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Cognition. 2002 Apr;83(3):265-94.

Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning.

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Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, University of Pennsylvania, 3401 Walnut Street, Suite 400A, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


This paper investigates possible influences of the lexical resources of individual languages on the spatial organization and reasoning styles 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 (e.g. Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1993). Linguistic and nonlinguistic coding of spatial arrays: explorations in Mayan cognition (Working Paper No. 24). Nijmegen: Cognitive Anthropology Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics; Cognitive Linguistics 6 (1995) 33). Specifically, certain groups customarily use an externally referenced spatial-coordinate system to refer to nearby directions and positions ("to the north") whereas English speakers usually employ a viewer-perspective system ("to the left"). Prior findings and interpretations have been to the effect that users of these two types of spatial system solve rotation problems in different ways, reasoning strategies imposed by habitual use of the language-particular lexicons themselves. The present studies reproduce these different problem-solving strategies in speakers of a single language (English) by manipulating landmark cues, suggesting that language itself may not be the key causal factor in choice of spatial perspective. Prior evidence on rotation problem solution from infants (e.g. Acredolo, L.P. (1979). Laboratory versus home: the effect of environment on the 9-month-old infant's choice of spatial reference system. Developmental Psychology, 15 (6), 666-667) and from laboratory animals (e.g. Restle, F. (1975). Discrimination of cues in mazes: a resolution of the place-vs.-response question. Psychological Review, 64, 217-228) suggests a unified interpretation of the findings: creatures approach spatial problems differently depending on the availability and suitability of local landmark cues. The results are discussed in terms of the current debate on the relation of language to thought, with particular emphasis on the question of why different cultural communities favor different perspectives in talking about space.

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