A new discussion in the Economist titled “A debate on language and thought ” caught my attention as a while back I had been waxing in a prior post titled “Multi-Linguistic Thinking” with a focus on my multilingual colleagues ability to call upon several languages to form thoughts as this linguistic diversity provided a potential for a “thinking” advantage. The idea was simply that a person who happened to be poly-linguistic would have a larger array of words to draw from allowing them to create more versatile ideas then their mono-linguistic counter parts. In fact another story in the same edition (A digital rallying cry) cites Ai Weiwei, China’s foremost artist-activist who uses twitter as a canvas for his activism as saying “Twitter is most suitable for me. In the Chinese language, 140 characters is a novella“. As for many English speakers, we have a hard enough time compressing what we had for dinner in a Tweet, whereas Mr. Weiwea using Mandarin can nearly share the story of the Ming Dynasty in the same space.
While the idea of a “novella” within a tweet does open the door to several other interesting concepts around the areas of data compression, the focus here is centered on the creation of ideas and thoughts via language. Which is where Whorfian (hypothesis) enters our discussion as (Benjamin Lee) Whorf put forward his own perception that linguistic differences will have consequences affecting human cognition and behavior thus linking his name in history as being the primary proponent of the principle of “linguistic relativity”. However this perspective for several reasons drew substantial opposition from the scientific community and fell out of favor in the 1960’s after several inconclusive attempts at validation.
However in the late 1980’s a new group of linguistic relativity scholars, with an advanced understanding of cognitive and social linguistics, have taken a second look at the differences which linguistic categorization has on cognition thus finding new support for the hypothesis at least in an experimental context. As they have shown the effects of “linguistic relativity” have particular domain in the realm of spatial cognition as well as in the social use of language. However they also discovered it affected the field of color perception, as studies have shown that color perception is particularly prone to “linguistic relativity” as it is processed in the left hemisphere of the brain, which suggest that this (left) brain half relies more on language than the right one and therefore language may play a larger role in its function then once believed.
While this doesn’t demonstrate an absolute confirmation for Whorfian concepts, it does provide a balanced view of linguistic relativity which says language can influence certain kinds of cognitive processes in important ways. Current research is now focused on exploring the ways in which language influences thought along with attempting to determine to what extent it does. So if this is the case, is it possible that Ai Weiwei Twittered novella’s provide him as well as other Mandarin speakers and edge because of linguistic depth…