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)


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.


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

  1. Eleanor Quanbrough says:

    For me it would not be the case of how far apart the two should be positioned, but more the fact how much they intertwine with one another. Obviously language is needed for us to produce our thoughts into words, however, our thoughts themselves are a combination of words which we have collectively put together, which is simply unspoken language within our minds. So thinking of it in this sense, it can be seen as you cannot have one without the other, as it is an on-going transition of language, thought, language, thought.
    The Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the idea that our thoughts our limited to our language capabilities, and what we say determines what we think, is, as you say ludicrous. Mooney’s approach of ‘linguistic relativism’ depicts the idea that speakers of different languages will differ in how they think about the world. Or, to simply add more possibility, language can influence the way we think, but not necessarily, the emphasis being on ‘can’. An example I found was that of a doctor who left the room and told his patient to ‘take it easy’, the patient took the literal meaning and decided to be bed bound for 3 weeks, whereas this is a sentence which most would take as a simple goodbye.

    So in agreement with you, the idea that language entirely determines thought can be seen as contradictory, as not only does the ‘linguistic relativism’ approach support this, but also you cannot have one without the other. So, to answer, I believe it is hard for them to be classified as two seperate entities as they go hand in hand, as one will always lead onto the next.

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