Anthro final exam notes:
Chapter 6: Language and cognition
- In Boas study of American Aboriginal languages he discovered features that suggested
to him that languages served people as classificatory devices for dealing with their
environment and realities.
- Specialized vocabularies serve classificatory functions across the world, encoding
realities that seem to be critical by certain cultures.
- Language and terminology evolves alongside culture and the trends that are “in”. E.g.
today we have terminology for iPhones and iPods but back then we had terminology for
- Changes in language mirror changes in society and culture.
- Language comes to change how we perceive the world since the words we use
populate the brain and guide its everyday tasks of referring to the world (chapter looks
at ways in which language and cognition are intertwined).
- In 19 CE the interplay between language and thought came to be known as the
Whorfian Hypotheses (WH).
- WH suggests that language structures influence native speakers to attend to certain
concepts as being necessary.
- WH suggests that language is both a specific world making device and a flexible tool
that can be used creatively to understand people from all over the world.
- Naming things that makeup human experience (e.g. cars, plants, flowers etc.) allows
people to organize the world conceptually.
- With out names the world would remain a flux of impressions that our senses and
instincts would process for survival purposes.
- Although classification systems vary across cultures people aren’t blocked from
- When a word is coined for a specific reason it’s automatically classified as something
part of a category selecting it into mental awareness. (E.g. cats are part of category of
animals/pets and are distinct from non-cat category and part of the greater feline
- Cultures stop their classificatory decision-making when they no longer see
differentiation as useful.
- Science is the craft of classifications aka as taxonomy.
- Early humans divided all things into 2 categories: useful and harmful
- Modern classifications are based on microscopic structural and biochemical
- Conceptual knowledge is not an innate feature of the mind. It starts in childhood and is
put into social context.
- How do we shift from sensory to conceptual modes of knowing? (E.g. the word blue is
a color but its also used to express emotions like feeling down or surprised. This is a
cultural specific process). - Factors such as intensity, inseparability, and repetition played a role in associative
processes (e.g. arms are linked to body, rain is linked to rainbow)
Whorfian Hypotheses (WH)
- Languages that are used habitually rather than reflectively shape perception aka
relativity principle of WH.
- WH claims that we come to perceive the world in a relative fashion, according to the
linguistic concepts gained from childhood.
- Specific language forms shape concepts (mental impressions) aka Whorfian effects
- Language and perception are intertwined. (Language shapes the perceptions of reality)
- Gestalt psychology (way of looking at WH) is a school of psychology that aims to
discover the extent to which forms influence perception. Language conditions the way
we see things.
- Once classified, the world is passed on through language forms to subsequent
generations who acquire knowledge of the world through those very forms. But future
generations can change their views of the world at any time by inventing new words.
- Whorf was Sapir’s student and so sometimes the WH is called the Sapir-Whorf
Hypothesis acknowledging the shared views of the teacher and student.
- Like Bas, Whorf suggested that the function of language was to allow people to classify
experience according to their needs and thus it was an organizing grid by which humans
come to perceive and understand the world around them.
- 2 things about the Hopi language captured Whorf’s attention: (i) plurality and
numeration (ii) verb tense
- Hopi people don’t see time as an objective phenomenon and are less dependent on
things like watches or schedules to carry out daily lives which is also mirrored in their
- People oppose to WH as they say: it implies that we are prisoners of the languages we
speak. But Danesi says this is false. He says WH says that is says only that language and
perception are intertwined (language we speak is a guide for daily living).
- WH doesn’t claim that the linguistic guides of other cultures cant be learned.
- Every culture develops specialized vocabularies over time according to need
- Naming family members is a classic example of how language and classification mirror
- Kinship mirrors social relations. They reveal how family is structured in a given culture
and what relationship are considered important (e.g. Hawaii kinship system)
- In all languages there exists verbal resources for referring to more specific gradations
on the spectrum is the situation should require it (e.g. in English the world scarlet and
vermillion make it possible to refer to types of red).
- Brent Berlin and Paul Kay extensively studied the relation between color systems and
perception and it became a point of reference when discussing WH because it shows
that differences in color terms are only superficial matters that conceal universal
principles of color perception. But some linguists question this study. - Despite gaps in the sequence the Berlin-Kay study has had profound implications on
several counts. 1) Showed that the contrast between light and dark is the basic
distinction made by humans globally 2) suggests lagaues go through stages in the
production of the other color terms and so color vocabs are a product of human
perception not traditions
- Specialized vocabs bring out how language serves specific human needs and then
returns to humans to guide their view of the world
- Specialized vocabs and WH falls under ethno semantics aka the study of semantic
systems in terms of their culture specific implications.
- One way to study ethno semantics is with the technique of opposition (seeing how
concepts gain meaning by contrasting them to other concepts)(e.g. good-evil)
- 2 way ethno semantic work is conducted is through componential analysis. This
approach is useful in studying different semantic feature arrays for diff languages, which