There’s an on-going debate questioning whether our language can limit our thought processes. The distinct syntactic and lexical differences between different native languages are obvious, but do speakers of these languages think in different ways because of this? Ultimately, it’s a chicken-and-egg question – are we unable to think of things because we lack words for them, or do we lack words for things we don’t think about? It’s been proposed that an absence of vocabulary for a concept would inhibit our ability to think about it. But is language really hindering our ability to think to this extent?
Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf believed they had all the answers with what became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The strong version of this hypothesis is known as ‘linguistic determinism’ i.e. that our thoughts are totally determined by our language, with the linguistic system as “the shaper of ideas” (Whorf and Carroll, 1956). Such a strong proposal would be needing some solid evidence. Whorf argued that due to Inuits’ prolific number of words for snow, they view it in a different way to English speakers who only have the one word – ‘snow’ (cited in Pastorino & Doyle-Portillo, 2011, p.283). Further support for linguistic determinism comes from the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon who apparently have no number word in their lexicon. Despite attempts to teach the Pirahã to count, they are unable to learn to do so. But if our language entirely determines our thoughts, then without it we would be unable to think? I’m not convinced, and neither is McWhorter (2014). He argues that English speakers do have more words for ‘snow’ such as ‘blizzard’, ‘sleet’, ‘flurry etc., and a hunter-gather tribe like the Pirahã have no need for the word ‘116’ or to do long division.
A more considerable, weaker version of the hypothesis is linguistic relativity. This is the idea that our language merely influences our thoughts and that the language spoken by a person guides the way they see the world (Beek, 2006). Evidence for this idea comes from how Russians distinguish light- blue (‘goluboy’) and dark-blue (‘siniy’), compared to the one term (‘blue’) which is held in English. A study asking English and Russian participants to match squares which were perceptually identical in colour, showed that having different terms for dark/light blue results in people differentiating those colours more quickly (Winawer, Witthoft, Frank, Wu, Wade, & Boroditsky, 2007). In terms of linguistic relativity, this shows that language does influence the way we see/differentiate colours. However, it goes without saying that McWhorter (2014) has a view on this. He makes the point that we all know the difference between light-blue and dark-blue, but we don’t need separate words for them. He also discusses the Namibia people of Africa who only have one single term for both ‘green’ and ‘blue’. They obviously know the difference between the two colours and found the idea of having two separate words ‘silly’. Support which I feel does have some scope in terms of linguistic relativity is Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams’ (2013) consideration of gender-marked languages. A study requiring German and Spanish participants to describe different nouns using English adjectives, showed how both nationalities described masculine-marked words using adjectives with masculine connotations, and vice versa. This is a clear demonstration of how language influences how we view things.
There is also huge support for the idea that there is no connection between language and thought. Pinker slates the Sapir- Whorf hypothesis, suggesting it is “all wrong” (1994, p. 57). Gethin (1999) points out how we are able to think about concepts which we have no words or symbol for. For example, the Ghanaian word for ‘moving hot food around in your mouth’ is ‘pelinti’ (Buzzfeed, 2015). Despite our lack of vocabulary for this concept, we remain able to think about it, it is just expressed with lower codability (how easily language can express a thought) (West & Turner, 2008). I can’t help but think it’s unlikely that language and thought have no connection at all since, as Gethin (1999) points out himself, without thought we would be unable to produce language.
For me, linguistic determinism can be written off as an improbable contribution to this language debate. Linguistic relativity seems a more significant proposal and the evidence for language influencing thought seems more likely. I personally believe that our language does affect how we see the world to an extent but our experiences and culture also play an important role. In my opinion, Birner offers the best explanation of the relationship between language and thought: “It seems likely that language, thought and culture form three strands of a braid, with each one affecting the others” (1999, www.linguisticsociety.org).
EMILY PAGE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A. R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences of the United States of America, 104(19), 7780-5.