IRCS Technical Reports Series

Document Type

Technical Report

Date of this Version

January 2000


University of Pennsylvania Institute for Research in Cognitive Science Technical Report No. IRCS-00-03.


This paper investigates possible influences of the lexical resources of individual languages on the conceptual organization and reasoning processes of their users. That there are such powerful and pervasive influences of language on thought is the thesis of the Whorf-Sapir linguistic relativity hypothesis which, after a lengthy period in intellectual limbo, has recently returned to prominence in the anthropological, linguistic, and psycholinguistic literatures. Our point of departure is an influential group of cross-linguistic studies that appear to show that spatial reasoning is strongly affected by the spatial lexicon in everyday use in a community (Brown and Levinson, 1993b; Pederson et al., 1998). Specifically, certain groups use an absolute spatial-coordinate system to refer to directions and positions even within small and nearby regions ("to the north of that coconut tree") whereas English uses a relative, body-oriented system ("to the left of that tree"). The prior findings have been that users of these two types of spatial systems solve rotation problems in different ways, ways predicted by the language-particular lexicons. The present studies reproduce these different problem-solving strategies in monolingual speakers of English by manipulating landmark cues, suggesting that the prior results were not language effects at all. The results are discussed as buttressing the view that linguistic idiosyncracies do not materially restrict the thought processes of their users.



Date Posted: 10 August 2006