Back to the Future

The Ant and the Grasshopper

A quick update to my previous post about the correlation between the way languages mark future tim reference and future-oriented behaviour. Kieth Chen has written a guest post on Language Log explaining his working paper, and responding to the critiques by Language Loggers Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman. He specifically addresses two concerns, that there is some linguistic imprecision in the classification of of strong FTR languages, and that the statistical correlation may be due to cultural co-diffusion, and I must say that I find his responses valid and persuasive, though clearly considerably more research needs to be done in this area.

In response to Chen's response, another Language Logger, Julie Sedivy, has written an interesting post. Her main point, that additional linguistic experimentation needs to be conducted to really get at what is going on here, is an excellent suggestion, and I do hope that someone goes about this. However, I'm still troubled by some of the objections Sedivy raises. She again brings up this notion of cultural co-diffusion, that families in the same countries who choose to speak a particular language at home will also choose to hold to certain cultural values that are coincidentally associated with that language group, and that there is no causal relation between language and behaviour. This might explain away the behaviour in any one country, but if I understand correctly, Chen's data is drawn from a wide range of countries which don't necessarily have cultural connections. But again, perhaps I'm missing something here.

What really troubles me is the extent to which Chen’s data is being dismissed primarily on the grounds that the prevailing model shouldn’t allow. Surely the data should come first, even if it conflicts with the prevailing models. Certainly experimental evidence will be needed to corroborate Chen's statistical correlation in order to establish a solid case for a causal relation. But Sedivy's attitude is that such a result would be surprising (albeit interesting). There is, however, mounting evidence that such causal relationships exist, as demonstrated for instance by the research by Lera Boroditsky. Many linguists get uncomfortable when confronted by such evidence, since it can't simply be dismissed, and yet it supports the notion of linguistic relativity, to which they do not hold. Perhaps we need Boroditsky to conduct such experimentation which Sedivy describes, and maybe then the notion of linguistic relativity will not be so cavalierly dismissed.

In any case, if you're interested in the topic, have a look at these two new posts. I am glad that this topic is getting some attention, and I'm quite enjoying this ongoing discussion on Language Log. I will eventually post about my own research on the topic of linguistic relativity, and very soon I'll post the rather long entry I've been working on about philology and cognitive linguistics.