How Language Shapes Thought

I’ve written previously about the Guugu Yimithirr language, spoken by a tribe in northeast Australia, in which speakers reference spatial relations using cardinal directions, as opposed to English’s “Left,” “Right,” “Front,” and “Back”. “My west leg” as opposed to “my left leg,” for example. This distinction is one of the more pronounced cross-cultural examples, but there are many to be found, even in Romance languages. Take, for example, the de-genderizing of nouns in English— does this cause English speakers to culturally de-emphasize gender, because we’re not required to specify it in conversation? It sounds far-fetched, and for a long time was immediately discredited (especially with the rising popularity of Chomsky‘s ‘universal grammar‘), but I think some serious empirical inquiry needs to be performed before the idea can be discounted entirely.

Which is why I was thrilled to read this article in the Wall Street Journal where Lera Boroditsky takes up the question, and answers it with a handful of studies that show real cognitive differences between speakers of different languages. The research is by no means conclusive, and cultural differences can only be inferred from the cognitive ones, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Much of the content in article I’ve seen before— in various inaccessible PDF’s, but Boroditsky added a little of her own research on a small tribe in my new favorite corner of Australia (this time the Pormpuraawans, but same basic idea):

To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

Fantastic! I love those moments that remind you: not everything is understood.

For more, I also recommend this article by Guy Deutscher at the New York Times.

Loneliness and Love (understanding Construal Level Theory)


Construal Level Theory, in a nutshell: all “Near” concepts tend to bring other near concepts to mind, as “Far” do far.

(a longer summary here:

In their recently published “Construal-level theory of psychological distance“, Trope and Liberman summarize:
[pullquote]The fact that something happened long ago does not necessarily mean that it took place far away, that it occurred to a stranger, or that it is improbable. Nevertheless, as the research reviewed here demonstrates, there is marked commonality in the way people respond to the different distance dimensions. [Construal level theory] proposes that the commonality stems from the fact that responding to an event that is increasingly distant on any of those dimensions requires relying more on mental construal and less on direct experience of the event. … [We show] that (a) the various distances are cognitively related to each other, such that thinking of an event as distant on one dimension leads one to thinking about it as distant on other dimensions, (b) the various distances influence and are influenced by level of mental construal, and (c) the various distances are, to some extent, interchangeable in their effects on prediction, preference, and self-control.[/pullquote]

I’ll try and clarify this with an argument I was given: “If you associate Blue with Loneliness with Far, why wouldn’t you associate Love with Red?”

It’s not that: Blue = Loneliness = Love.

Rather, Blue = Far, and Far = Love.

Love is an idealized form.. if you want to associate it with other Far concepts, pick, “words” “pride” “abstract” “context-free” “satisfaction” “symbolic ideal”

The authors provide “sex/tempted” as the Near equivalent to Far‘s “love/self-control”: Sex is voices, not words.. “concrete”, “familiar”, “strong motive”, “taste, touch” (as opposed to “see, hear”)… and especially “here now me us”, vs. “there then them”.


Okay. So we’ve established that there might be some validity in Near/Far concept association, and it’s interesting— what are the practical implications?

I developed this application last year, LogStats, that analyzes written natural language data and attempts to detect patterns and trends within conversations. Over the last ten years, I’ve accumulated 156Mb of conversation data from logged MSN, AIM, Facebook, and gMail instant messages. That’s a little over 9 million words (about a 35,500 page essay).

One of the current neat uses for the application it to analyze timestamp data in comparison to number of characters typed, in order to determine a person’s typing speed. Then, through a conversation, the average typing speed of a person can be charted per time block, and a rough assessment of a user’s engagement in the conversation can be determined.


Since construal-level words associate themselves with other words from the same family (either Near or Far), groups of either Near or Far concepts should appear together within natural language. For example, words expressing anger should appear alongside words denoting guilt, shame, pride, anxiety, regret.. but should also appear with such less-obvious concepts as confidence, politeness, observation, and satisfaction.

With these 35,500 pages of natural speech, I’m attempting to develop an algorithm that will begin with only the most concretely Near or Far keywords, and then analyze the frequencies of keywords that occur alongside these obvious ones. Depending on their frequency in each context, every applicable keyword could be given a score on a Near/Far scatterplot.


Once every keyword has been analyzed and scored, the algorithm can be applied in the analysis of other natural language. For example, we could run a text through the system, and see a line-chart that indicates Near/Far trends within an author’s writing style, which could then allow us to predict not only how an author was feeling on any given day of writing a text, but also perhaps guess when breaks in writing occurred (as indicated by an immediate switch from Near writing to Far writing).

The algorithm could be applied to a live speaker, in order to develop a deeper psychological assessment of a their mood, and possibly predict behavior.

We could analyze Near/Far associations on a societal basis— comparing, say, North American English language to Asian English language.

Or we could look at a politician’s speeches to determine how their associative keywords (or Near/Far trends) have changed throughout their careers.

Can I get a grant now?

Greek Cheat Sheets

Based on Luschnig’s An Introduction to Ancient Greek – A Literary Approach, and Liddell and Scott’s An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon.

Latin sheets soon to follow also available.

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Regarding a Proposition, a Dissection, and a Translation

Second Freshman Lab Paper

First Semester

Mr. Davis

Regarding a Proposition, a Dissection, and a Translation

On first consideration of this question, the connection between dissection, translation, and proposition seemed obvious. Each of these processes involve a series of steps, each follow a set of rules, and each lead to a furthered understanding of the problem in question. However, when I began to examine more closely the ways in which these arts are conducted, I realized that there is a vast distinction between translation and proposition, and dissection. Dissection sits apart from the other two; a divide which calls to be explored.

One of our more fruitful discussions in language stemmed from the nature of the word μεθεξις. Our idea of the participle is derived from a derivative word, μετοχη, meaning “partaking,” though μεθεξις can mean much more than “participle” or “partaking.” μεθεξις is participation, it is politics. μεθεξις is grammar, as every use of language involves a participation with the language. When we speak, we play by a set of rules. If we didn’t participate, language would fall apart. This led us to discuss John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος.” λὸγος can be translated many ways, but it too has strong ties with μεθεξις. If, according to the Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon, μεθεξις is “a participation in an idea”– λὸγος can be seen as that idea. With this in mind, John takes on new meaning: In the beginning there was reason/participation/grammar, and the grammar was God. This way of thinking has exciting implications. In discussing José Ortega y Gasset’s article The Misery and Splendor of Translation, we even began to question whether human “sentience” would be possible without μεθεξις– without language, without participation. It is only when someone can address the other through language that one can begin to separate oneself from one’s surrounds. From the chaos of the natural world arises a dichotomy: the other, and the Self. If this Self is sentience, then surely it has its roots in μεθεξις.

Where Socrates attempted to avoid the other, and to synthesize the natural world through the medium of the self, Heraclitus took a different approach. Socrates sought to eliminate conflict in all things– to create a State without conflict, to try and find the true Form at the root of all visible forms. Heraclitus presents a world at war with itself, a world in a constant conflict of states: fire, water, and air. But Heraclitus doesn’t portray war as an opposition to a desirable equilibrium, like Socrates. To Heraclitus, “war is the father of all things.” War is fate, war is necessity. War is also essential, and natural: like the lyre, or bow, a thing can be in conflict with itself and still remain one. μεθεχις is a participation between oneself and the other: it is the stringing of the bow. Synthesis is an opposite process: it is an assimilation of the other into oneself. A deconstruction, and a resolution of conflict. It is with these words, μεθεξις, and synthesis, that the distinction between dissection and translation/proposition can be explored.
Dissection is a synthesis. It is a very Socratic/Platonic process. Dissection requires no μεθεξις with the natural world (no participation). When we dissected the cats, we took our observations and synthesized them with prior knowledge. We observed form and function in an attempt to better understand the Form of cat. We took a conflict between ourselves and the natural world (the other), and Socratically resolved that conflict. We unstrung the bow, and were left only with the self. Heraclitus might say that we won the war. Not only dissection, but all of science, and much of observation, is rooted in finding a synthesis between the other and the self. Whether this is a benefit of science or a shortcoming is open to interpretation.

Translation and Proposition, on the other hand, are μεθεξις. As we also discussed in the Gasset essay, all communication is a translation, in a way. In speaking, concepts must be translated into language. The listener, then, translates that language back into concepts. All understanding is reached through an ability to translate. If one should step away from translation, grammar, and μεθεξις, one begins to also stray from language. To explore a sentence like a digestive system doesn’t translate, it synthesizes. To synthesize a sentence is to take it from its author and make it one’s own: to strip away all conflict in an attempt to arrive at a Form. To take the conflict out of language is to take away the participation– without participation, every person is left with their own private language. The loss of μεθεξις in language can result in nothing but babel. This, Gasset argued, is what is so often wrong with the practice of translation in general. Translators seek to synthesize ancient concepts with modern taste. In the process of that synthesis, the original meaning is lost. Translation must not be afraid to be at war with its audience. Conflict is the core of participation.

A proposition employs μεθεξις in much the same way. Just as participating in language involves cooperation with an established set of rules, so does participation in mathematics involve a cooperation with established absolutes. Euclid begins his Elements with postulates, common notions, and definitions for a reason: these are the λὸγοι through which one can conduct μεθεξις. If mathematics were to deviate from these rules, the participation would dissolve, and there would be only a personal mathematic for each individual. A proposition, like a translation, involves a conflict between the self and the other. In the same way that language evolves through that conflict, so does mathematics evolve, and so too does the student’s ability to accept new concepts, and adapt new methods of thought to suit them.

To engage in translation, or demonstrate a proposition, is to join a community– to engage in politics. To conduct a dissection, or any observation, involves an assimilation. Neither μεθεξις nor synthesis are necessarily better than the other, but one should be careful to use each in the field that it is suited, and not to confuse one for the other. This is, I feel, why a translation and a proposition are not like a dissection.