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Linguistic Anthropology Roundup #13

Chad Nilep, SLA Blogger

This being the thirteenth roundup, I thought I would provide a few links to talk about triskaidekaphobia. It turns out, though, that “triskaidekaphobia” is, to paraphrase Gene Weingarten, an Anthrosource Nope. So are “fear of thirteen” and “thirteen phobia.”

Anthrosource search for 'triskaidekaphobia' finds no results.

Click to see full size.

In lieu of linguistic anthropology treatments of the fear of thirteen, I will link to “Triskaidekaphobia or Fear of the Number 13” at and Ben Zimmer’s 2007 post on the etymology of paraskevidekatriaphobia, a modern coinage for “fear of Friday the 13th.” Be warned that this is in the archives of Language Log Classic; some people around this landscape may have a fear of Language Log.

WEIRD and MYOPIC psychology subjects

Speaking of topics long since covered elsewhere, in June Brain and Behavioral Sciences published “The weirdest people in the world,” a review article by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. (PDF courtesy of Dr. Henrich) The authors survey work in behavioral sciences on visual perception, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization, moral reasoning, and other aspects of human psychology. The vast majority of subjects observed are undergraduates in US universities, but research conclusions are often assumed to be generalizable to human being as such. Contrary to this assumption, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan find that undergraduate subjects are actually outliers in most of the dimensions studied. They call such subjects WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic).

[M]embers of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.

I learned of this study in July when Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology posted an excellent summary and critique of the paper and the numerous responses published along side it in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Downey wholeheartedly agrees with the paper’s conclusions, but points out in addition that the dimensions Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan highlight through the acronym WEIRD are dimensions salient to WEIRD cultures. Downey suggests that US undergraduates could also be seen as MYOPICS, “Materialist, Young, self-Obsessed, Pleasure-seeking, Isolated, Consumerist, and Sedentary.” Nor are these necessarily the dimensions on which such subjects should be judged; the point, instead, is that a critique of Western subjects from a Western point of view inevitably features ideological blind spots.

Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan suggest changes in psychological research funding and publishing that may help address this issue. Downey’s comments suggest that research from outside psychology, including ethnographic research, is also necessary to point out the limits of our own ideological blinders.

I am reminded of areas where linguistic anthropology has had a similarly broadening affect on theory in related fields.

For example, “The things we do with words,” Michelle Rosaldo’s study of Ilongot speech acts, offered a corrective to philosopher John Searle’s version of speech act theory. Searle set as his subject “all linguistic communication” (Searle 1997, 16) and argued that the production of speech acts is the basic unit of human communication. In addition to the simple production of utterances, Searle argued that the intention of the speaker is an important element of the speech act. Rosaldo studied communication in Ilongot society in the Philippines. The Ilongot do not have folk theories of speaker intent or sincerity, so that speaker intent is not an important element of communication.

Reflections on Ilongot notions concerning acts of speech should serve, then as a reminder that the understanding of linguistic action always, and necessarily, demands more than an account of what it is that individuals intend to say: because, as Ilongots themselves are well aware, the ‘force’ of acts of speech depends on things participants expect; and then again, because, as our comparison makes clear, such expectations are themselves products of particular forms of sociocultural being. (Rosaldo 1982, 228-29)