Can language restructure cognition? the case for space

A. Majid, M. Bowerman, S. Kita, Daniel Haun, S. Levinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Frames of reference are coordinate systems used to compute and specify the location of objects with respect to other objects. These have long been thought of as innate concepts, built into our neurocognition. However, recent work shows that the use of such frames in language, cognition and gesture varies cross-culturally, and that children can acquire different systems with comparable ease. We argue that language can play a significant role in structuring, or restructuring, a domain as fundamental as spatial cognition. This suggests we need to rethink the relation between the neurocognitive underpinnings of spatial cognition and the concepts we use in everyday thinking, and, more generally, to work out how to account for cross-cultural cognitive diversity in core cognitive domains. Think where you left your glasses. Of course, they were to the right of the telephone! This is the sort of everyday coding of spatial location we use. But some people in other cultures think differently about the same situation: they would code the glasses as being on the telephone's own left side, or even as being north-east of the phone! Understanding these differences and their source is what this article is about. As the scene is the same, the differences in coding are clearly something we bring to the scene – what Gestalt theorists called a ‘frame of reference’, or a coordinate system, which we impose on the objects to get a specified direction for the glasses with respect to the telephone. There has been a great deal of thought about spatial frames of reference (FoR) in psychology, neurocognition, linguistics and elsewhere. Most of this literature privileges egocentric coordinates, as exemplified in ‘the glasses are to the right of the telephone’: Kant argued elegantly that the human body frame is the source of our basic intuitions about the nature of space [1], a thought echoed by many modern psychologists [2]. The emphasis in modern psychology on the primacy of anthropomorphic and relativistic space concepts 3 and 4 neglects other work in psychology and neurocognition [5] and the facts of cultural and linguistic diversity, the focus of this article. This broader perspective recognizes not only egocentric coordinate systems, but also two distinct types of allocentric ones: those based on object-centred coordinates, and those based on absolute coordinates like north/south/east/west. At a level of abstraction we can talk of just three FoRs, which we will call the Relative (roughly, egocentric), the Intrinsic (object-centred) and the Absolute (using fixed bearings like north). In this article we show that many languages make little or no use of the Relative FoR, instead emphasizing one or more of the other frames, and, more surprising perhaps, that speakers of these languages appear to code their everyday non-linguistic spatial representations in line with their linguistic FoRs, neither speaking nor thinking in terms of the glasses being to the right of the phone. This raises a host of puzzles: How could such cognitive diversity arise? Could language difference be the root – is this a ‘Whorfian’ effect of language on cognition? Or are (non-cultural) environmental factors at work? What about child development – are some FoRs easier to acquire than others?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)108-114
Number of pages7
JournalTrends in Cognitive Sciences
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2004


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