‘Can we count on language influencing the way we think?’ asks OLIVER TAYLOR

Does language influence thought? Can we think without any linguistic influence at all? These questions present two conflicting stances in the debate as to whether or not language and thought do indeed share a relationship.

People who generally believe that there is a relationship between language and thought will mostly agree with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis is usually split into two forms, strong (linguistic determinism) and weak (linguistic relativism). Linguistic determinism, being the strong form of the argument, views thought as being completely determined by language. With no concrete evidence to prove that thought is determined by language, the weak form of the argument exists as a view of language only influencing thought, and not completely governing it. To argue against this hypothesis is to believe that language and thought share no connection. With no way to prove or disprove an influence of language and thought, let’s take a look at some key arguments for and against this relationship with a more focused look at those against.

In his research into the language usage of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe, Everett (2013) argues that a lack of number words in their language may affect the way the Pirahã think. They in fact do not count because of this absence of language. It’s hard to imagine a world without any concept of counting. Surely even without language for it there are ways of conveying number. Everett (2013: 256) concludes that “the Pirahãs do not count because they do not have number words” stating that this conclusion “would support the Whorf hypothesis”. This statement seems kind of obvious and leaves me feeling very underwhelmed by the conclusion. McWhorter (2014) responds that it’s no mystery that a lack of numbers “in the language of one group makes them bad at math”. Of course without language for numbers the concept of counting is void. McWhorter (2014) goes further to state that “hunter-gatherers don’t need to count, and thus often their languages have no word for the number 307”. You can’t just showcase a particular group’s restrictions in language and claim that therefore because there is no understanding of concepts around that particular language usage, their thoughts are influenced by language. If the Pirahã have no use for counting in their language, maybe it isn’t as fundamental to their lives as ours.

Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) argue that “thought does not require language” by giving examples of thought that couldn’t possibly be formulated as language in the brain, scenarios “in which children did not use spoken or sign language”. One example is of a girl reaching for candy in a grocery store. When she is told that she cannot have it by the mother, she throws a tantrum, “her mother’s cheeks flame, and she gives the girl the candy” (Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010: 51). Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) present the farfetched idea that because deaf children act in similar ways to other toddlers who are not “linguistically deprived” in scenarios like the example mentioned, they are able to think without linguistic input. I find this statement difficult to wholly agree with. There is no concrete way of truly knowing whether deaf children have developed without linguistic input just because they have not been diagnosed. We cannot know when a deaf child begins to interpret signs around them as a language, before conventional sign language is implemented into their life. Despite this obvious thought, Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) conclude that “there is no possibility […] that their thought is in a specific human language since they have not begun to acquire any specific human language”. It seems to me that they are just stating how things are with little evidence to support their claims.

With the problem being that “any influence of language on thought is difficult to prove or disprove empirically” (Deutscher, G. 2011: 20-22). I think we can only sit on the fence in this debate. The position of linguistic relativism seems a fair one to take as I believe language does influence thought to some extent, not completely. Since there’s no way to prove or disprove my position, it frustrates me to not be able to sufficiently argue it without holes being picked in backing theories, but I guess it’s better than having an extremist neo-Whorfian determinist view.

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

References

Everett, D. (2012). Language: The Cultural Tool. London: Profile Books.

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

McWhorther, J. H. (2014). The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Napoli, D. J., & Lee-Schoenfeld, V. (2010). Language Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

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2 thoughts on “‘Can we count on language influencing the way we think?’ asks OLIVER TAYLOR

  1. Ella says:

    The argument between language and thought is a fickle one. Does language influence thought? Do they co-exist? Both valid questions, however with the evidence put forward I am more inclined to have a relative view or even go as far to say there is little connection whatsoever. The study on the Pirahã tribe and its lack of numbered words is something I would criticize. The fact there is a deficit in numbered words would surely support the idea that language and thought can co-exist, as there is no language to influence thought. The concept of number exists without the tribe needing to express it through specific lexis, and this is supported by Napoli and Lee-Schoenfields (2010) study.

    I agree, due to the relevant evidence, that it is difficult to decide a concrete opinion on this issue, however, due to other existing evidence, such as the vast vocabulary Inuit’s have for snow, Whorf’s argument for linguistic relativism seems reasonable. They can think more intelligently about their natural environment due to the language present, although Pullum does highlight that English speakers do have many snow related words and phrases, so does this in turn equate to Inuit’s intelligence on snow?
    Either way, the language and thought relationship will always spark a debate due to the difficulty proving either argument true.

  2. Emily Silvester says:

    Hi Oliver, I found the Pirahã tribe to be a fascinating base argument regarding Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis that thought requires language and a connection between the two can be made.

    The reference to linguistic dimension is interesting as it is often known as the prison house view of language’ (Mooney. A, 2011) which states that the limits found within language further limit the world around us. However as you’ve evidenced with Mcworter’s (2014) example’ hunter-gathers don’t need to count’ as their hunt may never reach a number such as 200 which would suggest the environment impacting on thought in a way that is deemed necessary for the individual or culture. If such a concept was regarded, then new ideas and meanings would be created to represent such which is why linguistic dimension is not a widely held view.

    I have frequently come into contact with the shocking fact that the Pirahã tribe cannot tell you how many children they have, which is used to support the link between language and thought. However, they could describe their children, recognise them by face and distinguish if one where to go missing, so I argue, do we need language to have a concept and is there any influence between thought and behaviour at all?

    I really enjoyed the sign language segment as it both giveth and taketh away. You seem biased in your approached labelling the evidence as ‘farfetched’. However, I would argue whether it matters if the knowledge of a deaf child’s thought linguistic input is known. The correct meaning was obtained through the child’s tantrum and therefore language was not necessary to act in their environment to derive meaning.

    Could it be argued that we naturally think based on the world and our surroundings and respond accordingly?

    McWhorther, J. H. (2014). The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Mooney, A et al. (Eds) (2011) The language society & power reader. London and New York: Rutledge.

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