Northwestern University

Oct
29
Mon 1:00 PM

Psychology Colloquium Series: Linguistic origins of uniquely human abstract concepts

When: Monday, October 29, 2018
1:00 PM - 2:30 PM  

Where: Chambers Hall, Ruan Conference Room – Lower Level, 600 Foster St, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Public

Contact: Andrew Dennewitz   847.467.5027

Group: Department of Psychology

Category: Academic

More Info

Description:

Dr. David Barner, of The University of California San Diego, will speak at Northwestern as part of the Department of Psychology’s Colloquium Series.

Linguistic origins of uniquely human abstract concepts

Abstract: Humans have a unique ability to organize experience via formal systems for measuring time, space, and number. Many such concepts - like minute, meter, or liter - rely on arbitrary divisions of phenomena using a system of exact numerical quantification, which first emerges in development in the form of number words (e.g., one, two, three, etc). Critically, large exact numerical representations like "57" are neither universal among humans nor easy to acquire in childhood, raising significant questions as to their cognitive origins, both developmentally and in human cultural history. In this talk, I explore one significant source of such representations: Natural language. In Part 1, I argue that children learn small number words using the same linguistic representations that support learning singular, dual, and plural representations in many of the world's languages. In Part 2, I investigate the idea that the logic of counting - and the intuition that numbers are infinite - also arises from a foundational property of language: Recursion. In particular, I will present a series of new studies from Cantonese, Hindi, Gujarati, English, and Slovenian. Some of these languages - like Cantonese and Slovenian - exhibit relatively transparent morphological rules in their counting systems, which may allow children to readily infer that number words - and therefore numbers - can be freely generated from rules, and therefore are infinite. Other languages, like Hindi and Gujarati, have highly opaque counting systems, and may make it harder for children to infer such rules. I conclude that the fundamental logical properties that support learning mathematics may first arise as part of the human capacity for natural language.

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