The chicken and the egg are the same thing

A while back I wrote about John McWhorter’s view that language does not shape thought and my begrudging disagreement with him: “People who have a grasp of their language beyond that of the layperson must understand things different. So too, different cultures, predicated partially on language, must have some vital, if small, differences.”

Now I read Lera Boroditsky’s essay (originally printed in Scientific American in February 2011), “How Language Shapes Thought.” Intriguingly near the end: “Teaching people new color words, for instance, changes their ability to discriminate colors. And teaching people a new way of talking about time gives them a new way of thinking about it.” And: “What researchers have been calling “thinking” this whole time actually appears to be a collection of both linguistic and nonlinguistic processes. As a result, there may not be a lot of adult human thinking where language does not play a role.” (28) Though the nonlinguistic processes seems like a fairly large hole, the argument goes back to language = culture, according to Boroditsky.

In (re)thinking about the children from different cultures (or subcultures) who are culturally more or less aware of the shapes of these toys might it not be more about the language used in these subcultures about toys than the number of physical objects each socio-economic group owns (McWhorter’s argument being that black kids from Harlem and middle-class white kids from NYC don’t speak vastly different languages — they speak English)? Isn’t it perhaps possible that there is different linguistic emphasis being placed on “toys”?

If nothing else, it is fascinating to think that there is still such disagreement over the issue.

Boroditsky, Lera. “How Language Shapes Thought.” Annual Editions: Anthropology 12/13. Edited by Elvio Angeloni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.

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