The Role of Language in Perception and Cognition

Course Description

The connection between language and cognition lies at the heart of investigation into the human language capacity. One of the central questions about this relationship can be stated very simply: what, if anything, do the properties of language tell us about the nature of our thinking and reasoning? Does language reflect the underlying structure of our thought processes? Do the “universals” of language reflect facts about we perceive and categorize experience? Or, does the relationship between language and thought proceed in the opposite direction: as suggested by Benjamin Lee Whorf's linguistic relativism hypothesis (popularized in story and film), do structures and patterns in the language(s) we speak constrain and direct our modes of thought? Do we “dissect nature along the lines laid down by our native language?” (Whorf 1956). This course introduces methods and concepts in modern linguistics through the lens of these questions. We first discuss Whorf's original hypothesis, and examine arguments and data that have been presented against linguistic relativism in its strong form. We then consider a more recent, nuanced version of the hypothesis, which suggests that different linguistic patterns affect our thinking by privileging certain patterns and habits over others. We look at data from languages that split up color categories in different places than English (e.g. Himba, Namibia; Berinmo, Papua New Guinea), languages that lack exact numerical technology beyond the low single digits (e.g. Warlpiri, Australia; Munduruku, Brazil), as well as languages that use geocentric (north, south, east, west) coordinates in place of speaker-oriented (left, right, forward, back) ones in spatial description (Guugu Ymithirr, Australia; Tseltal, Mexico). We will consider how to use these differences to investigate and establish or debunk a connection between linguistic structure and the cognitive capacities of native speakers, using recent research and experimentation as a starting point. Alongside participation and class discussion, students will complete a final project which either presents a critical review and takes a position on the language-cognition relationship, or outlines the issues that leave them undecided and describes an experiment designed to investigate these issues.

Course Details

  • Grading Basis: Letter Grade or Credit/No Credit
  • Intensive Studies: This course is offered as part of the Thinking About Thinking Intensive. See the Intensive Studies page for more information on how to receive an official Document of Completion.
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