Friday, December 17, 2010

Coming Full Circle on Whorf

With this interesting study on English and Mandarin speakers, the research on the influence of language on thought has come full circle. Researchers at Stanford have found that Mandarin speakers were far more likely than English speakers to view time vertically, with earlier events above later ones. They conclude that this is due in part to differences in the words used by the two languages to refer to time and events.

You'll no doubt recall that Whorf's original research focused in part on differences between of English and Hopi subjects in terms of how they spoke about and conceived of time. For years, linguists discounted and derided his findings based on everything from prejudice about the conclusions to claims that his work was shoddy and his conclusions self-motivated.

Now we have a modern, well-designed study that arrives at the same conclusion Whorf did-- that the structure of your native language can influence the structure of your thinking and conceptualization.

Now can we start taking the implications of that conclusion seriously and consider implementing changes in our educational system to accommodate?


Ken E. Beck said...

Interesting post, I got here from The Monkey Cage.

In navigation we say that time zones to our east are "ahead" and zones to the west are "behind". We also speak of putting things in the past behind us. So I guess we travel though time by moving ahead. We spring ahead and fall back. So the Hopi are what, falling through time? It would be spring up, fall down?

Nora Miller said...

Hi Ken. Thanks for the comment.

Actually it's the Mandarin that have the vertical time metaphor, not the Hopi. As I recall, Whorf found through conversations with a Hopi speaker that the language appeared not to use tenses for past, present and future, and from that concluded that they do not think in terms of time. Later research has found that they do have two tenses ("manifest", ie, in existence or having already happened; and "becoming manifest", ie, nonphysical, non-sensible or having no definite origin.) While some have used this to discredit Whorf and his conjectures, more and more linguists are coming to accept the "soft" Whorf theory that language influences thought, while perhaps not to the rigid extent that Whorf speculated about.

As for how the Mandarins see time: while I could not access the full report of the study I cited in the post, I find that Lera Boroditsky, well-known neuroscientist and one of the authors of that study, published results of a previous study in 2001 here: It gives a fairly clear explanation for the vertical time metaphor. An event in the past is above a more recent event, while future events are below the present. The usage employs the words for "climb" or "descend".

Like most metaphors about the "real" world, these time-related metaphors appear to draw on the structure of physical experience. If you haven't had a chance to read Lakoff and Johnson's books on metaphor, I heartily recommend them. Very thought-provoking.

Ken E. Beck said...


Thank you for your reply. I'll keep those books in mind but I am intrigued by Greymanship and plan to read it soon.

Climb or descend, maybe it is only me who is falling.