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.


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