Our ability to interact with others by building a shared and complex mental world is what distinguishes humans (and to an extent some primates) from other animals. This capacity for social cognition – sometimes also known as social intelligence – enables us to construct functioning societies sharing knowledge, values and goals, to empathise and communicate with others, and to undertake collaborative action.
At the same time, psychosocial concepts like 'uncle', or 'clan', being largely constructed by culture and language, are less evidently preexisting categories of the natural world than, say, colours, spatial relations or causality. Assuming that the more evolutionarily recent a category of the world is, the more cross-cultural and cross-linguistic variety there will be in how people construct and delineate it, we would expect psychosocial categories to be the most open to cross-linguistic variation, and therefore among the most fertile areas for studying the interaction of language, culture and thought. Yet most investigations on these neo-Whorfian questions have focussed on categories of the natural world rather than social cognition.
Linguistic typology, as a method, enables us to systematise and integrate language-specific points of sensitivity into a richer and more accurate composite model of the potentialities of human social cognition than would be afforded by any single language or cultural bloc alone. Though some relevant linguistic categories may be confined to a few languages, or even just one, the fact that they have evolved into grammatical categories in at least one language constitutes an ‘existence proof’ showing that (a) all members of the society concerned are able to process them, on-line, and (b) previous members of that society have talked about the category often enough in the past for the particular category to be grammaticalised in the language. In this sense, the results delivered by linguistic typology are relevant to a number of other fields, including social psychology, anthropology and evolutionary human biology.
In this talk I will discuss the potential contribution that the cognitive variety afforded by the world’s 6,000 languages can make to our understanding of human social cognition, when studied through a typological approach. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset observed that `each language leaves some things unsaid in order to say others. Because everything would be unsayable’: the grammar of one language may be a sensitive index of accidental vs. deliberate action, another may index the monitoring of joint vs. individual attention, another may index differences between the subjectively- and the objectively- knowable, and another may index complex kinship categories.
Drawing on a number of individual case-studies, largely from little-known language, I propose an initial architecture for human social cognition as manifested in the world’s grammars.