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]