Is it true that ‘I think therefore I must know words’? GEORGE ROWETT investigates

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

 References

Lund, N. (2003). Language and Thought. London: Routledge.

Napoli, D.J. & Lee-Schoenfeld, V. (2010) Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions About Language. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Preston, J. (1997). Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. 1992. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Routledge.

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2 thoughts on “Is it true that ‘I think therefore I must know words’? GEORGE ROWETT investigates

  1. Amanda Cottam says:

    Hi George!

    You’ve made some brilliant points writing this blog, not to mention your enthusiasm towards the topic. You’ve made some interesting and valid points in your blog post, giving a clear and concise meaning to the idea of language vs. thought. I thought you made an interesting point about the two determinations of language and thought as whether it is “strong” or “weak”. I agree with your point of how the “strong” version of the language determinism is falsifiable, however does it mean that there is no way for language to be determined by thought?

    You have some good points here, supported by the references made by some very renowned research and obviously clearly have an idea about what you believe.

    It is interesting that you made a point that it is difficult to explain why thought is independent of language, but I am interested as to why you would immediately answer “yes” if it is difficult to explain why? However, I was impressed of the ideas that you used to solidify this claim, it is easy to believe that it is right for a child who has had no language contact from birth to still display the same behavior as children who have had language contact from birth. This makes me believe that it is not difficult to explain why it is a “yes” to that answer.

    A great blog and I enjoyed reading your points, however, I’d like to see what your opinion is for this, which one do you believe without the influence of the theories you’ve mention? I do agree when you mention that: “the importance of language cannot be underestimated.”

    Many thanks,

    Amanda Cottam

  2. Claire Gilder says:

    Is it possible that thought without language are instinctual physical ‘feelings’ opposed to actual formed thought? For example a new born baby cries when it feels pain/ hunger/ discomfort etc, but in order to convert these instinctual feelings into actual thoughts, the necessary lexis is needed to differentiate between them. When a baby is hungry it physically feels the hunger pangs, it doesn’t ‘think’ “Oh that pain means I’m hungry so I’ll start crying about it!” With regard to deaf children, extensive research eg,(Goldin-Meadow & Morford:1985, Meier:1991) has be done concluding that deaf children learn language like any other ‘hearing’ child. They simply learn a visual ‘signed’ language which they exhibit through the medium of gesture opposed to the vocal medium of a hearing child.. Thus suggesting that deaf children also need some kind of ‘lexical/ gestural’ sign to articulate thought.

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