Language and Thinking

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February 2012
Ivan Obolensky

Language is a fascinating subject. So much of how we express ourselves and how we make ourselves understood depends on our ability to use language. The better we are able to communicate to others, the more valuable we seem to be, both in our work and in our relationships. We call these “people skills” and in a world where more and more machine interaction is the norm, these skills are often missing. When we actually talk to someone who can understand what we want, and who makes sure that our needs are met quickly and to our satisfaction, we are thrilled. We praise the individual and the company they work for. We give them future business and often make a referral. Without these same people skills our employability would also be uncertain, simply because the job interview might be a disaster. Those who can talk well and convincingly are thought to be smart and are hired.

So what is the relationship between language and thinking? Does language shape our thoughts or do thoughts shape language? Such questions have exercised minds for centuries.

Let us start with the question, which is more encompassing: thought, or language?

If we use imagery, thought appears to define a larger space than language. Driving a car or even walking requires thinking but not necessarily language. Imagine walking into a lamp post. Language is definitely needed to express one’s shock at the painful reality just experienced, and language is needed to explain to those who are looking at you with concerned expressions that you simply were not paying attention. But walking, putting one’s foot down, balancing, and moving forward, does not use language, but these actions do involve thinking. In fact it is only recently with the increase in computing power that engineers have been able to create machines that walk and even jog on two legs balancing like a human being.

We might conclude that language is a subset of thought since thinking contains mental activity that is not language based, but does language shape how we think?

This has also been a debated subject for many years. In 1940 the MIT’s Technology Review published an article by Benjamin Whorf about language and its ability to influence the way we are able to think. This is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and it also states that there are distinctions encoded in one language that are not found in another. Whorf cited certain Native American languages that impose a specific reality on the speaker such that according to him, a Hopi would not be able to understand such concepts as the flow of time. He argued that an English physicist and a Hopi would not be able to understand each other’s thinking because of the difference in language.1

Eventually this theory was found to have flaws. After all, if we are able to translate Hopi into English and English into Hopi, and create understanding between the two, how could the theory hold up? Just because it is not possible to express a concept that is foreign in one language does not mean the concept can never be translated. Nor does it mean a concept cannot be understood in the other language.

As an example, Chinese does not have a subjunctive mood but that does not mean that the language is limited. As a refresher, a verb is in the subjunctive mood when it expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual as opposed to a statement of fact (indicative). It is most often found in clauses beginning with the word: if. It is used in English to express wishful statements (If only you were here) and counter factual statements (If I were you, I would not go).2 In Chinese, verbs do not inflect for tense, person, voice, and mood. A verb takes the same form in all circumstances. Chinese relies on context and relational words (if…then) to indicate time, voice, and mood.3

Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has lessened in its importance, there is still evidence that our native language affects how we perceive the world. In a small aboriginal community in Northern Australia, the residents talk about space in a different way. Rather than using words like left, right, forward, and back, they use cardinal directions such as north, east, west, and south. They say move the cup north as opposed to move the cup to the right. This implies and proves true in actuality that they have a profound sense of direction, since one cannot speak properly without it.4

There is a subtle change in thinking when one shifts from one language to another. The language used can influence how one sees the world and how one thinks. But concentrating on the influences of our native language in our minds misses the much more profound influence of having languages at all.

Consider what would happen if we did not have language but communicated telepathically using only images and concepts. How would that influence us? Would we always face the speaker? In fact, would we even have to see the person to communicate? Would our body design have evolved differently since we need not rely on vision and hearing as with language-based speech communication? Would that influence our human gregariousness? What about privacy? Perhaps we would all be part of a collective mind and what would that mean? How would we view life and death?

I think that much of our behavior is dictated by our default settings that are the result of being experts in language in the first place and by the fact that we use language at all. Our language does affect our thinking and our thinking does affect language. They are threads that are braided together, but the fact that we use language is the most profound influence by far.


1 Deutscher, G. (2010, August 26). Does Your Language Shape How You Think? Retrieved February 17, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?_r=1

2 English Plus. (n.d.). The Subjunctive Mood. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000031.htm

3 Powrie, S. (2010, February 2). Comparisons between the Chinese and English subjunctive. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from http://n3r0t0x1n.blogspot.com/2010/02/comparisons-between-chinese-and-english.html

4 Boroditsky, L. (2009, June 12). How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think? Retrieved February 17, 2012, from http://edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html

 


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© 2012 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

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