Lambda the Ultimate

inactiveTopic Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis
started 3/5/2001; 1:41:40 PM - last post 3/22/2001; 2:12:04 AM
Ehud Lamm - Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/5/2001; 1:41:40 PM (reads: 3862, responses: 10)
Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis
This principle, or hypothesis, is usually called The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and states, roughly, that language influences (or controls) the way one thinks about reality. We can, of course, apply the idea to programming and programming languages.

The hyopthesis joins two claims. First, that languages differ significantly in their interpretations of experience - both what they select for representation and how they arrange it. Second, these interpreations of experience influence thought when they are used to guide and support it.

The first and curcial claim, is obviously true when applied to programming languages. Just consider the semantics of APL versus those of C. The second is as problematic when applied to PL as when applied to natural languages.

There are two classic stories about this hypothesis (and see the links for criticisms). The first is about the abundance of snow related terms in the Eskimo language, as compared to other languages. This, of course, reveals their world view: Eskimos are more concerned with snow .

The second, more striking story is about the Hopi language. Whorf found differences between the Hopi and English conceptions of 'time'. It was argued that the world-view revealed by the Hopi language is more consistent with Einstein's theory of relativity. Some thought this to mean that Hopi in some way anticipated relativity. This fantastic claim was (and is) hotly debated. It is not held by many contemporary scholars .

Be that as it may, a modest version of the Sapir-Whorf thesis, claiming that language has some influence on thought - is obviously true.

This fact should be considred when teaching programming, thinking about the evolution of programming languages etc.
Posted to general by Ehud Lamm on 3/5/01; 1:46:55 PM

Bart Meerdink - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/6/2001; 7:28:04 AM (reads: 3846, responses: 0)
Well, leaving aside the difference between principle and hypothesis (as explained in the article), I'm convinced that thinking normally occurs along well-trodden paths in the thinkers mind. Edward de Bono is very eloquent in exploring the consequences of this in his books on lateral thinking.

And the well-trodden paths are largely demarcated by language and all the learned/discovered higher level concepts expressed therein.

Original thought does not come easy, and in most cases the interaction with others is needed to stimulate real progress.

Conversely, if one's formulations are restricted to a small and static language that is not suited to express general concepts (of course I'm talking of programming languages), this constitutes a severe handicap in higher-level thinking.

That's why I said that subject matter of design/code patterns should be considered strictly separated from the programming language domain, the latter only being suitable for illustrative purposes.

For example, a beginning C-programmer, contemplating the well-known "while (*s++ = *t++);" idiom might find it concise and elegant, rather than primitive and unreadable. That, for me, is a clear example of restricted thought.

kaweah - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/6/2001; 11:19:46 AM (reads: 3846, responses: 0)
An artificial language called lojban, a descendent of the late James Cooke Brown's "Loglan", was designed with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in mind. One of the more recent goals for lojban was as a speakable language for human-computer interaction. lojban's simpler orthography and unambiguous grammar were supposed to make it an easier target for that sort of effort than are the more complex and ambiguous natural languages. Unfortunately, the amount of time it takes a human to become fluent in a language like that makes scientific experimentation in this area less than conclusive. I think there are a few folks who are trying to raise their children to be "native" lojban speakers.

See for details.

Oh, and: I have a book of old Hawaiian folk legends; one appendix contains a list of the sixty-plus names that the islanders had for the different winds and rains of the region. I suppose it's no different from our plethora of different names for sorting algorithms.

Chris Rathman - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/6/2001; 2:45:56 PM (reads: 3843, responses: 0)
This principle, or hypothesis, is usually called The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and states, roughly, that language influences (or controls) the way one thinks about reality.
For some silly reason, this reminds me of Lt. Worf. :-)

Going off on a total tangent, I did find an article on How to build a language that discusses language construction - including Klingon. And if that's not enuf of a recovery for my mistake, don't forget that there is actually a Klingon Programming Language for those with way too much Star Trek on the Brain.

Top 12 things likely to be said by a Klingon Programmer: 1) "Our users will know fear and cower before our software! Ship it! Ship it and let them flee like the dogs they are!"

andrew cooke - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/15/2001; 1:50:44 PM (reads: 3775, responses: 0)
Vaguely related snippet - for at least basic numerical processing, language doesn't seem to be involved. While on holiday I've been speaking only Spanish and realised at one point that I was trying to name (in Spanish) a value that I had no immediate name for in English - I was not trying to translate the result of a calculation from English to Spanish, but to name (in Spanish) some "concept of a number" that was the result of a calculation (ie I was trying to think of "doce" for the concept "12", but I was also unaware of the word "twelve", because I also realised that if I did think of the number in English then I would be able to ask my partner to translate, but I didn't have the English word immediately available either, if you see what I mean...)

I guess this isn't the most reliable evidence in the world, but it was a striking sensation.

Also, reading Spanish literature, I'm not aware of any great difference in how thoughts are conveyed, compared to English. I suspect any differences are subtle unless languages are very separate. Is it any different with Hebrew and English, for example?

Ehud Lamm - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/17/2001; 10:10:57 AM (reads: 3804, responses: 1)
Scientifically I think that one has to restrict studies on this questions to people who are mono-linguistic. It should only be natural is someone who knows several languages is less susceptible to problems relating to language bais.

Perosnally, I don't find great differences between how I think in English and in Hebrew, esp. as regards programming problems. The most obvious difference is vocabulary, and indeed when I need to think about things for which I have a better vocabulary in English, I tend to think in English. Mostly this is automatic. A classic example is when you read technical litterature. I am just now in the process of writing a study guide for a programming language course, and I find it almost impossible to translate concepts like scope or aliasing.

Since I am the one who raised this issue, I want to give some more information about it.

Mostly I am basing what I write on The MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences (under the entry Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis) and on Linguistic Relativity by Eleanor Rosch in Thinking: Readings in Cognitive Science

Whorf's classic work on Indian languages claimed much more than vocabulary differences. For example the English phrase It is a dripping spring is expressed in Apache by something like As water,or springs, whiteness moves downward.

The fantastic claim is that the language doesn't use actions or things (verbs and nouns), but only events.

It is quite difficult to study the metaphysical world-view embodid in language, using empirical tools. Thus most empirical work centered on studying how different languages classify objects in the real world, by means of their vocabularies. Many studies tried to examine how speakers of different languages treated colour, this being a convinient micro-domain, for which objective/scientific tools exist. Some very interesting studies appear in the literature. For example, it was shown that colours that are more codable (e.g., have shorter names) are more easily remembered. This shows an effect of language on memory.

Alas, the general conclusion from all these studies seems to be that basic colour terminology appears to be universal, and that the colour space appears to be a prime example of the influence of underlying perceptual-cognitive factors on linguistic categories.

Another interesting research approach is based on behavioural differences. One example is the the effort to account for differences in Chinese and English speakers' facility with counterfactual or hypothetical reasoning by reference to the marking of counterfactuals in the two languages.

It seems that these days the strong from of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not popular. I am sure programming languages offer a great opportunity for research. If any cognitive scientist is reading this, I'd be happy to collaborate

andrew cooke - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/17/2001; 12:08:28 PM (reads: 3905, responses: 0)
The MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences (under the entry Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis) and on Linguistic Relativity by Eleanor Rosch in Thinking: Readings in Cognitive Science

I'd like to read more about this kind of thing, but the first of these is a tad expensive for me and the second is out of print. I've just thumbed through my copy of Rosenthal's The Nature of Mind, but it doesn't deal much with language. What else would you recommend? Thanks!

PS Incidentally, I joined the local library today and picked up The Number Sense by Dehaene which goes into quite some detail about the extent to which simple numerical calculations within the brain are independent of language (see an earlier comment of mine on this thread) (I also got Monk's hefty biography of Wittgenstein, which looks very interesting).

Ehud Lamm - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/21/2001; 12:37:48 PM (reads: 3753, responses: 1)
I noticed that Amazon has a Sapir-Whorf category.

The Sapir and Whorf collections of selected writings look promising, but I haven't read them.

andrew cooke - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/21/2001; 1:05:55 PM (reads: 3863, responses: 0)
Thanks. The review of the Sapir book put me off both! :-) I was hoping for something that included something about AI. I'm going to read through the other book reviews (and maybe I need to cough up for the MIT Encyclopedia).


andrew cooke - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/21/2001; 1:19:08 PM (reads: 3752, responses: 0)
PS David Crystal's "Linguistics" (a Penguin book - they're normally quite good as introductory texts) dismisses S-W in a sentence as a distraction (and doesn't mention Quine at all).

[I'm not sure this is a criticism - the approach is very much syntax/science based, which is fair enough]

Ehud Lamm - Re: Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis  blueArrow
3/22/2001; 2:12:04 AM (reads: 3736, responses: 0)
A few comments.

First, you shouldn't take Amazon reviews with a grain salt. They are usually biased and not very informative.

I browsed the collections of Sapir and Whorf writings when I was in the US last summer. They looked quite interesting. They are about languages and culture, and not aout computers - so if you want the connection you have to do it yourself.

As I said here repeatedly, the S-W hypothsis is not very popular these days. I tried to give some reasons why, when I discussed empirical evidence, above.

I still think the idea has some merit, esp. when it comes to restricted languages, like PL.

Maybe someday I'll write a book about it- I'll be sure to let you know...

Sorry I can't be of more help.