Language and thought

CalifJim   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 02:59 GMT
Tom wrote:
<It is also common to say something thoughtlessly. Sometimes words just "get themselves said". In such cases, language comes first, then the thought >

By "thoughtlessly" I assume he meant "automatically" rather than "without thinking of the other person's feelings" although this is not crucial to the argument.

To put it differently, I'm claiming that without thought there is no language. In the case he describes, there is no thought, I agree. But is there really any language there either? Or are words that just "get themselves said" no more than the linguistic equivalent of a muscle spasm?

The analogy we might draw here is one involving our control over the movement of our bodies. We could say that it takes "thought", "intention" if you will, to move our muscles. (Without intention there is no movement.) The fact that we get charlie horses or muscle spasms occasionally is just abnormal functioning, and counts as "movement without intention" in a rather vacuous way. Right?

But perhaps if we go that way, we end up begging the question. Hmmm.
Tom   Thursday, July 22, 2004, 13:02 GMT
"But is there really any language there either? Or are words that just "get themselves said" no more than the linguistic equivalent of a muscle spasm?"

Well, if there's grammar and vocabulary, I think you have to agree that there's language. Otherwise, you'd have to define what you mean by "language".
Konrad Valentin   Thursday, July 22, 2004, 17:42 GMT
I found the following, which I think relates directly to what we are discussing, on the web (

Linguistic Determinism: A Definition
Linguistic Determinism refers to the idea that the language we use to some extent determines the way in which we view and think about the world around us. The concept has generally been divided into two separate groups - 'strong' determinism and 'weak' determinism. Strong determinism is the extreme version of the theory, stating that language actually determines thought, that language and thought are identical. Although this version of the theory would attract few followers today - since it has strong evidence against it, including the possibility of translation between languages - we will see that in the past this has not always been the case. Weak determinism, however, holds that thought is merely affected by or influenced by our language, whatever that language may be. This version of determinism is widely accepted today.
Wilhelm von Humboldt: The 'Weltanschauung' Hypothesis.
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was the first European to combine a knowledge of various languages with a philosophical background; he equated language and thought exactly in a hypothesis we now call the 'Weltanschauung' (world-view) hypothesis, in fact a version of the extreme form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Humboldt maintained that language actually determined thought:
Der mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja...sogar ausschliesslich so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zuführt."

Humboldt viewed thought as being impossible without language, language as completely determining thought. On closer inspection, we can see that this extreme hypothesis leads to a question: how, if there was no thought before language, did language arise in the first place? Humboldt answers this by adhering to the theory that language is a platonic object, comparable to a living organism which just suddenly evolved one day entirely of its own accord.

Linguistic Relativity: A Definition
Linguistic relativity states that distinctions encoded in one language are unique to that language alone, and that "there is no limit to the structural diversity of languages". If one imagines the colour spectrum, it is a continuum, each colour gradually blending into the next; there are no sharp boundaries. But we impose boundaries; we talk of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. It takes little thought to realise that these discriminations are arbitrary - and indeed in other languages the boundaries are different. In neither Spanish, Italian nor Russian is there a word that corresponds to the English meaning of 'blue', and likewise in Spanish there are two words 'esquina' and 'rincon', meaning an inside and an outside corner, which necessitate the use of more than one word in English to convey the same concept. These examples show that the language we use, whichever it happens to be, divides not only the colour spectrum, but indeed our whole reality, which is a 'kaleidoscopic flux of impressions', into completely arbitrary compartments.
The Notion of Codability
Codability has been defined by Peter Herriot as 'the ease with which a language tag can be used to distinguish one item from another'. Something is codable if it falls within the scope of readily available terms used in whatever particular language. Degrees of codability vary, in that while one language may be capable of expressing a concept with just one word, in another may be necessary to use a whole phrase to get across the same notion; a famous example of this is the fact that in Eskimo there are many different words for snow, depending on which kind of snow one is talking about.
If we are looking for evidence to prove the weak version of linguistic determinism, then we need look no further than various experiments that have been conducted around codability. For example, monolingual speakers of an American-Indian language called Zuni - a language which does not recognise any difference between yellow and orange - had more difficulty in re-identifying objects of such colours after a period of time. With monolingual English speakers, this difficulty is absent, since we make a verbal distinction.
This only offers support for the weak version of the hypothesis, though, because it would be wrong to say that the Zuni speakers did not actually perceive a difference.
So the more highly codable a concept is, the easier it is to retrieve from the unconscious. This we will come back to later when considering the relationship between a Freudian theory and linguistic determinism.
The Notion of Translatability
Closely related to the notion of codability is the notion of translatability. Although different languages may have different ways of dividing up their spectra of experience into verbal forms, we find it is still quite possible to translate from one language into another. Although someone translating from one language into another may find it necessary to use a whole phrase in the target language to communicate the concept expressed in the original language with only a single word, this is achievable. In the Australian aboriginal language Pinupti, the word 'katarta' refers to the hole left by a goanna when it has broken the surface of its burrow after hibernation. It takes seventeen words to translate that concept into English, but the result is fine, lacking perhaps some of the conciseness but none of the subtlety of the Pinupti word.
Of course inter-language translatability again offers evidence against the strong version of determinism. The differences between the lexicons of individuals would carry great import. I know the meaning of the word 'saltatoria'; the person sitting next to me word-processing a dissertation on paediatrics would probably not know the meaning of it. This does not, of course, mean that I would be unable to explain to him what it meant. Of course another thing to bear in mind is the fact that words are often borrowed from one language into another, for instance the French borrowing 'le weekend' from English. This sort of borrowing would be impossible if language determined thought completely. And if we look just a little further, it becomes obvious that if it was true that language dictated thought, and that concepts were untranslatable, then children would be incapable of learning language at all; for how would a child learn its first word?
Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf
'Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication and reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.'
This famous passage from the American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir (1884-1936)'s 'The Status Of Linguistics As A Science', written in 1929, demonstrates the dominating thought of what has come to be called by all sorts of names including the 'Sapir-Whorf hypothesis', the 'Whorfian hypothesis' and more plainly the 'Linguistic Relativity hypothesis'. We can see the reason for the variety of titles for the hypothesis - as well as the influence Sapir must have had on his pupil Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) - if we look at the following passage from Whorf himself, which propounds much the same viewpoint:

'We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organised by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organise it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organisation and classification of data which the agreement decrees.'

Surprisingly, though, neither Sapir or Whorf made it very clear whether they were arguing for strong or weak determinism. At times we are "at the mercy of" whatever language we speak, while at others our linguistic habits simply "predispose certain choices of interpretation".

Whorf, originally a 'fire prevention engineer' by trade, spent a lot of his time studying the language of the Hopi Indians of Arizona, who make no distinction in their language between past, present and future tenses; where in English it seems natural to distinguish between 'I see the girl', 'I saw the girl' and 'I will see the girl', this is not an option in Hopi. This apparently made quite an impression on Whorf, who imagined that the scientists of the day and the Hopi must see the world very differently...although the philosopher Max Black considers that 'they may be expected to have pretty much the same concept of time that we have' in spite of this. And Whorf himself notices, 'The Hopi language is capable of accounting for and describing correctly all observable phenomena of the universe'. Another characteristic of the Hopi tongue is that there is just a single word - 'masa'ytaka' - for everything that flies, including insects, aeroplanes and pilots.

'The question 'How does a thing become conscious?' could be put more advantageously thus: 'How does a thing become pre-conscious?'. And the answer would be: 'By coming into connexion with the verbal images that correspond to it'.
This quotation from Freud's book 'The Ego and the Id' helps us make what I consider to be a helpful distinction when talking about the influence of language on thought: whether we are talking about conscious or unconscious thought. I have suspected for a long time that language actually gives rise to consciousness, to thought that is available to conscious introspection; thought of an unconscious nature takes place, I believe, from the day we are born, as the cognitive faculties exercise themselves upon the world of the child. But it is only when the child learns the meaning of words, learns to associate them with concepts, that he or she becomes 'conscious', in the sense of becoming aware of his/her existence as the object of other's thoughts and judgements, and exercising upon him/herself the internalised critic Freud calls the Superego. The child learns the words 'good' and 'bad'; thought processes become their own objects for the first time.
I think perhaps the answer might be that conscious thought is thought that has been given a verbal symbol to coexist alongside it. Thus thought that occurs below a conscious level, both the 'simple' thought of cognitive processes and the complex thought of say, repressed ideas and affects, remains unconscious until verbal correspondences are found. More importantly, conscious thought may be thought of as unconscious thought that has been given access to consciousness through the use of verbal symbolia; thus words bring concepts from the conscious mind into the unconscious. But there is a price to be paid: what I believe to be an unlimited variety of concepts that could be brought to consciousness have but a limited number of words in which to clothe themselves.
This, of course, relates to the question of whether language determines thought. I think it fair to say in the light of Freud's theory, which seems to me to be undoubtedly correct, that yes, language does determine conscious thought, for conscious thought is by Freud's definition thought that has been made conscious through language; but since the majority of thought is unquestionably unconscious, we cannot say that language determines thought wholly.

As regards linguistic determinism, it seems that most contemporary thinkers are quite content to accept the weaker version of the theory, that thought is indeed influenced by the linguistic systems available to us, but not much more; certainly not there are not many linguists today who would support Wilhelm von Humboldt's 'Weltanschauung' hypothesis.
It can hardly be argued, either, that there is any limit to the structural diversity of languages. There are plenty of languages available for us to study, and each one divides the world up into compartments in different ways from other languages.
To me it seems as if it would be profitable if some thought were given to the link between language and consciousness, the conscious coding of thought via verbal symbols and the way in which conscious thought is encoded in them.

So, what do you think? Are you a strong or weak determinist or neither? Oh, and if anyone can translate that Humboldt quote into English, I'd much appreciate it.
Tom   Friday, July 23, 2004, 14:53 GMT
Well, I definitely don't believe that thoughts are internally represented by means of a language. If I thought in Polish, I could always verbalize my thoughts without any difficulty, which is not the case.

As for the Humboldt theory, it's quite possible that language appeared before thought. One hypothesis I'm familiar with says that thinking might have evolved as a way of "talking to yourself", i.e. humans first started communicating with each other (much like animals), then started talking to themselves, then "talking without speaking" (= thinking).
This doesn't imply that thoughts are expressed in a language, although they might have been up to some point in our evolution.
Jeff   Friday, July 23, 2004, 15:30 GMT
It's imposible to talk without speaking.

Talk:communicate with spoken words, an exchange of ideas via conversation.

Maybe what you meant was "communicating without speaking" = thinking.
CalifJim   Saturday, July 24, 2004, 01:49 GMT
<<a famous example of this is the fact that in Eskimo there are many different words for snow, depending on which kind of snow one is talking about>>

C. W. Schultz-Lorentzen's Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language gives just 'qanik' (snow in the air) and 'aput' (snow on the ground). What are all the many other ones?

[Read "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" by G. K. Pullum for a little amusement and a eye-opener on this topic at the same time.]
CalifJim   Saturday, July 24, 2004, 01:59 GMT
<Well, if there's grammar and vocabulary, I think you have to agree that there's language. Otherwise, you'd have to define what you mean by "language".>

"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

Language? Not language?

Maybe you say 'language' and I say 'not language'.

So you're absolutely right. Sharing the same definitions of the terms is a prerequisite for discussing anything.
Tom   Saturday, July 24, 2004, 11:08 GMT
"It's imposible to talk without speaking"

I'll forward your comment to Paul Simon. :)

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence
medi   Thursday, July 29, 2004, 23:03 GMT
may be, he/she imagine that talking like communication. &#304;n other words may be talking is a metaphor of communication. And if we soppose that, we can say talking withot speeking is posible..
Random Chappie   Friday, July 30, 2004, 00:03 GMT
Disparaging words for a smart person...

The Chinese have "shu dai zi", which literally means "book dazed person" or something like that.
mike   Saturday, July 31, 2004, 11:16 GMT
I think thought comes first and language follows. I mean our language is some sort of reflection of our thoughts. Of course language may and actually does influence our thoughts too. But language isn't the only factor in the creations of our thoughts. Things like environment we live in, family and genes have to be taken into account as well. Maybe when we are born we are like a sponge that needs to be filled with a variety of contents. I guess language is one of them. So language does shape our minds and our thoughts but we are also endowed with things called logic and intelligence to know what language-conveyed ideas are to be accepted and what are to be thrown away. So at an early stage of our life language creates our thoughts but later we and our thoughts have the capability to create our language. Maybe it makes sense.
Damian   Saturday, July 31, 2004, 11:37 GMT
<<depending on which kind of snow one is talking about>>

LOL Tell that to the British rail operating companies! In the winter when the trains don't run to time ...(do they ever anyway, whatever the season?) ...they blame "the wrong kind of snow" on the lines! As a student with a rail pass I have been a hapless victim loads of times. Language and thought at the time? Sorry, I cannot repeat it in this forum.

<<Eskimo there are many different words for snow>>

Maybe the British rail companies need to employ some Eskimos to explain to the passengers. Anyway, shouldn't they be called Innuit?
Hythloday   Tuesday, August 03, 2004, 21:27 GMT
Thought obviously came first: we had to think about language (as we do when we learn a new language) before we were capable of using it. Afterwards, however, I believe that language began (and continues) to colour the way we think. If we use a lot of warlike metaphors, for example, we are destined to always think (and see the world - see weltanschauung above) in warlike terms. To use another example, because we use a lot of money metaphors when we talk about time (e.g. time is money, stop wasting my time, I saved a lot of time, etc.) we always think of time in terms of money.