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)