Department of Psychology
University of California, San Diego
Linguistic origins of uniquely human abstract concepts
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 draw on evidence from multiple language groups, including French/English and Spanish/English bilinguals, to 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. For example, I will argue that children’s initial meaning for the word “one” is not unlike their meaning for “a”. 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 can also be found in natural language.
A pizza lunch will be served at 11:45am. The seminar will begin at 12:00pm.