EMILY VAUGHAN explores the connection or distinction between language and thought

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/

Gentner, D. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (ed.s) (2003) Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought. USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kovecses, Z. (2006) Language, Mind and Culture: A Practical Introduction. New York: Oxford  University Press.

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

Tagaloglang. [Accessed 12th December 2013]. Available at: www.tagaloglang.com/Tagalog-English-Dictionary/English-Translation-of-Tagalog-Word/gigil.html

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



2 thoughts on “EMILY VAUGHAN explores the connection or distinction between language and thought

  1. Adam Webb says:

    Hi Emily

    This is definitely issue within language that is difficult to form a clear opinion of. I would certainly agree with the examples of ‘gigil’ and ‘culaccino’ highlighted and see myself agreeing with the experimentalist viewpoint. Although I wouldn’t have known the actual words for both of these, I would however have known what they meant through using other words within my own vocabulary to substitute so I do believe language and thought must be linked in some form.

    Like yourself, I disagree with Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld on their view that language and thought are two completely different entities, in particular relating with Birner’s point about the many features involved between language and thought interesting, especially in situations where you have to think about what you are going to say. I know from experience that it is a regular occurrence within conversation that you have to consider how you will use language whether you are using it in speech or writing. This whole debate is one that we will probably never know the answer to.


  2. Oliver Norman says:

    I was glad to read that an accredited scholar referred to this argument as a “chicken and egg question” as I was just saying the same thing in response to Mel Berk’s post on the same topic (albeit in slightly different words!). Regardless, I feel it is certainly fair for Emily to take the “weak determinism” approach as I do agree that they certainly influence each other and that it is indeed only to a certain extent, as we are surrounded day to day by examples of thought expression that do not rely on language. The Sapir-Whorf concept of “strong determinism” however did pique my interest as it raised an interesting debate in my mind. It states, according to the post above, that “thought is not possible without language”. while I am inclined to disagree with this statement It makes me wonder, is it the application of language in explaining thoughts that makes them thoughts? Put differently, does thought become instinct without a medium to express it? I wouldn’t like to say definitively but I’ll gladly sit on the fence until someone can prove it either way!

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