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


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.



One thought on “ELLIS TUDDENHAM explores the complicated relationship between language and thought

  1. Sarah Horsfield says:

    I agree that there is some form of relationship between language and thought (although it is difficult to identify where the boundaries are), because I believe that an individual needs to think on some level, even if unconsciously, to produce language. However, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that thought is possible without language. As such, it is my belief that thought can exist independently of language, whereas language relies on thought for its production.

    With regards to the strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis, I believe that rather than language determining a thought, it represents a different thought, concept or attribute which another individual can also conceptualise, still suggesting that on some level there is a relationship between language and thought.

    I believe that the use of ‘Freudian slips’ as evidence to prove that language and thought are independent of each other is weak, as I believe that these slips could be linked by context. The example that is used here, where somebody calls their lecturer ‘mum’ could be explained because the word ‘mum’ represents not only a mother, but also a figure of authority, which a lecturer also is. This suggests that on some level there is some thought involved as there is a contextual link, therefore supporting the argument that language cannot exist without thought.

    Sarah Horsfield, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

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