Can you grasp a concept without a word to express it? BETHANY TODD considers language and thought

The discussion regarding the relationship between language and thought is not a new one and there are many concepts and beliefs surrounding the subject. One theory is that thought determines language; another is that language determines thought and according to Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld (2010: 61) ‘Thought is thought. Language is language. The two are distinct.’ Now, such a concrete conclusion is definitely controversial, particularly when the discussion involves something as intangible as thought. How would we measure and analyse thought? How are we supposed to gauge the effect it has on language?

If we first look at the ‘thought determines language’ side of the debate, it is basically stating that without thought, language could not exist. Of course, we do not verbalise every thought we have, so thought does not require language, but how about when new ideas are surfacing? We need a word to apply to the idea in order to communicate it to others.  So surely this is concrete evidence that thought determines language?

Perhaps not. We now need to look at an alternative viewpoint:  that language determines thought, which is to say that the language we speak determines the way we think. This is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and is often referred to as the ‘prison house’ view of language as it does not allow for any leeway, or as Wittgenstein (1921) put it The limits of my language mean the limits of my world“. I prefer the weaker version of this hypothesis, known as ‘linguistic relativism’ which merely claims that language is influenced by thought (Badhesha: 2002). One oft-used example to support this is the fact that in Russia, they distinguish dark blue and light blue as two separate colours, and there is no single word in the Russian language which means just blue. Jonathan Winawer has discovered that Russian people can more easily differentiate between dark and light blue than English speakers for example as we identify both as variations of the same colour (Khamsi: 2007).

One of the most interesting examples against this side of the argument, in my opinion, is the fact that there are many ‘untranslatable’ words from non-English languages, yet English people still understand these concepts. Examples include the Spanish ‘sobremesa’ which refers to the time after eating which you spend talking with the people you shared the meal with. Or the Indonesian ‘jayus’ which is a joke that is so unfunny and told so poorly that you cannot help but laugh. If language truly determined thought, surely we would not be able to understand these concepts as we do not have words for them in the English language?

As someone who certainly believes there is some sort of relationship between language and thought but does not fully agree with either side of the argument, it is frustrating that neither party seems to be willing to accept elements of the others. While this particular debate cannot be answered simply, it appears that we need another theory that incorporates elements of both arguments and takes a middle ground stance.

BETHANY TODD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

 References

Badhesha, R. S. (2002) Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. [Online]
Available at: http://zimmer.csufresno.edu/~johnca/spch100/4-9-sapir.htm
[Accessed 29 November 2013].

Khamsi, R. (2007) Russian Speakers Get the Blues. New Scientist [online], 1 May [Accessed 13 December 2013]. Available at http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11759-russian-speakers-get-the-blues.html#.Usp7K7S7Q70

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

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

Wittgenstein, L. (1921) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company , Inc. 

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2 thoughts on “Can you grasp a concept without a word to express it? BETHANY TODD considers language and thought

  1. Matt Davies says:

    Dear Bethany. Thank you for your interesting blog. I tend to go along with the view that our own language does influence to a certain extent the way we conceptualise the world. It seems ludicrous to me to claim, as the writers you quote above do, that language and thought are totally separate. After all, when a child starts to develop language skills, there is a dialectical relationship between a growth in language skills and an ability to grasp basic concepts. So for instance the seeds of the concept of ownership – e.g. of a toy – goes hand-in-hand with the usage of first person possessive pronouns and determiners. The more a child uses (and hears) ‘mine’, my’ etc, the more tangible the concept of possession becomes to that child, sometimes to the point of selfish obsession in some young children. Politicians and pressure groups are of course very aware of the power of language to influence thought, and many battles occur over which labels to assign to which concepts. So what the government label the ‘under-occupancy penalty’, opponents of the legislation tend to call ‘the bedroom tax’. Margaret Thatcher arguably had to resign as Prime Minister in 1990 because protesters insisted on calling the ‘community charge’ the less enticing name ‘the poll tax’. Once a negative label sticks – and ‘tax’ tends to have negative connotations (though it should not necessarily if the money goes to the right people), then it is influencing the way we think about what is essentially the same referent. Those who argue that language and thought are unconnected are claiming that all language does is communicate already existing concepts, but the way we categorise the world into units depends on the way we use language to do this. When I look at a load of green stuff growing in my garden, I see ‘grass’ and ‘weeds’. But an expert botanist who know all the different species will see this differently because they have the language (and therefore the concepts) to break this down in to much more refined categories.
    I wonder what anybody else thinks?
    Matt

  2. Hannah Waude says:

    Beth, I completely agree with you. We would not need language without our thoughts. Do you think that studying another language affects your perspective on language and thought? Perhaps the exposure to another culture affects the connection between language and thought?

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