Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chen and Whorfian Economics 

Here's a follow-up on this.

Joshua directs us to this at Language Log.

A quote:

Another thing about the results worries me. When I engage in amateur reflection on how language might affect thought, I find that I might just as well be convinced that a language with grammatical future tense marking would have speakers who paid MORE attention to worrying about the future. After all, they use a linguistic device that explicitly picks it out. Chen's hypothesis is that instead they would naturally pay LESS attention to what the future might hold in store. Which hypothesis is right? Why is it Chen's favorite that is right? Why don't his results (if sound at all) predict the exact opposite of what he claims, so that only his prediction about the Pirahã is solidly correct?
 I also worry that it is too easy to find correlations of this kind, and we don't have any idea just how easy until a concerted effort has been made to show that the spurious ones are not supportable. For example, if we took "has (vs. does not have) pharyngeal consonants", or "uses (vs. does not use) close front rounded vowels", would we find correlations there too? I have some colleagues here at the University of Edinburgh, within Simon Kirby's research group, who have run some informal experiments on the data Chen uses to see if dredging up spurious correlations of this kind is easy or hard, and so far they have found it jaw-droppingly easy.
Yep. Exactly what I'd predict. We know that humans really really good at cooking up such explanations, and in such cases there are lots of ways to slice and dice the data.

This hypothesis just as the ring of bullshit. It's not that it's impossible for it to be's just that it isn't. Or, rather, it's that: grade-school-level language-determines-thought hypotheses like this are a dime a dozen...or more like: a dime a gross. Whorfianism in any interesting form just isn't true, and it's long past time to acknowledge this. What we invariably get is Rorschach-testy free-association with a scientific gloss.

I'm stating all of this more forcefully than I should, I'm sure. I'm just really ill-tempered about Whorfianism and related nonsense.


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