Which came first: The language or the thought? CINZIA WARBURTON investigates.

Imagine a world without language. Would you still be able to think about things? When you do think, do you think in a specific language? Could you still think about something, yet not know what it was called? These are perhaps difficult questions to answer as we may never know the answer –  all we can do is find evidence that supports the argument that language does shape thought and evidence that negates it.

According to Sapir (1921), “I quite frankly commit myself to the idea that thought is impossible without language, that thought is language” (cited in Leavitt, 2011: 136). I see this as a particularly narrow-minded view and believe there is more substance to this debate. Sapir worked closely with his student Benjamin Whorf to attempt to find evidence that we absolutely need language in order to think. This was eventually labelled ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. Subsequent theories revised this towards what is often known as ‘linguistic relativism’ which claims that language can shape thought, rather than totally control it (Mooney, 2010). Now this is a theory I can ‘get on board with’. Mooney (2010) explores how relativism considers habitual modes of thinking in different languages, which basically means that each language has ways of representing the same concept based on their own linguistic habits. This supports the claim that language does shape thought, but it does not control us completely, it just influences the way in which we think. Deutscher (2011) assesses the extent to which different languages have different ways of representing the same concepts, therefore implying that we think differently. For example, he highlights the absence of numbers from the language of the Pirahã tribe. Instead of using numbers to count, they just have one word which works as the equivalent of the word “many” in English. Can you imagine a world without numbers? Can you imagine not needing numbers in your everyday life? No, of course you can’t because it is an integral part to our society. The question still remains: if they do not have a language of numbers, then do they still have the concept? Theorists who would argue that language does shape thought, would say that they do not have any concept of numbers.

However, according to Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010:51) “[t]hought does not require language”. They ask if a word for a concept does not exist in a language, does that concept exist? Apparently it does. Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) disagree with the assumption proposed on the other side of the argument that a concept is unthinkable if we do not have a linguistic sign for it. They highlight the absence of the equivalent to the word ‘scaramanzia’ in Italian from the English language. Scaramanzia is the concept that when you think something bad is going to happen, you actually tell yourself it is going to happen in the belief that it will prevent it from happening. Do you still do this? Yes. Do you have a linguistic sign for it? No. So this means that you can think without language right? Yes. But the question that still needs to be answered is: If you had a clear linguistic sign for a concept would it be more prominent to you and more concrete? Do the Italians understand this concept better than us because it is a clear sign in their language?

Given the evidence, I would agree that language does shape language but I would not say it controlled it completely. I do believe that we think in our own language and having a particular linguistic sign does influence it, yes, but it is not completely necessary. I believe that we can still understand a concept without having a word for it, but I also believe that language helps us to categorise it in our minds and makes it easier to understand it even further. I make this conclusion based on a sentence I must say at least once a week: “I know what I mean, but I just cannot find the word for it!”

 CINZIA WARBURTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Deutscher, G. (2011). Through the Language Glass. London: Arrow Books.

Leavitt, J. (2011). Linguistic Relativities: Language Diversity and Modern Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mooney, A. (2011). Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

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


LAURA TAYLOR considers whether we need language to be able to think

When you think, do you think in words or in another form? Don’t we need to think in order to use and decipher language? That’s assuming that all language is verbal and takes the form of words. What about body language? Sign language? The relationship between language and thought is a complex thing to consider and it is hard to apply a concrete answer to the question: ‘Do we need language in order to think?’

Consider the concept of time. McWhorter (2014) points out that in languages such as English, French and Indonesian, time is a measurement of distance. So an English speaker would say ‘a long time’ or ‘a long night’. Compare this to speakers of Spanish, Italian or Greek who see time as a quantity. They would say something takes ‘a lot of time’ or that it has been ‘a lot of night’. McWhorter (2014) points out that despite the difference in how we refer to time, people throughout the world can understand the concept. This negates the idea that language has an impact on the way we think.

Different languages are an interesting insight into the relationship between language and thought, particularly the idea of concepts.  Take the word ‘privacy’. An English speaker is likely to know the word and understand the concept behind it. However, according to Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld  (2010) the word ‘privacy’ does not exist in the Italian language and cannot be translated from English. However that does not mean that Italians do not understand the concept, as can be shown from their actions and way of living.

Similarly, there is a word in Italian for the superstition that makes us say that the worst is going to happen in order to ward it off. This word is ‘scaramanzia’. English speakers can fully comprehend this definition, even though there is not a word for it in the English language. Napoli and Schoenfeld (2010) use this to question the relationship between language and thought. Even though these words are not translatable from language to language, it does not mean that individual speakers cannot comprehend the basic concepts. This implies that we do not need language to be able to think or understand certain ideas.

Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld (2010) note that children who are born deaf are not usually given linguistic assistance until they are a toddler or older as this is usually when their disability is discovered. They are then provided with information in the form of spoken language via hearing aids, lessons in speech reading , lessons in vocalization, and/or teaching the children and their families sign language. Their argument is that deaf children who have no linguistic information in the early years of their lives are still clearly able to think, as shown by their actions.

Some might argue that it makes no difference. Bloom and Keil (2001) note that babies don’t know the names of the things and beings that occupy the world around them but that does not mean they are not aware of them. They refer to an idea by Jerry Fodor (1975) called ‘mentalese’ or ‘a language of thought’, which suggests that any kind of language learning is a sort of second language learning. It implies that it shouldn’t matter if an infant is deaf as babies do not understand language in the way that adults do so whether they can hear or not should not be a factor in the discussion of the relationship between language and thought.

I personally believe that language has an impact on our thoughts but only to a certain degree. The ‘feral’ or ‘wild child’ Genie Wiley gained some linguistic knowledge and was able to speak about events from her past before she knew any sort of language (Nova : 1994, Secret of the Wild Child, Youtube: August 29, 2012). This, amongst certain other implications, suggests to me that language is not the only factor that allows us to think. However, I do believe that my language has an impact on the way I think.  I believe that the relationship between language and thought is somewhat of an individual matter,  which depends on independent factors such as culture and upbringing.

  LAURA TAYLOR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bloom, P. and Keil, F (2001) Thinking Through Language. Mind and Language 16(4), pp. 351-67.

Fodor, J.A, (1975) The Language of Thought. Harvard University Press.

McWhorter, J. (2014) The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Nova (1994), Secret of the Wild Child, Youtube




How central are culture and colour to the language and thought debate? OLIVIA WINDMILL considers the options

Deutscher (2011) argues that “[a] nations’s language […] reflects its culture psyche and modes of thought”. So I am asking the question whether the language we use every day can reflect the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. As Deutscher (2011) pointed out, think about the word ‘culture’ itself. How might someone with an English background’s definition differ to that of someone with a German background? From the Chambers English Dictionary, Deutscher presents the definition, “the state of being cultivated, refinement, the result of cultivation, a type of civilization” (2011: 8) and from the Storig German dictionary, “[t]he totality of intellectual and artistic achievements of a society” (2011: 8). Just from these definitions we can see the differences in cultures. The stereotype is of Germans being precise, in contrast to the English awkwardly avoiding the task of giving a specific definition. Like Deutscher says, does this mean that our language is a form of representing ourselves to the rest of world, and that our inner thoughts and perceptions are reflected through the words of communication?

This view is known as linguistic determinism, an approach towards the language and thought debate which claims that our language controls the way we think. While this approach has its merits and perhaps some valid points, there are other viewpoints to consider when debating the relationship between language and thought.

Functionalism is the polar opposite to linguistic determinism. It proposes the idea that thought is the entity which controls our language. Consider universal grammar. This concept hypothesizes that no matter what language you speak, every human being has the same mental capacity for language and the ability to learn fundamental grammars. Bearing this in mind, could it imply that every person will see the world in the same way? Surely if every person has the same basis of language in their brain, the thought behind language will be influencing the way the world is seen, not the actual language itself. Or perhaps not. There is another side to this argument which might make you think differently…

Linguistic Relativity is a weaker version of linguistic determinism. Personally I see it taking the best bits of linguistic determinism, formulating them into a much more credible, and persuasive argument.

Think about the way you see colours compared to someone else. The colour ‘blue’ has many different shades. You could just state the difference between dark blue and light blue, or you could apply different labels for shades in the palate, for example, ‘navy’, ‘cerulean’ or ‘turquoise’. No matter which way you choose to describe a colour, does that mean that you see it in a different way as someone who uses a different lexical label? In 2007, Winawer, Whittoft et al. investigated Russian and English speakers’ perception of the colour ‘blue’. The difference between English and Russian is that speakers of Russian have two separate words for dark blue, ‘siniy’ and light blue, ‘goluboy’, whereas in English, the noun is modified by the adjective. Their investigation showed that Russian speakers were quicker in a colour matching task when categorising different stimuli. However when participating in a linguistic task at the same time, they were no quicker than the English speakers. Having different words for the different shades of blue made the task easier for the Russian participants. It also seems to make it easier to process information. Could it therefore be claimed that language really does impact upon thought?

I have introduced the three main viewpoints on this difficult topic and have hopefully shown you how we can think about these with real life examples. However there are more studies and theories behind each of the three main arguments. I would recommend having a read of literature on the Sapir Whorf hypothesis. Although it is dated, it does have some very valid points for the linguistic relativity argument. Personally, I think it is easy to see how certain aspects of each of the arguments have their own validity and could be seen to be the answer to the language and thought debate, and as it is such a tricky topic, particularly because it is hard to prove most aspects of any argument, we will never know what our languages say to the rest of the world about the inner workings of our minds.

OLIVIA WINDMILL, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK



Deutscher, G (2011) Through the Language Glass: Why the world looks different in other languages London: Arrow Books.

Winawer, Whittoft et al (2007) Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. PNAS 104 (19). pp. 7780-85.