A NY Times story by Christine Kenneally, a freelance journalist who has a Ph.D. in linguistics, discusses some interesting new research that takes the stale Sapir-Whorf debate in a new direction:

Faced with pictures of odd clay creatures sporting prominent heads and pointy limbs, students at Carnegie Mellon were asked to identify which “aliens” were friendly and which were not…

Some had somewhat lumpy, misshapen heads. Others had smoother domes. After students assigned each alien to a category, they were told whether they had guessed right or wrong, learning as they went that smooth heads were friendly and lumpy heads were not.

The experimenter, Dr. Gary Lupyan, who is now doing postdoctoral research at Cornell, added a little item of information to one test group. He told the group that previous subjects had found it helpful to label the aliens, calling the friendly ones “leebish” and the unfriendly ones “grecious,” or vice versa.

When the participants found out whether their choice was right or wrong, they were also shown the appropriate label. All the participants eventually learned the difference between the aliens, but the group using labels learned much faster. Naming, Dr. Lupyan concluded, helps to create mental categories.

The finding may not seem surprising, but it is fodder for one side in a traditional debate about language and perception, including the thinking that creates and names groups.
In stark form, the debate was: Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with the late Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways that language carves up the world?

The latest research changes the framework, perhaps the language of the debate, suggesting that language clearly affects some thinking as a special device added to an ancient mental skill set. Just as adding features to a cellphone or camera can backfire, language is not always helpful. For the most part, it enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too…

The story goes on to discuss other experiments, including Lera Boroditsky’s study of color perception (see her remarks here); it’s all very thought-provoking. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. parvomagnus says

    I wonder if the other group was shown labels as well, these saying just ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’? The article, to me, implies that the group with labels both got the extra terminology and reinforcement from being shown labels.
    It’s also not stated explicitly, but the cognitive benefit seems to come from presenting the choosers a ready-made alien taxonomy, separate from the notion of friendliness. This strikes me as interesting because it seems to say that the other group wasn’t mentally grouping the aliens together. I wonder if this is just a product of the artificiality of the experiment, which, for those given more fictional information, was lessened – I’d bet if real aliens landed here, and one group shot at us, and the other gave us ice cream, our performance at distinguishing the two types would exemplary.

  2. Jonathan Mayhew says

    That’s a very, very, very weak and diluted form of Sapir-Whorf. The grammar of language shapes our perception of reality, especially as regards space and time. That’s the hypothesis. But here there is no grammar, just labelling–a very simple language game that every language has, I would presume. Would anyone deny that verbal labelling helps us keep categories straight? Does anyone hold that semantic categories line up neatly with the world itself?

  3. Eleanor Rosch claimed that ethnobotanical terms line up neatly with the genus level in cladistics. But that’s a somewhat different claim.

  4. Charles Perry says

    A very weak version of Sapir-Whorf; having a name for something makes it easier to hang your thoughts on it. Big deal. It does not show that language directs or controls your thoughts, any more than my bed directs me to hit the snooze button rather than get up right away. And it ignores the fact of semantic change. “Fascist” and “Communist” were coined as (what the coiners considered) supremely positive terms. The reality of Fascism and Communism turned the names into curse words.

  5. jonathan Mayhew says

    The more times I read the idea that “naming helps to create mental categories” in this story the more banal I think it is. Isn’t that what names are, mostly, “mental categories”?
    And the experimental subjects already had names, “friendly” and “unfriendly.” What it seems to say is that funny-sounding labels work a little better? I really don’t get it.

  6. Well, surely not even the smallest elucidation of the mind’s working is unimportant, and the important thing, as I read it, is that one group, say, ‘A’, were given labels and, with (supposedly) only those labels differentiating them from group B, performed some task more efficiently than group B.
    People, then, work more efficiently using a pre-existant framework, however ultimately contentless, as those two made-up words were. That’s what it seems to be claiming, at least. The article doesn’t go into detail on the actual methodology, and it does seem to imply that group A got two things different from B: both the categories, and reinforcement after each pick.
    If that’s not true, and the two groups were equal in all but the introduction of two nonsense terms, that still might not mean what the article says it means, but it means something, even if it’s ultimately just about experimental practice. ‘Aliens’ is a pretty campy concept, so giving people fictional alien names might have just lowered their emotional distance from the task, have gotten them into the spirit of things a bit more.
    Maybe using, say, monkeys, and saying one kind of monkey eats your babies, and the other one plays nicely with them, would have gotten different results.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Eleanor Rosch claimed that ethnobotanical terms line up neatly with the genus level in cladistics. But that’s a somewhat different claim.

    Especially because “genus” and “cladistics” are orthogonal…

  8. This is probably more in line with a related idea, i.e., sound symbolism. The idea, though not a very popular one anymore, runs against Sassure’s doctrine of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. Not surprisingly, Whorf, Jakobson, and, to a lesser extent, Sapir were advocates of it.
    Try this experiment: which sounds “bigger,” PING or PONG? Advocates of the idea will tell you that PONG is the bigger one, and there’s a reason for it. The theory’s biggest problem, IMHO, is that it usually ignores cultural and historical factors that could be influential.

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