MEL BERKS considers ‘Ipod’ and other words in her musings on whether language and thought are intricately connected

Have you ever wondered if language influences your thoughts? Without language would you still be able to make sense of your daily life? The question of whether or not language influences our thoughts has fired up dispute over the decades.  There are two groups with different views on this issue. In one corner, we have the objectivists, who believe that language does not influence thought; in the other corner are the experientialists, who believe that language does influence thought. So, does it or not?

Well, the strong version of ‘Linguistic Determinism’ is a theory associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (an experientialist view), which claims that language influences thought (Mooney et al 2011:32). Supporters of this view claim language influences thought so much that, if there is no word available for a concept, then this concept is unthinkable.  Some say that this is tripe and argue language cannot effect our thoughts since we can think of new ‘things’ that do not have a name, then create words to name those ‘things’. For example, the ‘IPOD’ was a new concept created before having a name. Being able to think of this concept without there being a word in the first place must be evidence that language does not influence thought…surely?

 Mooney et al (2011:32) explain that Whorf argues language must influence thought since there is a connection between language, thought and behavior.  For example, imagine you go to use a public toilet but notice a sign on the toilet door reading ‘out of use’. You then do not open the door to use that toilet because the language on the sign influences your judgement. Reading the sign influences thought and there is effect on behavior.

Then again, if language does influence thought, then how do we explain understanding ‘things’ without even knowing their names in the first place? For example, I understood the concept of a ‘mark left by a glass’ before knowing it was called ‘culacino’. Therefore, my thought was not restricted by the need for the specific name ‘culacino’.  However, it is important to appreciate that the term ‘mark’ operates in our conceptualisation of understanding and, if we accept this, then we do deal with concepts through language. Gardiner (2000:105) explains that a 1984 study by Kay and Kempton is supportive of this view. They found that particular colour terms influenced English speaker’s perception of these colours. Therefore, perhaps language does influence thought.

Supposing that language does influence thought, then how can deaf children who are linguistically deprived still manage to demonstrate that they are thinking through thought-demonstrating behaviour such as deciding to throw a toy?  Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld (2010:52) claim that despite lack of language, these children can still think, which must be evidence that language does not influence our thoughts. However, we then need to question what thought itself actually is. The process of explaining thought is concerned with language because that is the explanatory device we use to communicate.

The different arguments make it difficult to draw a conclusion! I believe that language does not influence thought. For example, research involving the deaf has demonstrated that we are capable of non-linguistic thought, then again, perhaps even internalised communication of those thoughts may be a different matter once language has been acquired? Maybe like Traxler (2012:1995) believes, language and thought do influence each other?  Who knows!

MEL BERKS, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)


Gardiner, A. (2000) English Language AS & A2. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

 Mooney, A. et al. (eds.) (2011) Language, Society and Power: 3rd edition.  An Introduction. London: Routledge.

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

 Traxler, J. M.  (2012) Introduction to Psycholinguistics: Understanding Language Science. West Sussex: Wiley- Blackwell.


One thought on “MEL BERKS considers ‘Ipod’ and other words in her musings on whether language and thought are intricately connected

  1. Oliver Norman says:

    This is certainly a difficult one to pin down, both sides of the argument present credible evidence, logically explaining their case. At face value I am inclined to side with Mel on this one as we know from the myriad of arts that fill our world from the earliest scratching on a cave wall, to the complex implications of an interpretive dance, thoughts can and have been expressed in many ways other than through language. Honestly however, I also believe that it is a two way system. Thought will always influence language, as language is a creation of thought, but with the introduction of language comes thought dedicated to the interpretation and alteration of that language, thus supporting the idea that language influences thought. I think its fair to say that the argument is a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario, but that’s just how I see it!

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