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)