ELLIS TUDDENHAM explores the complicated relationship between language and thought

The relationship between language and thought is an interesting concept. Do linguistic and cognitive aspects coincide or are they distinct entities? According to Humpty’s thesis ‘What we mean when we utter a word or sentence is under our own control; we can mean whatever we want and choose’, (Barber 2005: 15). This complies with Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis, that there is a relationship between language and thought, Lund (2003: 10).

However, the Whorfian hypothesis is a complex idea, as people seem to separate it further into strong and weak versions. The strong version defines language as determining thought, (Lund 2003: 12). When studying the Inuit language, Whorf (1956, cited by Lund 2003: 12), discovered several words for snow, each one describing a different attribute. These lexemes included attributes for ‘slushy snow’ and ‘falling snow’. However, Whorf was later challenged by other linguists, in the aptly named ‘Great Eskimo Hoax’. For example, Garnham and Oakhill (1994, cited by Lund 2003: 14) believe that Whorf’s ideas are invalid because there are more words to suit the varying environments rather than the varying thoughts.

The weaker version of the relativity hypothesis suggests that language influences thought, (Lund 2003: 16). Evidence to suggest this comes from cross-cultural colour studies. The Zuni language does not have a yellow-orange colour distinction, (Lund 2003: 16). Studies found more errors in this colour region because of the undefined boundaries, therefore, showing that language influences colour perception.

Whilst this evidence does show a relationship between language and thought, in linguistics, there is always an alternative viewpoint. Yamanda (1990, cited in Lund 2003: 23) conducted a case study on Laura, a child with severe learning difficulties and an IQ of just 41. Laura struggled with linguistic tasks, yet because of her normal language development, she could complete complex, linguistic tasks. This case study suggests that cognitive processes (thought) and language are distinct processes’. Although this study has useful evidence for showing that the entities are unrelated, it is worth remembering the disadvantages of the case study methodology. For example, when studying only one individual, it becomes difficult to generalise these results.

An interesting aspect in psycholinguistics is the thought process when speaking. ‘Freudian slips’ aka slips of the tongue cannot be accounted for by Whorf and his hypothesis. Why do you call your lecturer ‘mum’ during the seminar if you think about the language you speak? These Freudian slips suggest that we speak without thinking, (Napoli & Lee-Schoenfeld 2010: 57).

One last consideration is the differences between languages themselves. If people speak different languages and employ different customs, then does their language change their way of thinking? (Lund 2003: 10). In particular, idiomatic phrases are difficult to translate into another language because the meaning may be figurative. For example, ‘günstig’ in German is defined as meaning ‘convenient’ and ‘favourable’, yet can be used figuratively for the idiom, ‘value for money’. These thoughts cannot transfer to the other language.

With both sides of the debate offering explanations for the ‘relationship’, it is difficult to decide which viewpoint is the better one. I personally think that there is some form of relationship, even if it is an unconscious tie that we are unaware of. After all, if we never thought about language, how would we make any sense when communicating?

ELLIS TUDDENHAM, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Barber, A. (2005). Language and thought. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Lund, N. (2003) Language and thought. Routledge: London.

Napoli, J & Lee-Schoenfeld, V. (2010). A guide to everyday questions about language. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Yamanda, J.E. (1990). Laura: A case for the modularity of language.Cambridge: Mass: MIT Press.

 

VERSHA PATEL discusses the relationship between language and thought

Language rules and how we understand certain concepts are drilled into us from a young age. So when we ‘speak without thinking’ can we really say that we are not thinking about the language we use? Today, so many people are interested with the links between language and thought that we find ourselves questioning whether there is a relationship between the two or not.

Believing there is a relationship, Benjamin Whorf proposed that language influences thought. Whorf’s hypothesis has taken two approaches to the matter that demonstrates that our concepts and ideas are guided through the language used around us. The first version is called ‘strong’ determinism, i.e. that ‘…the language we speak determines the nature of our thought’ (Lund 2003: 11). To demonstrate this Whorf uses the example of ‘time’ in relation to the native American Hopi language. To users of English, the concept of ‘time’ is related to the past, present or future. However, Whorf found that the Hopi language does not apply the same principle (Lund 2003: 12). Whorf claims there is no objectivity of the concept of ‘time’, ‘time’ simply used to portray ‘getting later’ (Whorf 2011: 45). This suggests that Hopi language thrives off cultural influences, the way they language reflecting this.

To many the second approach, ‘weak’ determinism, whereby ‘language influences thought’ (Lund 2003: 11), appears more applicable when discussing language as it reinforces an influence, rather than our mind being ‘taken over’. I think with this we can argue that language has a more ‘subtle’ effect on our thought, our experiences and surroundings in theory impacting the way we use language. Does this mean then that our use of language and understandings of concepts are always influenced by culture and our interactions? This makes me question, can Whorf’s hypothesis argue that these ideas alone contribute to our thought?

Batting for the opposite side, not everyone believes that there is a relationship between language and thought. Nick Lund (2003: 23) explains how studies show that although language development in deaf children can be impaired, their thought processes are typical. This is justified because young children that are not detected as being ‘deaf’ straight away are said to exhibit behaviours that are deemed ‘normal’. This suggests that there is no connection between language and thought because their behaviour through interactions and responses implies otherwise (Napoli & Lee-Schoenfeld 2010: 51-52).

With these contrasting arguments I do not think we can define an answer to whether language and thought have a relationship. There is nothing wrong with agreeing that language is innate, as there is nothing wrong with saying that language influences our thought. The simple fact is – language and thought are complicated. Yet, this on-going debate reflects that the construction of language and our thoughts surrounding language varies from culture to culture.  My point is thatultimately there is a need for a middle ground that argues in favour of both. Therefore, instead of addressing the differences behind how we connect language and thought, should we not ask, ‘why are there two sides and no middle ground to this complex matter’?

Versha Patel, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Lund, N. (2003). Language and Thought. London: Routledge.

Napoli, D & Lee-Schoenfeld, V. (2010). Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions about Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whorf, B. (2011).  The regulation of habitual thought and behaviour to language. In A. Mooney, et al (eds.), The Language, Society and Power Reader. London: Routledge.

ZOE LEWIS considers the claim that ‘Language is language. Thought is thought. The two are distinct’

Life without language seems quite unthinkable. When there is nobody else to talk to, people will always find something to converse with, be it themselves, the cat or even the garden gnome. Pinker (1994: 16) claims, ‘[T]he real engine of verbal communication is the spoken language we acquired as children’. Regardless of what age we are, we all have this innate desire to communicate our thoughts to the people around us. Consider the language tendencies recognised in toddler speech through babbling and nonsense talk. Even deaf children convey signs of communication through hand gestures.

Pinker makes the analogy of a spider and encourages us to view language in the same way – the art of web spinning did not come into existence through the power of a spider genius, rather spiders spin webs because their brains are programmed to do so. People know how to talk in the same way spiders know how to spin webs. This, according to Pinker, is the ‘language instinct’.

The controversy surrounding language and thought, whether they should be viewed as equal or separate entities has been subject to heavy debate for a long time. Mooney (2011) addresses the ‘Sapir Whorf hypothesis’, which starts from the premise that language entirely determines thought. This prison house view of language or ‘linguistic determinism’, suggests our thoughts are limited to the linguistic categories of the language we speak.

Although the logic behind linguistic determinism seems fairly straightforward, this version of the hypothesis has not become particularly widely supported. Mooney introduces a less ludicrous approach to the hypothesis, referred to as ‘linguistic relativism’. This Whorfian approach insists that speakers of different languages adhere to habitual modes of speech. The context in which the term ‘habitual’ is used, refers to the routine activities we subconsciously carry out in everyday life. However, though we may struggle to subconsciously change these habits of speech, as Mooney explains, it isn’t an impossible task. We display our habits of thinking based on our daily language choices. However, our language choices do not limit the thought processes we possess.

When we speak we independently make choices about which words to use from a number of possibilities and alternatives within our minds. Some languages may opt to coin a new word for a given concept, whereas other languages may not. Therefore if the correlation between language and thought is absolute, as linguistic determinism would argue it is, then the creation of new words seems utter nonsense.

To say that language entirely determines thought seems illogical, since the concepts we stumble across but may not have a label for are not unthinkable as we are still able to conceive of these concepts in our thought processes. Equally, it seems absurd to presume the two are completely separate entities.  Language is needed for the transmission of our thoughts into words therefore it seems more reasonable to argue that language influences the thoughts we produce rather than determine it completely. But how far apart would you position language and thought?

ZOE LEWIS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Mooney, A.  (2011) Language, Thought and Representation. In A. Mooney et al. (eds.) Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct: A New Science of Language and Mind. London: Penguin.

KATHERINE NICHOLLS asks whether political correctness is a form of mental control which further hinders the socially awkward

Although it is easy to believe that ‘political correctness’ started with good intentions, it is also easily conceived as a phenomenon that has gone too far. As predicted by George Orwell in his book 1984, a clear definition of PC language might be ‘Vocabulary consisting of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes, words that is to say, which were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them’ written in 1949, before the rise of political correctness as we know it today. We can now see that language created by the powerful is used as a form of social control, just as Room 101 and the Ministry of Truth controlled the thoughts of the population in Orwell’s classic (Orwell, 1949).

Enforcing polite, more cautious language for personal descriptions only has the effect of creating more nervous, socially awkward speech, thus highlighting people’s linguistic wariness when referring to race, gender and disability. This ultimately continues to hinder what could be argued is already a ‘socially awkward’ generation of children and teenagers. However this also opens a pathway for a new form of hate and helps justify a need for political correctness.  This can be seen by the changing titles of someone’s colour, as now in Law, even the word ‘Race’ has been removed from the Equality Act 2010 due to its difficulty to define; and has been replaced with term ‘Ethnicity’. Does this limit offence to those we are trying to refer to? Or are we being overly cautious in a society that now has thicker skin than those who created this fascination nearly 40 years ago? Statistical analysis shows that deaf and blind people prefer to be referred to as such and not by their new politically correct titles of visually challenged and visually impaired.  The first equality law in this area was the Disability Act in 1995, a piece of legislation not imposed on the UK by Europe, showing how in some areas of law and in turn also language, the UK has led the way for absurd linguistic notions of equality.

The current idea of editing out gender specific terms such as waiter/waitress to waitron, seems to back track, hiding the female recognition that the Suffragettes fought so hard to achieve. On the other hand, eradicating the differences between the sexes (within language) may have been appreciated by the 101 women in the Labour Government when the media nicknamed them Blair’s Babes in 1997. It is here that Allen and Burridge’s opinion that politically correct language ‘trivialises important issues because it focuses on insignificant language matters’ (Allen. K, and Burridge. K, 2006: 90) can really be seen.

Supporting this view is the slide from politically correct sentiments such as: anti-abortion/pro-life and Afro-Caribbean/African Caribbean –  using words in a positive way; to the use of euphemisms such as chairman/chairperson and barmaid/bar attendant –  in the neutral; and dysphemisms such boring/charm free and clumsy/uniquely orientated, deliberately making fun of both the situation the user is in and the linguistic phenomenon alike.  The latter, according the Urbandictionary is now referred to as a ‘Brainwashing censorship phenomenon’, as opposed to respecting the ideas behind the linguistics of equality.

KATHERINE NICHOLLS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Allen. K, Burridge. K, 2006. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, Chapter 4: The Language of Political Correctness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Orwell. G, 1949. 1984 (London: Secker and Warburg)

West. E, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/edwest/100177627/george-orwell-the-prophet-of-political-correctness-does-not-belong-to-the-left/. George Orwell, the Prophet of Political Correctness, does not belong to the Left

http://www.urbandictionary.com/

DANIELLE CURRAN issues a challenge: ‘Go ahead, swear….do it…I dare you!’

Contemporary English speaking society has evolved new taboos on gender, sexuality, disability, religion, race and ethnicity. As language evolves and new laws are brought into action the meanings of taboos adapt frequently thus making the subject of taboo language much more complicated than it looks on the surface (Allan & Burridge, 2006).

Bad language or taboo language is often associated with minority or lower social class groups (Milroy, 1998). According to Allan & Burridge (2006: 27) those who use taboo language are often ‘deemed mentally unstable’. However, in his writings George Orwell stated that ‘a dirty joke is a sort of mental rebellion’ (1998: 29). This statement could underlie society’s linguistic approach to subjects which contemporary society deems taboo. Peer groups cement their social ties by using common taboo/slang words (Allan & Burridge, 2006). Football fans engage en-masse in offensive chants against the opposing team. The lyrics of these are often socially unacceptable, with words such as ‘yid’, ‘nigger’, ‘paki’ or animal noises, used specifically to offend and upset the opposing players.

On social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook a specific language has evolved with its own slang/taboo dialect. Words such ‘tweeps’, ‘twiends/twatts’, or on Facebook the initials ‘C.B.A’ and ‘W.T.F’ all denote their own sublime message (Crystal, 2006). Taboos in language change as culture changes. The language and the taboo/slang words used often highlight a society’s current moral ‘high-ground’. As the world and consequentially the language become multicultural there is a growing body of legislation which protects individuals against inappropriate taboo/slang language (Battistella, 2005).

George Orwell argued that the tools put in place by society to achieve these aims are acting as a form of control on our language. If Orwell were alive today, it is possible he would see political correctness as a form of social control. Initially brought into action to eradicate taboos referring to racism, sexism etc. its mission was to change language for the better. However, political correctness has been described by George H. Bush as a way; ‘to look for insult in every word, gesture and action’ (cited in Battistella, 2005: 92).

In his famous novel 1984, Orwell wrote of a specific government-sponsored vocabulary which ‘consisted of words that had been deliberately constructed for political purposes,” (1998: 377). He also claimed that ‘the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink” (1946: 153–4).

With political correctness on one side attempting to regulate our language use and taboo language on the other, allegedly ‘telling it like it is’, it is no surprise that people often feel under pressure to choose language carefully. What do you think?

 DANIELLE CURRAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Allan, K., Burridge, K,. (2006) Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Barzan, J. (1987) A Word or Two Before You Go. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Battistella, L, E,. (2005) Bad Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crystal, D,. (2006) Language and the Internet. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Milroy, J,. (1998) ‘Children Can’t Speak or Write Anymore’. In Language Myths, ed. by Bauer, L., and Trudghill, P,. (London: Penguin), pp. 58-65.

Orwell, G,. (1946) Politics and the English Language. London: Horizon.

Orwell, G,. (1998) All Propaganda is Lies, 1941-1942. London: Secker & Warburg.

Orwell, G,. (2004) Nineteen Eighty-Four. Iowa: World Library.

LAURA HESLOP considers whether ‘political correctness’ and freedom of speech can live in harmony together

Despite its rise in prevalence as a concept over the past 30 years, political correctness still does not enjoy the approval of many people. Even though political correctness is a term used to apply to many dimensions of behaviour, it is particularly interesting to look at how mere language use can generate vitriol and even police involvement. Allan and Burridge (2006: 90) argue that ‘[B]ecause it is politically driven, political correctness will obviously attract more attention, and certainly more hostility, than most acts of linguistic censoring’.

In July of this year, comedian Frankie Boyle, whose humour is widely known to be controversial, received heavy criticism in British newspapers for saying on Twitter that Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington had a ‘dolphin face’. As Nick Owens (2012) reports, the tweet also generated responses in abundance from angry Twitter users who demanded Rebecca Adlington receive an apology from the comedian. Comedy thrives on controversy; once we start telling comedians that they have to stop making jokes that might offend somebody, we effectively end the career of every comedian and comedy writer on the planet. When people defend examples like this, it is not the joke which is being defended, it is a person’s right to make it.

As reported by Jerome Taylor (2012), in October, a twenty-year-old man was arrested and sentenced to 240 hours of community service after posting the message ‘all soldiers should die and go to hell’ on his Facebook page after six British soldiers died in Afghanistan. Yes, the message was shocking and incredibly insensitive, but was it really criminal? Is it the case that political correctness, a concept which, at its core, has good intentions, has led us to a point where people can actually be arrested and convicted for being a bit nasty? The comment undoubtedly offended many people, but why is it that people get so angry about an emotion which is completely relative?

Causing offence is what political correctness seeks to prevent, and it is definitely a well-meaning and righteous aspiration, but it is also unattainable. The only way such a utopia could exist is if every single human being on the planet was offended by the same things and were offended by those things to the same extent as everyone else. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

So, who gets to decide what is and is not offensive? There are lots of things that I am offended by that you might not be, just as there will be things that you find offensive that I do not. My point is, we are all offended by something. Nobody has an opinion that they do not think is the right one, but we must accept that our ability to think and speak freely is a privilege which is granted to everyone. Someone’s right to say what they like does not mean you will be forced to agree with or adopt their views; you have the exact same right to disagree, and that is what is so great about free speech.

LAURA HESLOP,  English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

Allan, K. Burridge, K. (2006) Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. United States: Cambridge University Press.

Owens, N. (2012) [Accessed 22 November 2012] Available at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/david-walliams-attacks-frankie-boyle-1182296

Taylor, J. (2012) [Accessed 22 November 2012]. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/azhar-ahmed-a-tasteless-facebook-update-and-more-evidence-of-britains-terrifying-new-censorship-8204212.html

LAURA WEBB considers to what extent we should mind our language when it comes to ‘political correctness’

The notion of political correctness, according to Geoffrey Hughes (2010), began when it was stirred up by universities in the 1980s. It was initially concerned with educational reform and this later spread into other aspects of life, such as race, culture and gender; becoming the political correctness we know today. Hughes proposed that the origins of political correctness lie in people’s strict enforcement of what could and couldn’t be said; it sought to eradicate the language which was deemed offensive and derogatory to others, in particular to minority groups.

There is nothing intrinsically offensive about any word – all meaning is arbitrary – and it is the connotations that society attaches to a word which results in people finding it offensive. This can be linked to Saussure’s theory that language consists of signs, the signifier (the word as sounds) and the signified (the concept). The connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and results in words taking their meaning from their relationship with other concepts. Saussure also quantified that the signifier and the signified are inseparable, there is always a thought attached to a word. This is simple to grasp yet there remains much controversy and debate surrounding the positive and negative impact of political correctness in our language.

Political correctness is a loaded phrase which carries many negative connotations, most common of which is the idea that it constantly reduces a person’s right to free speech. Is it the case that ‘indulging’ the rights of minority groups comes at the expense of the freedom of the ‘majority’? Or is censoring a person’s offensive use of various words not an encroachment on freedom, as freedom equates to much more than this? Personal choices on how to speak, act and think can still be made, however this can be done without it being impolite or hurtful. It must be remembered that a group should have the right to monitor the language used by others concerning them in a public domain, particularly from a position of authority or privilege. What is also clear is that what people do and say in private cannot be controlled; and how far this ought to be controlled is another question entirely.

There is no reason for freedom and civility to be contrasting terms; they can remain cohorts if language stays on the side of decency, open-minded values, and to some extent, progress. Political correctness concentrates on power, in particular the power that language has. By carefully constructing language choices it is possible to avoid discrimination or identity-based divisions between ourselves as a society. Is it right to consider the phrase ‘PC Brigade’ as a ‘…word that is overused by closet racists, sexists, homophobes and bigots to describe anyone who dares to challenge their hate speech with the values of respect and common human decency’ as the ‘Urban Dictionary’ does? Or should we challenge the notion of political correctness itself, defining it as ‘organized Orwellian intolerance and stupidity, disguised as compassionate liberalism’? (also taken taken from www.urbandictionary.com).

LAURA WEBB, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Hughes, G. (2010) Political Correctness: A history of semantics and culture. Wiley-Blackwell Publication: West Sussex.

Sanders, C. (2004) The Cambridge Companion to Saussure. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Urban Dictionary. (1999) [Accessed 20 November 2012]. Available at: http://www.urbandictionary.com