Huettig, F., Chen, J., Bowerman, M., & Majid, A.
(2008). Linguistic relativity: Evidence from Mandarin speakers’ eye-movements. Talk presented at 14th Annual Conference on the Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing [AMLaP 2008]. Cambridge, UK. 2008-09-04 - 2008-09-06.
If a Mandarin speaker had walked past two rivers and wished to describe how many he had seen, he
would have to say “two tiao river”, where tiao designates long, rope-like objects such as rivers,
snakes and legs. Tiao is one of several hundred classifiers – a grammatical category in Mandarin. In
two eye-tracking studies we presented Mandarin speakers with simple Mandarin sentences through
headphones while monitoring their eye-movements to objects presented on a computer monitor. The
crucial question is what participants look at while listening to a pre-specified target noun. If classifier
categories influence general conceptual processing then on hearing the target noun participants should
look at objects that are also members of the same classifier category – even when the classifier is not
explicitly present. For example, on hearing scissors, Mandarin speakers should look more at a picture
of a chair than at an unrelated object because scissors and chair share the classifier ba. This would be
consistent with a Strong Whorfian position, according to which language is a major determinant in
shaping conceptual thought (Sapir, 1921; Whorf, 1956). A weaker influence of language-on-thought
could be predicted, where language shapes cognitive processing, but only when the language-specific
category is actively being processed (Slobin, 1996). According to this account, eye-movements are
not necessarily drawn to chair when a participant hears scissors, but they would be on hearing ba
scissors. This is because hearing ba activates the linguistic category that both scissors and chair
belong to. A third logical possibility is that classifiers are purely formal markers (cf. Greenberg,
1972; Lehman, 1979) that do not influence attentional processing even when they are explicitly
The data showed that when participants heard a spoken word from the same classifier category as a
visually depicted object (e.g. scissors-chair), but the classifier was not explicitly presented in the
speech, overt attention to classifier-match objects (e.g. chair) and distractor objects did not differ
(Experiment 1). But when the classifier was explicitly presented (e.g. ba, Experiment 2), participants
shifted overt attention significantly more to classifier-match objects (e.g. chair) than to distractors.
These data are incompatible with the Strong Whorfian hypothesis. Instead the findings support the
Weak Whorfian hypothesis that linguistic distinctions force attention to properties of the world but
only during active linguistic processing of that distinction (cf. Slobin, 1996).