A long-standing, traditional joke in this field of academia goes as follows:
What did the language say to the thought?
Do you determine me or do I determine you !?!
But when the laughter dies down and the tears are wiped, some very important questions are raised.
Do we think using language? Or do we think using more abstract, non-linguistic concepts?
Some philosophers and linguists have very strict beliefs when it comes to the importance of language in thought. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, is renowned for his quote, ‘the limits of language…mean the limits of my world’ (Wittgenstein, 1992: 62, cited by Preston, 1997:127).
The somewhat daunting phrase, Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (LRH), is the theory that language affects the way in which people perceive and conceptualise the world around them (Lund,2003). LRH is often split into two ‘versions’: a strong version and a weak version. The strong version suggests that language determines thought while the weak version suggests that language influences thought. Arguably, the reason why a ‘weaker version’ of the theory arose was due to the contentious and falsifiable claims put forward in the strong version.
Nevertheless, the most recognised proponent of the strong version is the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf conducted an analysis into a number of Native American languages and came to the conclusion that ‘the differences in language, both in grammar and the number of terms used to refer to objects, must shape the way people think about their world’ (Lund, 2003: 11). Whorf used the example that Inuits have a number of different words for what we simply refer to in English as ‘snow’.
This example has now become a prevalent piece of trivia although the actual number has been wildly distorted; there are popular internet myths claiming the Inuits have hundreds of words for snow. Whorf counted seven. Regardless of the exact figure, Whorf’s fundamental point was that the differences between the languages would ultimately lead to different perceptions about snow (Lund, 2003). Therefore our ideas about a phenomenon are determined by our language.
This may appear to be a valid point but the theory is open to much criticism. For example, it could be said that the final conclusion ‘the language differs therefore the thought must differ’ is a hollow argument as Whorf did not study thought. Therefore the proof Whorf provides for the alleged differences in perceptions was based solely on language differences and not the investigation of thought itself.
On the more popular side of the debate, we have to ask ourselves, ‘is thought independent of language?’, and answer, ‘yes it is’. Although a significant amount of people will agree with the notion that thought is independent from language, it is often difficult to explain why. However, there are plenty of scenarios that help to reinforce the point. For instance, a hard of hearing or deaf toddler whose complications were not diagnosed at birth, will still exhibit the same behavioural properties as any adequately hearing toddler. Long before their impairment is flagged up by their inability to receive linguistic input, they demonstrate the ability to think through their everyday activity and telic gestures.
Of course, the importance of language cannot be underestimated. The use of language helps to facilitate the transmission of thought in a concise, (but not always) accurate manner. Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld (2010: 59) conclude ‘[…] drawing is not tantamount to the act of seeing; likewise, expressing oneself in language is not tantamount to the act of thinking.’
GEORGE ROWETT, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK