Language and Thought
Tell me something. Is the language that we speak solely the expression of
the thoughts in our mind? Or, since we think in a particular language,
does the language, therefore, limit what we can think?
Don't knock this down… yet. Give me a second to develop the debate.
First, let's state a couple of assumptions…
Language is sparse, that is, not complete in its ability to express or
describe everything. I'm including both the ineffable, as well as what
would normally be considered mundane, but where we could never describe
some thing so well that another would not need to experience it herself.
Our conscious thinks in language… we carry on a sort of inner monologue.
Sometimes this is quite formal (as when we are preparing for a speech or
the right words for a proposal), but most of the time, it is informal and
almost mindless chatter. But still, the thoughts involving this top-layer
of conscious activity is framed in language.
Most people tend to believe that the thoughts come first, and then the
language is applied to those thoughts in order to express them. We tend
to want to believe that our thoughts are limitless. I suppose it is more
flattering that way.
Back in the 1930's, Benjamin Lee Whorf developed††Whorf developed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in collaboration with his teacher Edward Sapir, who often is cited as a member of the opposition.
an idea which essentially states
that the language a person speaks influences how that person thinks and
interacts with the world around them. His famous summary is:
Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.
His ideas were somewhat popular for a time, but linguist Noam Chomsky‡‡Chomsky developed the theory of a "Universal Grammar" that states that humans are programmed for the ability to speak languages, and innately know what grammatical rules are acceptable.
disagreed with most of Whorf's ideas, and everyone has
pretty much followed since. However, Whorf's
original ideas seem to be enjoying a sort of renaissance. I recently
read an article that contained evidence supporting Whorf done by Lera Boroditsky (who I then stumbled
upon in an interview).
Boroditsky's evidence is quite intriguing, and thought I would throw
out my own perspective.
The two sides can exist if we accept that neural activity has layers.
While everyone understands the differences between Freud's conscious and
sub-conscious, a computer scientist, studying the relationships between
neural nets and the cranial activity they are modeled on, comes to the
conclusion that there are many layers, and what we view as "conscious" is
just the top layer.
Now an infant emerging into the world (a sparsely populated neural net in our parlance)
has not developed this top-layer yet (it seems to be completed around age 3,
perhaps coincidentally around the same time that language is firmly entrenched
in the mind). An infant can begin to manage a bit of his world without the
help of language, but learns his world at the same time as learning his
An infant understands his mother tongue long before he or she can speak it,
but of course, full understanding doesn't come for many more years. Dogs, too,
can understand some language commands, but mostly listen to intonation and
physical expression instead of the actual syllables.
The capacity for language seems to exist at birth, but the thoughts in the
head at the time are not framed in terms of language. The lower layers of
consciousness (the sub-conscious) is also not framed by language either, as
dreams are primarily visual and emotional and seem to contain every sort of
expression except for complicated language.
So, in this case, the Chomskians are correct.
However, the evidence of the conscious layer being framed by language is
striking… as if we almost see the world based on the language's eyes.
As Whorf also said:
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language.
Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining
framework for it.
Now, let's not get caught up in the difference between culture and
language, for it would be true that a person sees the world through the
lens of his or her culture, since that was trained into them as a child.
But it is culture that creates a language, and it is that culture that
chooses the verbal expressions based on what it sees as important.
As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "If we spoke a different language, we would
perceive a somewhat different world."
Benjamin Whorf worked for
an insurance company as a fire inspector, and he came up with an interesting
observation. While a fire begins with certain physical conditions, it is
people that put those conditions together. That is,
the behavior of people to start a fire was a
factor of meaning [that] was clearest when it was a LINGUISTIC MEANING
[Whorf's emphasis], residing in the name or the linguistic description
commonly applied to this situation.
Thus, around a storage of what are called 'gasoline drums,' behavior will
tend to a certain type, that is, great care will be exercised; while around
a storage of what are called 'empty gasoline drums,' it will tend to be
different -- careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing
cigarette stubs about. Yet the 'empty' drums are perhaps the more dangerous,
since they contain explosive vapor.
Physically, the situation is hazardous, but the linguistic analysis
according to regular analogy must employ the word 'empty,' which inevitably
suggests a lack of hazard.
He continued to state that since the "English language" gives two definitions
for the word "empty":
- Containing nothing
- A "virtual synonym for 'null and void, negative, inert,'" (Whorf's terms)
People behave differently around "vapor-filled drums" because they are
labeled "empty drums".
Another example given by Lera Boroditsky concerned an aboriginal
people in Australia who do not have words for "left" or "right". Instead, all
directional references require absolute, cardinal directions, like "north" and
Consequently, without mental effort, these people are always oriented. They
have to be in order to speak their language, and in essence, train themselves
to keep up with it.
The web is full of other examples, so I will move on to my second thought.
Similarity with Computer Languages
As a painfully geeky student in high school, I liked to share that I knew
many different computer languages, muttering the word computer to appear
more artistic and less nerdy. Yes, I'm sure I never fooled anyone.
However, computer scientists and engineers often create languages, often
very specialized languages in order to solve particular problems. This
technique is not new, Isaac Newton invented a new mathematical language
(the calculus), in order to solve the problem of gravity,
But computer languages (like human languages in general) are tools for expression, and every
specialized industry or community begin to invent new tools to add to the
toolbox. In the software industry, we like to quote Abraham Maslow:
If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail.
I've worked with many people who, knowing only a single computer language,
believe the limits imposed by that computer language.
Often, the more practical side (we who call ourselves software engineers)
bemoan the curse of keeping current with so many languages and often attempt
to build programs in a single language. Simple programs often can be, but this
is nearly impossible for complex programs. Every Java programmer acknowledges
this and resorts to dealing with SQL, XML, etc.
So, are people who know only a single human language limited in not only their
ability to express themselves, but also in their ability to reason and think?
Albert Einstein is noted to have developed his ideas without the use of
language or even mathematical language. Instead, he saw his problems and
developed the solutions visually. By resorting to this, perhaps he found
that he was not bound by the limitation of language.
But good luck turning off that inner monologue. I don't know about you,
but it keeps me up at night.
Was chatting about this subject with my brother-in-law, and realized that
English has very few gender-oriented words, whereas it seemed to me in
college, that almost every word in Hebrew and Arabic had a specific gender…
your eyes are feminine while your nose was masculine and whatnot.
This got me thinking… did it require a gender-less language, where we
struggle for a gender-neutral singular pronoun (often choosing "they"),
to develop a society that is concerned with gender equality-- women's suffrage
and equal rights?
So here is today's question for my readers who know another language
(yes, both of you) … do cultures with languages containing high-levels of
gender-oriented words have gender issues and greater inequality between the
I realize that this would end up being a gross generalization to come up
with any answer to this question, but I just have to ask.
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