Cool Logic

Natalia Philippova (ILLC, Amsterdam)

Sex and Syntax (Talking about the effect of language on thought in a post-Sapir-and-Whorf world)

September 16th at 18:30, in ILLC, F1.15

Linguistic relativity (or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is one of the most controversial theories put forward in modern linguistics. In its strong, now widely ridiculed version, it holds that the grammatical structure of our native language can determine the way we think and perceive the world. The mentions of it today often cause linguists either to shift uncomfortably in their chairs or to poke fun at the “Eskimo” numerous words for snow. Still, despite its troublesome history, some aspects of linguistic relativity are worth saving. The recent advances in experimental methodology that Sapir and Whorf did not have access to helped linguists gain new insight into how language can affect the way we process information about the surrounding world. Although this effect is not as grandiose as Sapir and Whorf originally suggested, it is not insignificant – and ignoring it would not be helpful in understanding how natural language works. In my talk, I will briefly outline the historical background against which linguistic relativity rose to fame, and the linguistic shortcomings that discredited a lot of its claims. Next, I will present several experimental studies (that did not suffer from the same shortcomings) whose results strongly suggest that our native language influences our spatial cognition, color perception, and possibly even our attitudes towards gender. Finally, I will point out some interesting research areas at the intersection of language, logic, and cognition that explore linguistic interpretations of human reasoning.