Language and thought

Konrad Valentin   Monday, July 19, 2004, 19:02 GMT
Does language determine thought or vice-versa?
Newbie   Monday, July 19, 2004, 19:51 GMT
I think that it does because people who speak different languages think differently. Yes, I think the person's culture is part of how people think, but language is part of it too.
Random Chappie   Monday, July 19, 2004, 20:51 GMT
Please provide an example. I don't see how a Briton's thought process is significantly different from that of a Frenchman or an American.

Would the following be true?
An Englishman and a Frenchman see a blue pen (stylo bleu)
The Englishman first notices that the object is blue (bleu).
The Frenchman first notices that the object is a stylo (pen).
Tom   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 01:16 GMT
I think I may have a good example.

My native language, Polish, does not have an equivalent of the English word "nerd". When I first learned the word "nerd", I started seeing "nerds" around me, calling people "nerds" in my mind, etc. I started wondering if I am a "nerd" myself.

If an equivalent of "nerd" were to appear in Polish, I think it would change the thinking of many people just like learning the word changed my thinking. Possibly a lot of smart people (who are currently simply referred to as "smart" in Polish) would be labeled "nerds" by others. Some of them could be upset by this stigma, perhaps even get emotional problems.

This example is intended to show that adding a SINGLE WORD to a language can potentially cause a major change in the thoughts and emotions of people, to say nothing of what could happen if you changed the entire language.

(BTW, I wonder if American English is the only language that has a disparaging word for a smart person. If that were true, what would it say about American culture?)
Julian   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 02:05 GMT
"(BTW, I wonder if American English is the only language that has a disparaging word for a smart person. If that were true, what would it say about American culture?)"

I doubt that AmE is the only language that has disparaging terms for smart people. But it's sad, innit?

In school we had all sorts of disparaging (or at the very least, unkind) terms for our more studious classmates: nerd, geek, dweeb, brainiac, herbert, egghead, bookworm, etc. While the popular kids in school were the jocks and cheerleaders who spent a whole lot of time partying and a lot less time studying. It certainly doesn't help matters when our modern day heroes are 18 year-old sports figures plucked straight out of high school and signed to five year contracts worth $61 million; and pretty pop singers with hit reality shows who find programming a VCR much too taxing for their pretty little minds. Whenever I substitute teach at high schools, I'm always shocked at what these kids know and don't know.
Xatufan   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 02:55 GMT
My friends call me nerd all the time. This word exists in Spanish, it was taken from English. Yes Tom, some languages adopt different ways of thinking when they adopt new words like nerd.
CalifJim   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 03:34 GMT
Tom wrote:
<<(BTW, I wonder if American English is the only language that has a disparaging word for a smart person. If that were true, what would it say about American culture?) >>

AmEng is probably not the only one, but the U.S. is undoubtedly the most anti-intellectual country in the world. (The typical American revels in his ignorance.)

Does anyone have a better candidate for that title?

oh oh I've gone off-topic.

Back to topic: Does language determine thought or vice-versa?

Vice-versa. Most likely human beings (or hominids) thought long before they had language. Without this thought, language would never have been possible. (What sort of language would a non-thinking species come up with?)

Also, if you've learned a foreign language and used it intensively, you are familiar with the phenomenon in which you have a thought in your head, but can remember the word for it in only the foreign language, as if you had temporarily forgotten it in your native language. You can just see in your mind (thoughts) what it is you want to say, even if you don't have the language to express it in. So thought is definitely first. What do you think? (I think this is different from cases where words influence culture, which is a valid and interesting point discussed above.)
mjd   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 04:18 GMT
I wouldn't say "nerd" is a word for a smart person. There is more to being a nerd than just being smart. One who is labeled a nerd generally lacks social skills and appears awkward, be it the way they dress or look.
Mi5 Mick   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 04:25 GMT
As mjd says, "nerd" doesn't mean smart, although smartness is often a side effect of nerdiness. "Geek" is closer to smart but can have a positive connotation; "nerd" is more related to social inaptitude. The stereotypical images for nerds are oversized glasses with padding for the nose, pens in the shirt pocket, unfashionable clothing, and mannerisms of low self-worth.

Maybe the difference between geek and nerd has hazed over somewhat these days but being a nerd in the early days was ultimate humiliation.

The movie "Revenge of the Nerds" used mostly intelligent characters but there were dumb nerds too! 'Booger' was hapless with women, grubby and dumb:

and on the far right:
Damian   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 06:21 GMT
mjd and Mick are right when they says that a nerd is someone who is so devoted to his (or her but is usually a male!) activity that they lack the ability to socially interact. However expert the nerd is in whatever sphere of interest it is not considered cool to be afflicted with nerdiness (or geekiness). Here in the UK another term is used to describe someone so wrapped up in his nerdy activity that he lacks this coolness .... anorak. Maybe it's because they wear anoraks to brave the elements as they stand on railway platforms spotting trains or sloshing through marshes to look at rare birds or whatever. Hey!.... maybe we're wordy nerds here in Antimoon?

In a way it's sad really. Now it's uncool......I suppose years ago it was just considered eccentric, but what's the difference?

Basically, it's true....calling someone a nerd or a geek is not meant to be a compliment however knowledgeable the nerd or geek or anorak is.

I think that the thought process takes precedence as being the first to occur within an individual and subsequently governs the language used to express those thoughts or ideas. I can't really understand why nationality should influence the nature of the thought processes or the mode of expression unless it's due to culture. Maybe it is. I often think the English think differently to the Scots in many respects. The express themselves differently sometimes as well. I think a whole new can of worms has been opened in this thread!

Wish I could stay longer in this forum but I have to be going. If I stay much longer I may be in danger of developing nerdiness.
Michal Ryszard Wojcik   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 07:54 GMT
Definitely, thoughts and language interact. Thoughts can lead to changes in languages and language can lead to new thoughts.

Consider a philosopher who has a lot of THOUGHTS about the surrounding world. His analysis of reality and his discussions with his partners lead him to refine his thinking which results in the introduction of new words and the redefinition of existing words: starting from thoughts the philospher is modifying his LANGUAGE.

Once the new and more precise language is established in the minds of these philosophers, they start to develop new thoughts and insights. These new thoughts are inspired and triggered by the new level of perception/precision that they have achieved through the use of the invented language.

I think that talking about "nerds" in this topic is more like talking about EMOTION versus LANGUAGE and not thought vs. language. If people were really thinking about what they mean when they say "nerd" they would develop a much broader and subtle reservoir of words to describe people. That would be doing science or philosophy.

If you introduce a negatively charged word with imprecise meaning into a language, it can influence the emotional side of people rather than their thinking.

I believe that thinking (true philosophical/scientific thinking) is by its very nature deeply related to the refinement and evolution of language.

The best example is the language of mathematics. It all started with everyday problems and observations of nature. Then gradually humans were introducing mathematical concepts into their language and with these concepts they were perceiving new relationships in nature to talk about and thus to further develop the language of mathematics.
Tom   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 12:26 GMT

Well, I still think the word influenced my thinking, not just emotions. For one thing, it made me think about nerds as a distinct social group.

I think you put it quite well when you essentially wrote that words enable people to perceive phenomena and relationships. The fact that there is a word for X suggests that X exists as a distinct object or phenomenon. Thus words affect the way in which we categorize reality. The reason we can think about "self-help books", "left-wing politicians" or "early adopters" is that somebody introduced these labels.
Tom   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 12:33 GMT
CalifJim wrote:
"You can just see in your mind (thoughts) what it is you want to say, even if you don't have the language to express it in. So thought is definitely first."

It is also common to say something thoughtlessly. Sometimes words just "get themselves said". In such cases, language comes first, then the thought ("Doh!").
Tom   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 12:40 GMT
I've just started a new topic to discuss the word "nerd", so that we can keep discussing language vs. thought in this topic.
garans   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 13:18 GMT
First of all, language is for communication, thoughts - for ourselves.
In communication we try to convey meaning, we try to exchange thoughts, knowledge etc.

The thoughts of other people may influence our way of thinking and speaking.

Secondly, there are some problems in culture differences.
In my native language, Russian, we have two expression for women:
- weak sex
- beautiful sex.

But american women get angry when we call them "weak sex".

In English they have only "fair sex".