Language News: NPR covers language and numbers

Intro linguistics students are always fascinated with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis–a theory about the degree to which language and thought intersect.  Of course, empirical testing of this theory can be somewhat difficult, but a few notable studies have tried.  Kay and Kempton published an article about color terms, for example, and Schneider and Hacker have explored the effects of generic he on the selection of pictures with just men, just women, and combinations of men and women.  

More recent research on the effects of numbering systems on the perception of numbers also provides insight on the effects of language on thought.  As Daniel Casasanto (Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics) is quoted as saying in the NPR report linked below, “What language does is give you a means of linking up our small, exact number abilities with our large, approximate number abilities.”

You can read more about this kind of research in this report, which also highlight’s Elizabet Spaepen’s (University of Chicago) research on a spontaneously created Nicaraguan sign language.  Signers of this language, who have not been exposed to the number systems of Spanish or mainstream sign languages, have numbers for “one,” “two,” and “more than two,” and this seems to influence their ability to perceive anything larger.  You can also watch an NSF video that demonstrates these findings.

Without Language, Large Numbers Don’t Add Up : NPR.


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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