Lera Boroditsky

By Kuba Kaliński (transl. Kuba Kalinski, Nena Argent)
Lera Boroditsky - Linguistics, Cognitive Science
Lera Boroditsky
Biographical note
Lera Boroditsky was born around 1976 in Belarus. She’s a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Her research centers on linguistics and cognitive science around so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, combining methods of anthropology and neuroscience. Titles of her selected articles: “Linguistic Relativity”; “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics”; “Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought”; “The Roles of Body and Mind in Abstract Thought”; “Does Language Shape Thought?”; “English and Mandarin Speakers’ Conceptions of Time”; “Metaphoric Structuring: Understanding Time through Spatial Metaphors”.

Subjective Viewpoint: Beauty and the Mind

  1. Sexism!
  2. Lera Boroditsky impresses me because she’s beautiful. Now I can calmly write about the other reasons.
  3. The Crux of the Matter
  4. Quotes from Edge: “We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.”

    In her research, Lera Boroditsky follows the footsteps of Benjamin Whorf who, during the ’30s, studied the Hopi language amongst others. Sapir was a linguist and Whorf’s mentor. The hypothesis of linguistic relativism, unformulated directly by these researchers, is now called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. That hypothesis encounters strong resistance from scholars belonging to a group called universalists. I remain a spectator of that extremely interesting dispute.

    Examples given by the relativists are numerous (refer to the links below). I give here only one example taken from a recent study by Boroditsky in Australia. Aborigines don’t know the words “right” and “left”. Directions appoint always in the absolute system of reference. They don’t say, for instance, “on my right” but “south of me” always perfectly oriented with world directions. We’ve lost that skill or have never learned it. Different methods of space orientation have remarkable implications with regards to methods of time representation. Europeans, when asked to order photos depicting aging persons, will lay pictures from the oldest (representing a person at a young age) to the latest (representing an elder person) from left to right, according to the conventional writing direction. In cultures that write from right to left this direction is reversed. Meanwhile, Aborigines lay photos in yet another way, always from east to west, regardless of whether it is from right to left, left to right, top to bottom or diagonally.

    The universalists. Noam Chomsky is the most prominent person on this side; Steven Pinker is one of his known followers (“The Language Instinct”). A strong version of the universalist thesis can be briefly summarized like this: natural languages ​​have a common universal grammar, identical for the entire human species. Genes ensure its survival. Thinking is a process independent of language and sentences spoken in natural languages ​​are only the outer form of thought.

    The relativists. Natural language governs thinking. At least to some extent, it has an active, not merely a passive, cognitive role.
  5. Questions to Chomsky and Pinker
  6. Is postulated universal grammar more akin to English grammar than Chinese, Russian or Arabic grammar? How many languages outside the Indo-European group did you master fluently? Isn’t the dominance of the English language, including the dominance of the concept of universal grammar which is so similar to English grammar, merely a derivative of military dominance? If the Soviets won the Cold War, would the universal grammar have included declination?
  7. Questions to Lera Boroditsky
  8. Why does English dominate the world and science? Is it merely a derivative of military dominance or, on the contrary, it is the best of all existing human languages ​​which best serves the knowledge, the development of science, and therefore the military dominance?
  9. The Middle Path
  10. The dispute among the universalists and the relativists, a contemporary distant cousin of a dispute among the universalists and the nominalists of the Middle Ages, is distended unduly by commentators and academics, being an ostensible dispute, perhaps. The basic concepts of both schools aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. It may be true that we have a genetic program for learning language and universal grammar instinctively and also it may be true that different natural languages influence, in varying degrees, our thoughts, behavior and even perceptions. A universality of means of water transport (it must be lighter than water, have a drive and a way of controlling a direction of movement) doesn’t exclude a possibility that a raft and a liner have different event horizons and that danger means different things to them. Maybe Bohdan Chwedeńczuk is right when he states, in the preface to translated works of Austin, that if something is undecidable, it can be rational to presuppose something as a postulate. Seeing my own choices I must admit a far-reaching duplicity. I defend the universalists when compelled to adopt the relativist position; I defend the relativists compelled to adopt the universalist position. I profess a rule of contrariness. My commitment to defend relativism or universalism has more in common with incidental current social alliances than loyalty to truth, which can’t be fulfilled because what is true is unknown.
  11. The Analytical Readings
  12. Troubled by the dispute, I scrutinized respectable authors, John Austin, Thomas Kuhn, and finally Wittgenstein, only to reach a state of headache, something between frustration, depression and apathy. Here are the real effects of studying analytical philosophers. John Austin splits a hair into 4, then 16, and continues to 256. That’s great. Only the mother is missing who would say to little Johnny at the end, “Johnny, did you dismantle your dad’s Swiss watch down to its prime factors? It’s very nice of you, sweetie, and now could you put it back together before your dad gets home?” Fortunately, I came to discover “Mind, Language and Society” by John Searl. Words still have meanings and reality makes sense. What a relief!

    Such concepts as language, world, consciousness, thinking, and cognition are incurably vague. Tired of conceptual mists, l take a break from writing articles, take a rest for a few weeks, and program this website. When I get tired of the pure formality of computer languages I will find relief in a refreshing mist of my favorite concepts: language, world, consciousness, thinking, and cognition.
  13. What Do Writers Think about Language?
  14. The intellectual current, represented by Whorf and Boroditsky, has always affected literature. Furthermore, I give three examples referring directly to the issue in question. Every well-written book that differentiates the characters language is an example of an indirect reference. One of the most beautiful Borges stories, titled “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, was written around 1940. The language of the people of the lost land, operating verb-like words and deprived of nouns, is a literary fantasy based on the languages of Native Americans from North America. I’m convinced that Borges subscribed to a linguistic magazine and knew Whorf’s works. Most of them were published in the ’30s. “Anthem” by Ayn Rand is another example; I could also point out Orwell’s “1984” or any other futuristic dystopia. What North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and the Vatican are, if not attempts to shape the world and society accordingly to some arbitrary language systems? People subjected to the governments and the ideologies of those countries see the world differently because they operate other languages. It doesn’t prove the existence of different worlds. It proves that the same world can be described differently and thought differently. It is the language, and not the climate, for instance, that has a decisive role. If we, western liberals, are cautious or even hostile to certain societies, it’s not due to their funny hats, it’s because they talk about jihad. A recently released book, and rightly awarded the Goncourt prize, the “Map and Territory” by Houellebecq, is a third example of literary borrowing. Aside from its content, the title itself is a reference to Alfred Korzybski’s “The Map Is Not the Territory”. It’s worth mentioning that Korzybski, perhaps in contrast to Boroditsky, advocated a strong interpretation of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, saying that language determines and sets the boundaries of thinking. In the Wittgenstein’s version, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”. Does it mean that you can’t go beyond that limit? No, it means something else. It means that to go beyond it is necessary to change or expand the language.
  15. Belarus and Surroundings
  16. Boroditsky family managed to get out of Belarus. Is the only thing that we can say to Belarusians the same as McAfee’s advice to Snowden, “Run man, run away”? Here’s my idea about me if I would have been born in Belarus: a heroin overdose or death in prison. Or would I be accused of attempting to assassinate Lukashenka?

    On one side of the ocean there’s Lera Boroditsky, a beautiful woman and a professor at Stanford University, on the other side an equally beautiful Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a philosophy student imprisoned by Putin for singing songs. Fight, die or run away from these Asian khanates, what else remains? A compromise?

    Oh, Putin, how weak a man you are, if you imprison a 20-year-old girl for singing. Oh, Obama, how weak a man you are, if you imprison Manning, pursue Assange and Snowden. Americans, wake up! Your surveillance has already entered my bed and bathroom. Instead of feeding Orwellian angst, outlaw Islam in the U.S., it would simplify the war on terror. Is Sam Harris the only one, on the other side of the Atlantic, who has noticed that the war on terror is a war on Islam?

    For some mysterious reason a large number of linguists were born in the Polish territory (Korzybski, Zamenhof, Sapir) or wear Polish surnames (Boroditsky, Chomsky). Apparently, misunderstandings on the market, whether fair prices of vegetables should be decided in Polish, Belarusian, German, Russian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Latin or Yiddish, reached a critical mass here. A long list of twentieth-century crimes has solved the problem. Today, Poland is one of the most ethnically and linguistically homogeneous countries in the world.
  17. A Quantum Argument
  18. We split the world by words. According to universalists basic grammatical forms of words, nouns and verbs, correspond to things and phenomena. The grammatical division reflects the real world. Quantum description of the world doesn’t share this optimism. The world isn’t divided, as Indo-European grammars want, into things and phenomena. A particle and a wave are the same. Whorf, Borodtisky, Borges and physics are right. Natural languages, as senses, influence our thinking and distort the world.
  19. The Questions that I Would Like to Know the Answers to
  20. Is it possible to identify the genes responsible for universal grammar? Isn’t this concept too mystical? Does adding the words “cognitive structure” help in its explanation or confuse the matter, like abstract theological terms that are incomprehensible to ordinary mortals?

    Or maybe language is the Dawkinian extended phenotype which should be considered as a part of the environment? Is it possible to observe genetic differences between people living for generations in different language environments, as we can observe with pigmentation of the skin, genital size or IQ results?

    Is thinking a language process entirely? Partly? In what part? Not at all?

    Is the evolution of language subject to the same laws like the evolution of biological life? Should the sentence “language is a living thing” be understood metaphorically or literally? Is it worth “shifting the paradigm” and changing the meaning of the words “life” and “evolution” to say: let’s recognize that evolution isn’t an attribute of life but a wider concept? Let’s treat everything that is subject to the laws of evolution as living. Let’s consider biological life as only one of the possible forms of life.

    Is it possible that the evolution of the brain, including the emergence of universal grammar, is a feedback, an adaptation to an increasingly diverse and rich language environment? A spider builds a web. If that web is large, strong, durable and tight, the web itself becomes the natural environment. Roads and cars cause us to sit more and walk less. In the long run it must influence our skeletal structure. Can the omnipresence of highways influence our genetic predisposition to build roads? May such a disposition occur as an adaptation?

    Could it be that some problems of modern physics, like wave-particle duality, paradoxes of quantum mechanics, the problem of the beginning and the end, infinity, time, energy and matter, would be better understood, or even solved, if we turned toward the analysis of language for a moment? Does physics need the mind of a new John Austin to take the next step?

    In direct debate, might Pinker be victorious over Boroditsky due to his reasoning, or would it be due to his outstanding oratory abilities? Christopher Hitchens crushed almost all of his opponents regardless of whether he was wrong or not. His victories proved his point (usually) as much as his erudition, strength and grace.

    This website’s slogan paraphrases Ayn Rand, “Thinking People Don’t Recognize Authority“. Is science without authority even conceivable? Is traffic without authority conceivable?

    A problem of Talmudic tradition: doesn’t reading too many books cause confusion of verbal abstract ideas against reality? Here are some examples: god, ego, social class, universal grammar.

    I think “it’s hot today”. My thought is “it’s hot today”. There’s just a feeling of the heat beyond that thought. Between the sensation and the thought formulated in natural language there isn’t any third element, “a universal thought”.

    Beyond natural forms of linguistic expression, would we say that mathematical formulas, gestures and concerts, are also “thoughts”? Did Mozart “think by music” or “express his thoughts by music”? But what thoughts are we talking about here?

    What to do with Mickiewicz’s “Language lie thoughts”? To set aside on a “poetry” shelf?

    John Austin’s brilliant question: why do we use the same word for different things? Of course it’s not a question of homonymy, as in the case of the word “left” or “stalk”, but about the word “leaf”, for instance, used to refer to completely different leaves. On the other hand we have a brook that transforms into a stream then a stream into a river. Why do we have three words in this case and only one in the case of a leaf? Why don’t we have different words for leaves on the trees and dead dried leaves on the ground? Why do we have three words to describe the same thing: hog, pig, and swine?
Lera Boroditsky - Legacy
Lera Boroditsky - Tlön Uqbar Orbis...
Tlön Uqbar Orbis...
Lera Boroditsky - Map and the Territory
Map and the Territory
Lera Boroditsky - Science and Sanity
Science and Sanity
Lera Boroditsky - Language Instinct
Language Instinct

Lera Boroditsky - quotes & fragments

For example, in Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don't use terms like "left" and "right." Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, "There's an ant on your southwest leg." To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, "Where are you going?", and an appropriate response might be, "A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?" If you don't know which way is which, you literally can't get past hello.

Claims of linguistic universality are rife in popular culture. One oft-repeated claim is that linguists have examined all the world's languages and have determined that they do not differ. This claim is silly.

In fact, you don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery. Look at some famous examples of personification in art — the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.