Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Another way to look at it

Here's another one from the A&M anthropology page. It's a NYT article about how language shapes perception. Of course the Benjamin Lee Whorf theory recapped near the beginning falls apart on the face of it. If it were true, Europeans coming to the Americas would have no way of perceiving bison or tomatoes. But there are subtle effects that are no less interesting.

This is a passage that really made me take notice.

The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us. Suppose you want to give someone directions for getting to your house. You might say: “After the traffic lights, take the first left, then the second right, and then you’ll see a white house in front of you. Our door is on the right.” But in theory, you could also say: “After the traffic lights, drive north, and then on the second crossing drive east, and you’ll see a white house directly to the east. Ours is the southern door.” These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn.

We find it useful to use geographic directions when hiking in the open countryside, for example, but the egocentric coordinates completely dominate our speech when we describe small-scale spaces. We don’t say: “When you get out of the elevator, walk south, and then take the second door to the east.” The reason the egocentric system is so dominant in our language is that it feels so much easier and more natural. After all, we always know where “behind” or “in front of” us is. We don’t need a map or a compass to work it out, we just feel it, because the egocentric coordinates are based directly on our own bodies and our immediate visual fields.

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

This fascinates me. I love the idea that somewhere a child is at the fridge asking her mother where the orange juice is, and the mother is replying that it's eighteen centimeters northwest.

Of course it's not just a matter of language shaping ideas. It's language and ideas being shaped by environment. A language without egocentric coordinates is likely to arise in a land of open spaces, where everyone learns early the subtleties of where the north and the west are.

What's cool is that if all language comes from somewhere, it can carry clues as to what that where is like.


susan said...

We have rediscovered all over again that a map is most definitely not a place. Will read more carefully later - today we're on our way to Quebec City and points east.

Getting closer :-)

Ben said...

Quebec City. My favorite impact crater. Or that's what I remember hearing, anyway.