The National Science Foundation sent out a press release that forced my attention back to one of the basic mysteries of speech origins: which came first the word or the idea?
Any blog like this one, devoted to the study of origins, is subject to these chicken-and-egg loops in which each thing causes the other. Whenever such a loop appears you know that the direction of causality remains unclear. To solve it, you may need more data, but even with that data what you really need is a new idea, one that will make sense of what is causing what. Today, for example, we know that the egg came before the chicken, not because we know more about chickens or about eggs but because we have a new idea: evolution. It strikes me that this blog has stumbled across an idea that may solve the word-or-idea loop.
Some people think ideas came first, while others hold that the word came first. Although the dispute is much older than the linguist Benjamin Whorf, the dispute is often thought of these days as a fight over the Whorfian hypothesis. Whorf argued that language organizes our thoughts (the abstractions of category, type, and relationship). The contrary position holds that language translates what is already present internally. (A good, readable summary of the dispute is available here.)
Whorfians argue that languages organize the world is such different ways that they describe different experiences as lived by their speakers. Anybody who watches the world on television knows that people from different cultures seem to see and experience the world in contradictory ways, so the culture (i.e., language) does seem to precede ideas and experiences.
Intellectuals and artists who make their living writing tend to argue from the other direction. They know what it is to struggle to put an experience or idea into words, so there is not much question for them that the subjective precede words. Anyone who has recognized something previously unnamed while reading poetry or listening to a song, can see the strength of this contradictory stand.
Like many people I can see the appeal of both sides of the dispute. I remain open to new evidence from either direction, so a press release promising success on the Whorfian side of the debate caught my eye. It was titled, “Understanding the Building Blocks of Language and Thought: Language shapes how infants learn spatial concepts.” (The release is here.) That subtitle is pure Whorfianism.
The release is based on an interview with Marianella Casasola, who published an article last spring in First Language, a journal devoted to language acquisition studies, (abstract here). The piece was coauthored by Makeba Parramore Wilbourn, and Sujin Yang. I wrote to Dr. Casasola about her work, specifically asking about Whorf, but received no reply, so I cannot confirm that she agrees with my reading of her work.
Her basic proposition is that although all infants explore, reaching into and onto things, different languages describe space differently and infants learn to think about space in their own language.
As an example of how different languages handle space differently the Casasola team points to the way English and Korean handle the concepts of in and on.
Instead of "in" and "on," [Korean] babies learn the similar (but not quite parallel) concept of "tight-fit," or "kkita," by putting a peg into a hole or by snapping together Duplos™ (extra large Legos™ for toddlers). By 18 months, English-learning and Korean-learning babies diverge in the way they organize their concepts of containment and support based on how their language describes it.
This passage might strike a naïve reader as settling the matter in favor of Whorf, but language research is full of experimental data that supports one side or the other. I have read research on color words that prove Whorf was right and other data on color words that prove the opposite point.
we wanted to know if English-speaking toddlers could understand the Korean concept of 'tight-fit.' Could we teach them to think like Korean toddlers?" asks Casasola. She demonstrated examples of "tight-fit"--a cork in a bottle, Duplos™ fitting tightly together, a peg in a block--to 20-month-old English-speaking toddlers.
Most of us would be amazed if it turned out that English speakers cannot learn Korean language concepts, especially an infant as young as 20 months. But in the actual research report the question is a little more subtle.
The researchers divided toddlers (aged 21 and 22 months) into two groups, both of which were shown examples of the Korean notion of a tight fit. One group was also taught the Korean word for tight fit while the control group was not taught the word. Neither group learned the loose fit word. Later toddlers from both groups were shown videotapes that paired tight fit and loose fit events. The toddlers who knew the word for tight fit looked significantly longer at the tight fit events than at the loose fit events. Toddlers from the control group showed no such preference.
Over the years I’ve read a mountain of research reports that depend on children looking “significantly longer” at one thing over another, and the ambiguity of the information has always been exasperating. Yes, the researcher’s interpretation seems plausible, but is it strong enough to convict? I’ve always found it hard to believe there wasn’t another plausible interpretation out there somewhere.
In this case the official result—toddlers can map and generalize a novel word onto actions resulting in a tight-fit relation, given limited experience with the novel word—seems positively banal, but the research shows that there is something else going on. The children who know the word for tight fit pay more attention to tight fitting “events” than they do to loose fitting ones, while children who don’t know either word aren’t especially attentive to either event.
If we think of language as a tool for communicating ideas, the result is ambiguous. It is one more bit of data for the Whorf school, but there is plenty of contradictory data that anti-Whorfians can use. But if we think of language as a tool for directing attention, matters snap into focus.
Attention is the intermediary between perception and objective things. Speech is an act of joint attention that can be understood by imagining an attention triplet consisting of a speaker, a listener, and a topic.
In the Casasola team’s experiment that supports the Whorfian hypothesis:
- The speaker (experiment director) perceives the topic, and speaks its name.
- The listener (the toddler) hears the name and directs attention to the topic, struggling to perceive what the speaker refers to.
The experiment results showed that the toddlers were able to perceive the tight fit relationship that was the experiment director's topic, so this interaction can be sufficient to make a listener a member of a linguistic community.
In the poetic and intellectual examples that contradict Whorf:
- A speaker perceives a topic but must find a way to put it into words.
- A listener must hear struggle to perceive the speaker’s topic.
In both cases the listener’s task remains the same: find where attention should be directed (the topic). But the speaker’s task is much easier in the Whorfian example, so the world is full of examples of how shared words make a linguistic community while the role of creative thinkers always seems unusual.
Which came first, the idea or the word? The question is malformed. First there was reality (Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago), then a perception (eons later), then attention (scores of millions of years ago), and finally a linguistic community (probably less than 2 million years ago).