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By ucblockhead (Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 04:25:30 PM EST) (all tags)
I found this fascinating but unsurprising.

It is an analysis of the study that was the basis for "Lost in Translation", an article about how language "profoundly influences culture".  What is amusing is that when you dig, you discover that the evidence for this particular study referenced boils down to a 10% deficit on remembering the agent of an accidental event between Stanford, UC Merced and the University of Chili.  One study involving only about 200 college students.

It reminds me of the flippant statement from my college days: Cognitive Psychology is the study of 18-21 year old psychology students.

The thing that I find most amusing (and most depressing at the same time) is that the subhead explicitly calls out Japanese...yet no Japanese speakers were used in the studies!  Basically, Japanese has been lumped in their with Spanish based entirely on supposition.

So what we have is a single, small, unreplicated study, showing a very modest result that doesn't even properly wash out all dependent variables (Like the different academic entry requirements for Stanford, UC Merced and the University of Chili) being held up as showing a profound difference in human thought.  It's irritating because you see these illogical leaps all the way from the original authors all the way up the chain, turning a mildy interesting suggestion into a hard fact of knowledge.

It's interesting, because I'm learning Japanese, and so have encountered exactly the form they are talking about, and what they are saying is a bit misleading.  The literal translation of "I broke the vase" is:


This translates literally to: "Concerning me, broke the vase."

That's entirely standard Japanese, so in itself, the language no more avoids the assigning of blame than English.  What it does do is drop pronouns.  You rarely use explicit pronouns in Japanese.  Instead, you set the "topic", and then if a subject is needed, it is assumed to be that.  If no topic is set, it is assumed to be "I".  So the above could have just as easily been:


This translates literally to: "broke the vase."

This could mean, "I broke the vase" or "He broke the vase" or "The dog broke the vase" depending on what came before, but, from what I understand, it isn't really avoiding casting blame.  Taken on its own, it does literally mean "I broke the vase".  So:

犬はかわいいです.  花瓶を壊した.

Means:  "The dog is cute.  It broke the vase."  even though it is literally "Concerning the dog, cute is.  Broke vase."  Despite the second sentence seeming ambiguous, the two as a whole are not at all ambiguous about assigning blame.

Of course, the entire problem with Sapir-Whorf is that it is likely impossible to actually separate culture and language.  Even if we find that the Japanese assign blame less, and that Japanese text tends to gloss over the assignment of blame more, we have to ask ourselves if it is the language that is driving the Japanese to act like that, or has the Japanese culture created a language that suits its already existant ways of thought?

(And interesting side note in this: the Japanese words for "He" and "She" are relatively recent, coming with Western attitudes in the 19th century.)

Soft science studies | 17 comments (17 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
how much pain was it by garlic (2.00 / 0) #1 Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 04:48:55 PM EST
to get the character's correct above?

Not hard by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #2 Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 05:11:39 PM EST
The Mac's IME is really good.  Normally, I type in "Romaji", which is just standard ASCII.  I've got it set so that capslock sets me in a mode where Hiragana is normal and Katakana is shifted.  When you type, you hit space for the suggested kanji characters.  So to get 私 I type "[capslock]watashi[space][enter][capslock]"

Though in truth, I didn't know the Japanese word for "vase", so I did some cut-and-paste.

[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
Oh and... by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #3 Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 05:14:20 PM EST
Apparently real Japanese keyboards have a couple extra keys that make it even easier.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
Sapir-Whorf: see sig by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 3) #4 Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 05:21:45 PM EST
I'm also trying to promote the Sapir-Worf hypothesis: that you can subtly influence the way someone thinks by beating the crap out of them with a bat'leth when they do something wrong.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
Saphir-Worf by aphrael (4.00 / 1) #5 Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 06:56:43 PM EST
I tend to think that the Saphir-Word hypothesis is basically true, as it makes a great deal of (intuitive) sense to me: it's very difficult to think about things you can't name.

That said, there's a causality problem: is it that you can't think about it because you can't name it, or that you can't name it because you don't think about it?

If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

That's a huge problem by ucblockhead (4.00 / 2) #6 Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 07:14:29 PM EST
Despite all the clever testing, you can't really separate the language from the thought.

One "proof" of this was the Brazilian tribe that had no word for three.  As a thought experiment, which of the following seems more likely:

  • Someone figured out "three" as a distinction and then gave it a name.
  • Someone got the word "three" for the concept and then applied it.
The second sounds ridiculous, but it is exactly what Saphir-Whorf implies.

Or to put it in a more straightforward arena: could you think about an elephant if you didn't know the name?  Could you point to an elephant if all you had was the name?  The first is possible, and the later is ridiculous.

Most human advances have involved people discovering concepts and then naming them.  Saphir-Whorf gets the causality train backwards.  What is left is equally true, if less interesting:  People create words to reflect their thoughts and their culture.  Language is a limiter on thought and culture.  It is an expression of thought and culture.

Unfortunately, this will likely only remain opinion, because I don't think there would be a way to truly differentiate these two cases.  To really prove anything with the above study, you'd have to find monolingual Spanish speakers who are culturally American, or monolingual English speakers who are culturally Spanish.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
It's worth noting, though ... by BlueOregon (4.00 / 4) #7 Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 10:27:42 PM EST
... that there are two standard versions of S-W ... strong and weak. The strong version, as usually formulated, is almost certainly false, as 1) translation (and bilingual speakers) and 2) the ability to create new concepts, etc. would hint at. The weak version intuitively feels 'right' to a lot of people, but the most it can say is that language influences culture/thought (whereas the strong basically holds that it determines -- the talk of "causality" is, I think, problematic, as not all determinism is causal, but I digress), but it doesn't say how, how much, etc. And what socio-linguists have been teasing out for quite a while is that many of the things seem to be support for the weak form of S-W (as something deeply internal and linguistic) are not so much linguistic as environmental/cultural (influencing thought/behavior), which becomes tautological pretty quickly.

As a heuristic (for inter-cultural stuff, etc.) I think keeping a version of the weak form of S-W in mind is not a bad thing, but really more as a way of thinking/asking, 'what do I find easy to say/express? what would make this difficult? what am I missing?'

Aside: the math stuff, Brazilian tribes & counting beyond 3, etc. ... interesting stuff, though problematic on the S-W front because complex numeracy is much more ... well, complex ... than linguistic matters, and involves all sorts of cultural stuff. Brian Butterworth has done both scholarly and popular stuff on that topic, and I recommend The Mathematical Brain as an engaging (though not as engaging as, say, Oliver Sacks) primer.

To conclude: re: S-W, I first heard of it when I entered graduate school, but I inintentionally 'encountered' it when learning Hungarian. Hungarian does not have a verb for "to have" (to possess), but personal markers (as suffixes) can be added to nouns that indicate a kind of 'possession' ... and these, however, line up pretty well with the person markers for verbs. And the thought running through my head was, "What does this say about how Hungarian speakers [native, monolingual, at least] 'think' about 'having' ... or do they?" The lack of that particular verb hinders them not one bit when it comes to possessing.

[ Parent ]
an example on the other side by aphrael (2.00 / 0) #9 Tue Aug 31, 2010 at 02:50:24 PM EST
English differentiates between the animal pig and the meat-for-eating pork, largely for reasons having to do with English history.

Many other languages do not make that differentiation.

It seems reasonable to suppose that in the mind of the speaker of those language, there is no important difference between the two.
If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
Yes by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #10 Tue Aug 31, 2010 at 04:23:27 PM EST
But do, say, the Germans look at pork differently?

I just learned the other day that Japanese makes the distinction between uncooked rice (米) and cooked rice (ご飯).  (The second is also a synonym for meal.)

It can be both fascinating and confusing to deal with different language this point, we've learned three words for "give" and three words for "invite".  Learning the distinctions that just don't exist in English can be a chore.  Yet despite that, I've yet to run into one that is actively confusing.  For instance, in Japanese, the three "gives" are:

あげる - Give to someone not in your "in" group.
くれる - Give to you, a relative or close friend. (Your "in" group.)
やる - Give to an animal or plant.

It's a distinction English doesn't make, yet it's not like it is hard to get an English speaking mind around it.  It's not confusing, just something to memorize.

Of course there probably is some cultural impact.  For instance, there are certainly cultural behaviors in German revolving around "du" and "sie".  In German, there's a clearly line between acquaintance and friend, perhaps.  English dropped this centuries ago.  Though perhaps it dropped it because people in English culture no longer cared for that distinction.  (Something I understand is happening with German today.)
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
it's not confusing by R343L (2.00 / 0) #11 Tue Aug 31, 2010 at 04:32:26 PM EST
Because English just distinguishes in a different way. You (probably) wouldn't say "give me that" to someone you don't know well. Rather, you'd say something like "could you hand me that?" or something more polite. The conceptual differences exist in English, but are just expressed differently.

"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot
[ Parent ]
Yeah by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #14 Tue Aug 31, 2010 at 07:51:02 PM EST
I think the argument for modern languages isn't so much that something can't be expressed as it is that languages steer people into thinking in certain ways.  In theory, a Japanese speaker has to be more conscious of who the receiver is whenever they talk about someone giving something than an English speaker.

(In practice, I suspect culture means far more in this regard.)
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
Generally it's the same. by ammoniacal (2.00 / 0) #12 Tue Aug 31, 2010 at 06:48:07 PM EST
Schwein - Pig
Schweinefleisch - Pork

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

[ Parent ]
the odd thing about that by aphrael (2.00 / 0) #13 Tue Aug 31, 2010 at 07:39:27 PM EST
is that we do make that distinction, just not via pronouns.

just about everyone uses different language for their in-group than for outsiders.

If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
radiolab just had a podcast about this by garlic (2.00 / 0) #16 Wed Sep 01, 2010 at 01:18:18 PM EST
They spoke to a woman who was studying deaf people, and how older sign language was much more primative than current sign language, and because the theory was that, older deaf people failed certain cognitive tests that younger people didn't fail. And then testing them all a few years later after they younger language skilled people started hanging out in the deaf center with the older people, the older people started passing the tests.

[ Parent ]
Would you say that you are by muchagecko (2.00 / 0) #8 Tue Aug 31, 2010 at 01:55:30 AM EST
primarily a verbal thinker?

As a non-verbal thinker, I find it very easy to think about things without names.

I suspect language development relies heavily on verbal thinkers.

A purpose gives you a reason to wake up every morning.
So a purpose is like a box of powdered donut holes?
My Name is Earl

[ Parent ]
Concerning money. by johnny (2.00 / 0) #15 Tue Aug 31, 2010 at 08:50:49 PM EST
Have never figured out how to have any.

Me or the dog? Dunno. Just sayn.

She has effectively checked out. She's an un-person of her own making. So it falls to me.--ad hoc (in the hole)

TLDR by duxup (2.00 / 0) #17 Tue Sep 07, 2010 at 04:48:53 PM EST
Ok I didn't read the big long but int resting article.  Having said that purely looking at the translation part .... are they making judgments on assigning blame based on how a language translates into English?

If so WTF a bit language self centered are they? 

Soft science studies | 17 comments (17 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback