ABBIE HUDSON ponders: ‘Do we need language to think?’

A key question in linguistics is whether we need language to think or not.

Focusing on the idea that language is perceived to be essential for thought, where thinking constitutes a conscious form of action, one suggestion is that thought must feature content, such as the perception of a river. To this content we allocate a word, such as ‘river’ to enable an identification and understanding. However, can we still understand the concept of something without a particular word, whether it is concrete or abstract?

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis indicates the close relation of language and thought, known as Linguistic Determinism. The hypothesis suggests how the language we use forms our methods of visualising and understanding the concepts of life through thought. The conventions we have in our mind show a direct relation to our language capabilities (Mooney et al, 2011).

On the other hand, if it is possible to understand the concept of a word without knowing the specific word for the object, could this apply to an abstract concept?

The word ‘privacy’ is strongly recognised in our society. However, in the Italian language there is an absence of a word for this term. So, does this mean that they do not understand the concept? Italian people still exhibit behaviour that shows an understanding of this, such as closing the door when using a public bathroom (Napoli & Schoenfeld, 2010). Surely this demonstrates how they can still perceive its importance through thought without the alleged necessary language for it, reinforcing the idea that we can in fact think without language.

Children without hearing are a prime example of how language is irrelevant to the capability of thinking. Long before they have access to linguistic input, they show behaviours that clearly require thought, showing it is possible without the use of language. However, there is no possibility that their thought could be in a specific human tongue considering there being no stage of language acquisition. The child’s inability to hear is not realised until they have reached toddler age as the child displays similar behaviour to that of children with functional hearing. This seems to show that the child can think even without an acquired language or understanding of one; signifying the possibility to think without language (Napoli & Schoenfeld 2010).

Although we need language to express our feelings and emotions to others in detail and to some extent it is required to communicate with others, conversely, it is still possible to have thought processes without any previous acquirement of language. Man was functional long before verbal or written communication was established. So ask yourself, how would the human race still be in existence if language was paramount to thought?

I personally believe thought is not separate from language, as the notion of speech is totally unachievable without the ability to think, nevertheless, I consider the aspect of language development to be the reason for our world catapulting through evolution. Yes, it is language that has allowed us to communicate on a much more accessible level and form our society today, but the greatest power behind all of this, which has made everything possible, is the power of thought.

 ABBIE HUDSON, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Mooney, A. (2011) Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Napoli, D and Lee- Schoenfeld, V. (2010) Does language equal thought? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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One thought on “ABBIE HUDSON ponders: ‘Do we need language to think?’

  1. Stephanie Kowalewicz says:

    Like ‘the chicken and the egg’, the question surrounding the relationship between language and thought provokes many intellects in to a heated debate. Whilst the reference to the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, like the chicken, argues the need for language to enable thought process, the question of whether we need the initial egg, or idea, remains prominent and credible. Consequently, we find it impossible to certify the relationship between the two.

    Thought is needed on a preliminary level however; language is not completely redundant in it’s effect on our thoughts. Despite children being unable to fully express them without the skill of speech production, they are able to experience emotion, desire and need. Similarly, although a concept may not exist in certain languages, it is not verbatim that the concept does not exist at all. On the other hand, while thought may be instinct and necessary to introduce new concepts, language restricts the articulation and controls our ability to communicate.

    Whether or not we can claim mutual exclusivity between these two processes remains unknown. ‘Language and thought’ provides a unique dichotomy of how two practices are intertwined. Personally, I believe that both abilities go hand in hand. Thought provides the initial theory however language provides the route we take.

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