Tag Archives: language

Language, thought, categorisation, and talking to yourself

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Estimated reading time 3–5 minutes

The Voice of Reason (or What’s in a name? online) is a fascinating article by David Robson in New Scientist on one of my favourite topics – how language affects the way we think. The “linguistic relativity” theory of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf – one of my favourite hypotheses – is blamed for the “fall from grace” of the idea that language shapes thought. The work of Eleanor Rosch – one of my favourite psychologists – on categorisation appeared to contradict the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, by showing that categorisation rests more on physiological characteristics of humans – how we see, what size things are, whether or not something is edible – than on the names we have for things.

Noam Chomsky’s quest for a universal grammar made the notion that language and thought were essentially common to all humanity more popular than linguistic relativity. However, psychologists have started to note that having names for categories helps infants put things into those categories. Children’s spatial reasoning also seems to be improved when you remind them of spatial vocabulary (Dedre Gentner, Northwestern University, Evanston , Illinois: Cognitive Psychology, vol 50, p 315). People instinctively teach children by reminding them of what category words like “top”, “middle” and “bottom” mean. An experiment with “aliens” indicated that when people were given names for types of aliens they categorised them more quickly and accurately than when they weren’t given the names (Gary Lupyan, University of Wisconsin, Madison: Psychological Science vol 18, p 1077).

Although the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that language dictates and constrains thought – appears unlikely to be true, on the grounds that you could never have a new idea or create a new category – the “weak” version – that having those words available will encourage people to think in those terms seems very plausible. An experiment has now indicated that Russian speakers – who have two different words for shades of blue – are faster at sorting out those shades than English speakers (Lera Boroditsky, Stanford University, California Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 7780).

Labelling objects helps the memory take “shortcuts” so that minor details do not have to be remembered (Lupyan Journal of Experimental Psychology: General vol 137, p 348). Political activists in many areas have argued that language use encourages stereotyping – hence the attempts to break down stereotypes by changing names for groups. However, when applied to something like sets of documents, not bothering to see them all as individuals can be a useful shortcut. If you want to build a user-friendly taxonomy, using the categories people know and like will make your system quicker and easier to use. Of course they could learn other ways of categorising – they could break the stereotypes – if they spent a bit of time and effort thinking it all through – but in many contexts the job of the taxonomist is to give people what they want quickly and efficiently, not to enter into debates about whether or not they conceptualise things in the most politically appropriate way.

Language has also been shown to affect perception. If you use upwards-moving words (climb, rise, etc.) while showing people patterns of randomly moving dots, they are more likely to correctly detect the predominant direction of movement if the words match the direction (Psychological Science, vol 18 p 1007). Conversely, showing people upwardly-moving dots while saying “fall” confused them. The words seem to “prime” the visual system of the brain.

Another effect is that it is easier to see something if you say the name – so it really does help when you are looking for something to mutter the name of the object to help you find it. According to Andy Clark, a philosopher at the University of Edinburgh, language was the original form of “augmented reality” – “an overlay that changes how we think, reason and see”.

Human-Machine Symbiosis for Data Interpretation

Estimated reading time 2–4 minutes

I went to the ISKO event on Thursday. The speaker, Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge was very entertaining. He has already blogged about the lecture himself.

He pointed out that humans are great at pattern recognition (“intuition is compressed experience”) and are great satisficers (computers are great at optimising), and that humans never read or remember the same word in quite the same way (has anyone told Autonomy this?). I suppose this is the accretion of personal context and experience affecting your own understanding of the word. I remember as a child forming very strong associations with names of people I liked or disliked – if I disliked the person, I thought the name itself was horrible. This is clearly a dangerous process (and one I hope I have grown out of!) but presumably is part of the way people end up with all sorts of irrational prejudices and also explains why “reclaiming” words like “queer” eventually works. If you keep imposing new contexts on a word, those contexts will come to dominate. This factors into taxonomy work, as it explains the intensity people feel about how things should be named, but they won’t all agree. It must also be connected to why language evolves (and how outdated taxonomies start to cause rather than solve problems – like Wittgenstein’s gods becoming devils).

Snowden also talked about the importance of recognising the weak signal, and has developed a research method based on analysing narratives, using a “light touch” categorisation (to preserve fuzzy boundaries) and allowing people to categorise their own stories. He then plots the points collected from the stories to show the “cultural landscape”. If this is done repeatedly, the “landscapes” can be compared to see if anything is changing. He stressed that his methodology required the selection of the right level of detail in the narratives collected, disintermediation (letting people speak in their own words and categorise in their own way within the constraints), and distributed cognition.

I particularly liked his point that when people self-index and self-title they tend to use words that don’t occur in the text, which is a serious problem for semantic analysis algorithms (although I would comment that third party human indexers/editors will use words not in the text too – “aboutness” is a big problem!). He was also very concerned that computer scientists are not taught to see computers as tools for supporting symbiosis with humans, but as black box systems that should operate autonomously. I completely agree – as is probably quite obvious from many of my previous blog posts – get the computers to do the heavy lifting to free up the humans to sort out the anomalies, make the intuitive leaps, and be creative.

UPDATE: Here’s an excellent post on this talk from Open Intelligence.

Truth and Interpretation

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Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes

Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation by Donald Davidson contains a series of philosophical essays on linguistic topics. I am interested in the way that different people respond differently to the language used in taxonomies and so delved into this to try to get a handle on recent linguistic theory. Most of the essays are very technical but I found the essays on Conceptual Schemes and Communication and Convention quite useful. Davidson argues that it makes no sense to talk of completely mutually unintelligible conceptual schemes. We can only talk about schemes as being different because there are some areas of mutual intelligibility and it is this common ground that enables us to highlight local differences.

In Communication and Convention, he argues that repetition and rules-based language conventions are helpful and usual practice in communication, but not necessary. We do not need to agree in advance a theory of interpretation before we start speaking to someone new, because we can develop this through the process of communication itself. However, it saves an awful lot of time if we just assume they understand language in the same way we do and most of the time they do. If they don’t we can modify our theory and try to establish a means of communication as we go along.

Is there a language problem with quantum physics?

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Estimated reading time 2–2 minutes

Is there a language problem with quantum physics? – fundamentals – 05 January 2008 – New Scientist is a fascinating proposition. David Peat is a theoretical physicist who points out that European languages are bound up with notions of Newtonian physics and classical categorisation. He and the US physicists David Bohm held a meeting in 1992 with the elders of the Blackfoot, Micmac and Ojibwa tribes, who speak Algonquian langauages. The speakers of these languages don’t tend to divide the world into categories of objects but talk about things in terms of processes. They describe things and people as being in a constant state of change, appearing and sinking back into a flowing cosmos. Algonquian speakers even have rituals designed to stop objects from being reabsorbed back into the universe. The physicists were amazed at how close the elders’ way of thinking seemed to mirror quantum processes. Peat suggests that such languages and ways of thought could be what western physicists need to help them create a better framework for discussing problems in quantum physics that might lead to solutions to current problems.

This resonated with my wonderings about where categories come from and how language, culture, and society affect the way we organise our thougths and our things. (I have just started reading Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What catergories reveal about the mind by George Lakoff) but it also reminded me of something Patrick Lambe discusses in his excellent book Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, knowledge and organisational effectiveness where he talks about taxonomies as processes and how they need to flow with changes in organisations and the wider world.