Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Balinese Spatial Orientation: Some Empirical Evidence of Moderate Linguistic Relativity

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Balinese Spatial Orientation: Some Empirical Evidence of Moderate Linguistic Relativity

Article excerpt

Posing the problem

Does language constrain the way one thinks? In the last decade there has scarcely been any empirical research on this old question, but the issue of linguistic relativity has been revived recently by Brown & Levinson (1993a; 1993b), Hill & Mannheim (1992), Levinson (1992; 1996b) and Lucy (1992a; 1992b). For many thinkers from the eighteenth century through to the middle of this century, the presumption that cognitive functioning is subordinate to language was self-evident. For Humboldt (1827-9: 191), 'language' was 'the formative organ of thought'; in the middle of this century Whorl articulated his theory of linguistic determination of conceptual organization, which enjoyed prominence for many years. But in more recent times the answer to our initial question has become emphatically 'no'. The reasons for this negative answer are embedded, according to Brown & Levinson (1993a: 4), in the rationalist assumptions of current research throughout the linguistic and psychological sciences (Jackendoff 1991; Pinker 1985). This debate has undergone several movements of the pendulum and is probably not yet closed (Gumperz & Levinson 1996). Berry et al. (1992: 105) summarize the empirical data as follows: 'In general, we can conclude that there is at best limited support for the linguistic relativity hypothesis at the lexical level, but the last word has probably not been spoken on this issue.'

It seems that most important cognitive processes are now deemed to be universal (Segall et al. 1990), and languages themselves have been shown to conform to many universal principles (Holenstein 1993). One of these cognitive processes is the coding of spatial arrays for memory and it is clear that every language allows us to conceptualize the space surrounding us and to communicate about it. It is widely assumed in the cognitive sciences that such coding will be determined by general, innate properties of visual perception (Marr 1982),(1) and that it is natural and thus universal to conceptualize space from an anthropomorphic and egocentric point of view (Clark 1973; Miller & Johnson-Laird 1976).

All speakers of Indo-European languages are used to egocentric encoding. Other forms of encoding appear peculiar or even impossible to them, so much so that, in developmental psychology, in cognitive sciences and even in our philosophical traditions, the conception of space was considered necessarily to emanate from one's own body, standing in an upright position and looking straight ahead; that is, in the body's 'canonical position' (Clark 1973: 34). The egocentric conception of space was also considered universal, because it was 'more natural and primitive' (Miller & Johnson-Laird 1976: 34). Rooted in this tradition is the prediction that all languages use the planes through the human body to give us, as Kant put it in 1768 (cf. van Cleve & Frederick 1991), our first grounds for intuition about space, in terms of 'up' and 'down', 'left' and 'right' and 'back' and 'front'.

However, there are growing doubts about these basic assumptions, because they may well be ethnocentric and may partly reflect the linguistic prejudices of the Indo-European tongues (Wassmann 1994). Imagine that one has to describe the position of an object or person with respect to another. In English, we achieve this by utilizing the projective notions of right and left, in reference to the speaker's body. For example: 'Two men are standing before me side by side, and the man on the right is holding a stick'. If the viewer were to take up a position on the other side of the two men, it would be the man on the left who was holding the stick. At first sight this seems obvious and natural, among other reasons because the linguistic encoding is congruent with the kind of primary sensory information provided by the visual, auditory and haptic senses, which are egocentric because our sensory apparatus is bound to the human body with its two eyes, two ears and two hands (Landau & Jackendoff 1993; Paillard 1991). …

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