How Thought Shapes Language
Friday, March 2, 2012
3:30 – 5:00 p.m.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity has been championed in recent years by a number of scholars, for example, Lucy, Levinson, Wilkins, and Boroditsky. The relativity hypothesis is the claim that one’s native language produces salient (nonlinguistic) cognitive differences (differences in “worldview”) when compared with the “worldview” of native speakers of other, dissimilar languages. I argue in this presentation that, while language does indeed shape thought, it does so only superficially—at the margins. I will present the case that, contra the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it is thought that shapes language, that it does so profoundly, and that the connection is intimate.
The primary evidence that thought shapes language comes from evolutionary biology, and, in particular, the observation that thought preceded language. In short, there was a time, say, two million years ago, when the ancestors of Homo sapiens (let’s assume they were Homo habilis) were pre-linguistic. Between then and (no later than) the appearance of Homo sapiens, language was added to thought, presumably little by little and over a very long period of time. The evolutionary development of language leads to two fundamental questions on the relationship of language and thought:
1) What is the structure of a thought?
2) How does a (linguistic) semantic structure differ from a thought (the non- linguistic, conceptual structure kind of thought)?
The first question gets to the notion of what it’s like to be pre-linguistic—as indeed are all animals to the present day, people, of course, excepted. A satisfactory answer to the second question requires that anything seriously proposed as the representational framework of semantic structures has the richness and precision necessary for effective inferring, referring, and syntactic realization.
To make the arguments about how thought shapes language I draw on work in philosophy of language and mind, especially by Searle (intentionality), Williamson (knowing), and Barwise and Perry (situation semantics), and from linguistic semantics, including Langacker (cognitive grammar), Pollard and Sag (information-based semantics), Lakoff and Johnson (metaphor), Cann, Kempson, and Gregormichelaki (formal, denotative, and representational semantics), and myown work in semantics (relational logic).
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