ELAINE WILCOCK ponders ‘Which came first – thought or language?

Just like the chicken and the egg argument it is hard to come to a conclusive answer to the language and thought debate.  Is it a matter of which came first? Or is it a matter of influence? Various well-known theorists have provided their theories with examples. Sapir and Whorf formed a hypothesis which became known as ‘Linguistic Determinism’ which came in two forms, ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ (Badhesha, R. S. 2002). Strong suggested that Language controls thought and weak suggests that language influences thought. Strong determinism is a little less reasonable and just like many linguists, I do not believe that many people will agree with this. However, the weak determinism idea is a little more credible and there are various examples that reinforce this idea such as Whorf’s ‘empty’ petrol drum example, whereby workers thought that ‘empty’ meant the drum wasn’t dangerous and so flicked their cigarettes at it (Whorf, B. L., 1956). Another example is the way in which people talk could influence stereotypes about that person. For example, if someone spoke using no contractions and a ‘posh’ accent, some people could consider them to be arrogant. Therefore the language they use influences other people’s thoughts.

On the other hand, linguists such as Steven Pinker criticise the Whorf hypothesis in his book The Language Instinct. His belief was that thought determines language. He uses the examples of babies using pointing to get things they want before they can speak. They would have to have thought of a way to express what they wanted without being able to use communication in the way their parents would. Pinker also uses the idea of ambiguity to express his belief as if a sentence has two meanings it could be interpreted in two different ways and so two people could think about it in different ways (Mishlove, J., 1998).

Steinburg’s belief that language is a tool for thought (Tsoi, T., 2010), is supported by a substantial amount  of evidence. For example, without being able to think, language would not have been able to be created in the first place. Cavemen and feral children who hadn’t learnt how to speak wouldn’t be able to form any type of idea. Also, ask yourself the question: ‘Do all humans think the same?’ Language has rules that all people who know how to communicate can follow, if language determined thoughts everyone would have to think the same or roughly the same in order to follow these rules. However, many different people have hundreds of conflicting thoughts compared to their friends or family or strangers. For example, take a book –  language describes characters and settings and yet people could have a different picture in their mind when it comes to what that character looks like or what their personality is like.

There are strong arguments to support both conflicting viewpoints, however, I believe that there is stronger evidence for language being a tool for thought, but what is your opinion? Is there a correct side or is it a matter of opinion?

 ELAINE WILCOCK, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Badhesha, R. S. (2002) Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. [Online]
Available at: http://zimmer.csufresno.edu/~johnca/spch100/4-9-sapir.htm
[Accessed 1 January 2014].

Mishlove, J., 1998. THINKING ALLOWED. [Online]
Available at: http://www.williamjames.com/transcripts/pinker1.htm
[Accessed 1st January 2014].

Tsoi, T. (2010). The Relationship Between Language And Thought. [Online]
Available at: http://www.thomastsoi.com/2010/03/the-relationship-between-language-and-thought/
[Accessed 1st January 2014]

Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press


2 thoughts on “ELAINE WILCOCK ponders ‘Which came first – thought or language?

  1. Brad Robertson says:

    Hello Elaine,
    Thank you for writing such a thought provoking blog about Language and Thought. I really feel that you have brought up some interesting points of discussion. I do tend to agree with your view point that language is a tool of thought. I would use the example of ‘Genie’ the feral girl to back up this argument. This is down to the fact that she was able to learn language but, was not able to grasp an entire lexicon. Thus, with help she was partially able to access the use the ‘tool’ of language as a form of communication. It just seems to agree with me more than suggesting that thought and language are part of each other. If this was the case then ‘Genie’ would not have be able to learn any language nor would she have been able to think.
    I could then use your example to back up my suggestion. You point out that we all think differently due to language being a tool of thought. With this point in mind, you suggest ‘if someone spoke using no contractions and a ‘posh’ accent, some people could consider them to be arrogant. Therefore the language they use influences other people’s thoughts’. We clearly think differently on this point. I would not agree with this suggestion. I don’t think it is arrogant of someone to speak without contractions or with a ‘posh’ accent. I would suggest it was more of a case how they have been brought up and taught how to use language. I don’t think Arrogance can be linked to accent or contractions. If they’re making a mockery of someone for using contractions or speaking in a ‘lesser’ accent, that is a different kettle of fish. Which brings me back to the point of, if we all did think the same, I would not have this differing opinion to yours! I do however, respect your views on this.
    Like you asked, I believe language and thought is just a matter of opinion. Taking sides seems to be a little foolish when we will never truly be able to answer the question of what came first or, asking if they are a part of each other. Much like asking, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”… WE WILL NEVER REALLY KNOW!

    Brad Robertson,

  2. Elaine says:

    Hi Brad,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you about genie, I think that example proves quite a few things.
    I’d also like to clarify that I do not think that people who speak in a posh accent and use no contractions are arrogant etc, however, I do know some people who will not befriend someone with a posh accent for fear of them being arrogant and selfish. (I think these people are pretty stupid), obviously it depends how people portray themselves.

    Thanks again,

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