The relationship between language and thought has been debated for a long time. Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow (2003:3) state that ‘for the last two decades the hypothesis that language can influence thought […] has been in serious dispute’. The main foundation of the debate lies within the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis was defined by Whorf (1956: 17) as ‘…language affects the perceptions of reality of its speakers and thus influences their thought patterns’. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be split into two distinct approaches. Strong determinism states that language determines the way we think about the world and that thought is not possible without language. Weak determinism states that language influences thought but it does not determine it completely.
Kovesces (2006) theorised the approach put forward by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. Kovesces categorised them into two distinct binary viewpoints; objectivist and experientialist. Experientialists believe that there is a connection between language and thought and objectivists believe that there is no connection and the two concepts are distinct from each other.
One of the objectivist’s explanations in Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld (2010) is the vocabulary differences across languages. English lacks the Filipino word ‘gigil’, which is the need to pinch or squeeze something that is cute (Tagaloglang). However, English people practice this concept when they squeeze the faces of children, animals etc. This example, suggests that thought is independent of language. Despite not having a word in their language that signifies a particular concept people are still able to understand and practice this behaviour without knowing the name for it. Similarly, the Italian word ‘culaccino’, which means the mark left on a surface by a moist glass, (Better Than English, 2012) has no English equivalent. But English people are still able to acknowledge the ‘culaccino’ without having a name for it, thus, also suggesting that thought is independent of language.
However, experientialists would argue that these examples do display a relationship between language and thought. Although there is no English word for a particular concept we can still understand the thought process because we are able to replace the unknown word, ‘gigil’, with an English word that has similar connotations, for example, ‘pinch.’ Similarly, we are able to replace ‘culaccino’ with the words ‘mark’ or ‘ring’. This constitutes a relationship between language and thought because it is still possible to label a concept with similar words that are already in our schema without knowing the specific term.
Birner, (2012) a member of the American Linguistics Society (LSA), explains that the connection between language and thought is complex. ‘To some extent, it’s a chicken-and-egg question: Are you unable to think about things you don’t have words for, or do you lack words for them because you don’t think about them?’ Birner states that many features are involved with the link between language and thought, such as, culture, lifestyle, habits and the people with whom you interact with and these complex features shape the way we think and the way we talk.
Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld (2010: 61) definitively state that ‘thought is thought. Language is language.’ Do you agree? I would align my views with Sapir and Whorf’s weak determinism approach because I believe that language and thought are connected and are influenced by each other but only to a certain extent.
EMILY VAUGHAN, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
American Linguistics Society. (2012) [Accessed 21st December 2013]. Available at: http://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/does-language-i-speak-influence-way-i-think
Better Than English. (2012) [Accessed 12th December 2013]. Available at: www.betterthanenglish.com/culaccino-italian/
Tagaloglang. [Accessed 12th December 2013]. Available at: www.tagaloglang.com/Tagalog-English-Dictionary/English-Translation-of-Tagalog-Word/gigil.html