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Bound by Your Words

March 8, 2011

Scientists are constrained by their vocabulary. This is quite evident in the differences between a chemist's and a physicist's approach to the interactions between atoms. Chemists talk about ionic and covalent bonds, electronegativity, and generally everything in the index of Pauling's book, "The Nature of the Chemical Bond." Chemists draw chemical bonds as lines on paper, and they get along quite well in their own language, making useful predictions. Physicists are more likely to put a matrix between atoms than a line. The physicists get very accurate results for a few model systems, while the chemists get workable results for complex systems. The Watson-Crick DNA model falls into the chemistry camp, and the highly successful theory of quantum electrodynamics is the physicists' claim to fame.

The only problem with such a language constraint is summarized in the idea called the law of the instrument; or more poetically, the golden hammer. This law, which was framed by the psychologist, Abraham Maslow, is generally summarized by the phrase, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." A hammer was used in an attempt to repair a television camera during the Apollo 12 lunar mission, as I mentioned in a previous article (Nothing New Under The Sun, May 28, 2010). I think I once tried that on a computer.

The hypothesis of linguistic relativity states that our language reflects our world view. The supposed plethora of Eskimo words for snow is often given as an example of this. The idea that snow is so important to Eskimos that they differentiate between many different types of snow in their language is now considered an urban legend. At one time, an editorial in The New York Times put the number at a hundred. Although we may no longer quote Eskimos on the topic, there's still a lot of evidence that our language constrains our modes of thought.

The representation of numbers in language is an interesting case. It's reported that the Warlpiri, an Australian indigenous tribe, have only the number "one" in their language. Everything greater than one is just called "many."[2] Even sophisticated westerners think that there's a larger difference between an 84-month and a 108-month warranty than a seven-year and a nine-year warranty, but the differences are exactly the same.[3] The principle that higher numbers seem to represent bigger quantities is called the "unit effect."[3-4]

Isaac Newton Stamp

A multiplicity of numbers on a single postage stamp. USSR stamp celebrating publication of Newton's Principia (1687). Designer: A. Starilov

Psychologists at the University of Chicago have investigated the concept of number in a group with a sharply defined language limitation. These were Nicaraguan deaf who never had formal sign language training but communicate using self-developed gestures. It was found that these people could not comprehend numbers greater than three, since they had not learned a counting language. A control group that learned conventional sign language as children could comprehend large numbers, as could hearing, but unschooled, Nicaraguans.

The implication is that teaching language teaches counting at the same time.[5-6] Said Susan Goldin-Meadow, one of the authors of the study,
"It's not just the vocabulary words that matter, but understanding the relationships that underlie the words––the fact that 'eight' is one more than 'seven' and one less than 'nine.' Without having a set of number words to guide them, deaf homesigners in the study failed to understand that numbers build on each other in value."[5]

A portion of the study was done in a clever way. The test subjects were shown videos in which numbers were important to the plot, and they were asked to describe the videos to relatives and friends who understood their invented signs. As the numbers in the video got larger, it was harder for the deaf participants to communicate what they had seen.[5-6]

The study subjects were also shown cards printed with different numbers of items and asked to give their gesture for the number. They were able to respond only up to the number three. More interestingly, they had a hard time making a second row of checkers match a another row when there were more than three checkers in the row, although this task did not require a number vocabulary or any comprehension. It was apparent that their large number understanding wasn't limited just at the communications level. There was an inability to think about them.

This work, which was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, appears as an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.[6]


  1. Eskimo words for snow page on Wikipedia.
  2. Terry Jones, "Story of One," BBC, 2005; Google video. The Warlpiri segment begins at 07:30.
  3. Mary-Ann Twist, "Pay attention! Many consumers believe 36 months is longer than 3 years," University of Chicago Press Journals Press Release, February 14, 2011.
  4. Mario Pandelaere, Barbara Briers and Christophe Lembregts. "How to Make a 29% Increase Look Bigger: The Unit Effect in Option Comparisons." Journal of Consumer Research: August 2011 (published online February 1, 2011).
  5. Words help people form mathematical concepts, University of Chicago Press Release, February 7, 2011.
  6. Elizabet Spaepen, Marie Coppola, Elizabeth S. Spelke, Susan E. Carey and Susan Goldin-Meadow, "Number without a language model," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Online before Print, February 7, 2011.

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Linked Keywords: Scientist; vocabulary; chemist; physicist; atom; ionic bond; covalent bondl electronegativity; Linus Pauling; The Nature of the Chemical Bond; chemical bond; matrix; James D. Watson; Francis Crick; DNA model; precision tests of QED; quantum electrodynamics; law of the instrument; Abraham Maslow; If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; Apollo 12 lunar mission; hypothesis of linguistic relativity; Eskimo; snow; urban legend; The New York Times; Warlpiri; Australian indigenous tribe; Warlpiri language; Sophism; westerner; A. Starilov; psychologist; University of Chicago; number; Nicaraguan; hearing impaired; deaf; sign language; Susan Goldin-Meadow; English draughts; checkers; National Science Foundation; National Institutes of Health; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.