how they perceive, remember, and respond to the world. It is not terribly controversial to suggest that the entire process of reasoning is potentially influenced by a person’s language ability, but this article casts some light on the kinds of effects this can have. Since this blog is written in English, that is perhaps the most relevant language to the majority of my readers. One observation was that, since English is a particularly agent-focused language, English speakers more easily remember details about agents—that is, the person who performs an action. Some other observations:

About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.

We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left). Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west.

English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.”

There’s also a bit in there that suggests that English speakers are far more likely to blame someone for an accident if they read about it in the active voice instead of the passive, which has implications for all manner of legal (or pseudo-legal) proceedings as well as the entire field of journalism.

One disappointingly absent consideration was that of multilingual speakers. How exactly does the ability to speak more than a single language affect a person’s conceptions of reality? To what degree does second language proficiency factor in? How about age—is a person who develops a high level of second language proficiency as a child linguistically influenced to the same degree as another person whose proficiency is developed as an adult? These would be, I suspect, deeply captivating questions to study. In any case, they are questions for another study, not in any way shortcomings of this article.

Do give the article a read if you have even a passing interest in language. (And why wouldn’t you?)

(Disclaimer: This should not be taken as “proof” of any particular interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, especially not the one depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four as Newspeak. As you should be able to infer from this article, that notion is rather more complicated than Mr. Orwell might lead you to believe. The book is, after all, a work of fiction.)


I’m Guilty of This

My hobby: using the more obscure meanings of "affect" and "effect" to try to trip up amateur grammar nazis.

XKCD. Good for what ails ya.

I’ve even done it a few times here. Sometimes I think better of it and change it before clicking publish, but only sometimes.


Man, these same old punctuation marks are just so tired, you know? That’s why the New Yorker put out a call for new, more exciting additions. My favorite is this one:

There were inventions characteristic of our age, such as @madbeyond’s sollipsis, “a personalized ellipsis points shifting the discussion back to me me me.”

That one’s much cooler than the winner, plus it’s a pun! Check them out. You’ll thank me later.

Spirituality and the Politics of Language

In today’s language lesson, we’ll be looking at words—specifically the meaning of words. When most people want to find out what a word means, they turn to the dictionary. This is an excellent resource, and it should go without saying that you should turn to it any time you find a word you’re not familiar with, but the definitions you find in the dictionary don’t tell the full story. There is meaning to words beyond these entries.

There are two kinds of meanings to words: denotation and connotation. I suspect more people will have experienced the latter word far more frequently than the former, which is kind of ironic because they will have spent far more time thinking about the former than the latter. Dictionaries are lists of words with their denotational meanings. (See, they both start with d, so you can use that to help you remember the difference if necessary.) Connotation refers to the emotional impact of a word, and even when two people share a mutual denotational definition of a word (as is common when both of them own dictionaries), they may not share the same connotation. Here’s an example:

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Objective Morality as a Shell Game

One of my gripes against professional philosophy is that the great lengths they go to to construct precisely defined arguments have a great propensity to obscure the intended message to anyone who isn’t educated in the nuances of the field. Let’s be clear here: I would never dream of criticizing someone for endeavoring to communicate effectively, which is precisely the philosopher’s intention in creating these elaborate constructs. Language is one of my things, and I have great respect for people who appreciate it and master its use. The written word is a playground for the mind, and those who are unwilling to pay the price of entry probably wouldn’t enjoy the rides anyway. In this case, that price is the willingness to occasionally dust off an old tome, or, far more likely, to take a few seconds to tab over to a dictionary website (and I’ll take no shit from shortsighted, uncreative, reality-challenged pedants for my verbing of that noun, thank you). I’m sorry, but if the idea of learning a new word so turns you off to reading a relatively short piece you’ve found online, you’ll find that this blog simply is not for you. And that’s okay—for now anyway. Remember me a few years from now when you’ve come around to my side of things, and pay me a visit.

But,” you might be tempted to ask, “haven’t you just done the very thing that you disparaged philosophers for doing?” Meh, sort of. I don’t think any of those words are particularly daunting, but even if so, each of them can be looked up rather easily through a quick jaunt over to any one of these helpful websites. To understand philosophical concepts takes slightly more work. Let’s carry on.

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Militant Atheists?

These two words, appearing in this order, are reliably able to set me into a fit of the scoffs: “militant atheists.” The phrase is something of a false equivalency. I’m sure there must be some authentically militant atheists in the world, but I know of no contemporary examples. Compare this to the idea of militant theists, where a litany of offenders come to mind. A number of artists and writers have addressed this particular cliché, but this response embodies the essence of what it means to be a militant atheist in today’s society. It is immediately apparent that these three interpretations of militancy (Islamic, Christian, and atheist, for the lazy non-link-clickers out there) are not equivalent. Let’s look at one dictionary’s definition of militant:

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A Statement on Affirming a Negative

There has been plenty of pushback recently against the existence of the word atheist. Many argue that the term is nonsensical because it is unnatural to identify oneself as not-something. It is said that because atheism is a rejection of other claims, by using a word to describe this position, we invite misunderstanding, so we shouldn’t (need to?) describe people as atheists. Indeed, there are nonbelievers who reject the label for just this reason.

Sam Harris makes an analogy in suggesting that we do not have a term for a non-golfer*. Why the disparity? Because the majority of people practice some form of theism, it is relevant to identify non-theists as members of the minority group in much the same way as we have a word to describe fish that don’t rely on gills for respiration. The majority of people do not identify as golfers, but if 90% of the population regularly played golf, and people who didn’t play golf were treated differently from golfers, we would surely have a term for non-golfers.

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