After decades of theories and criticisms, just what is the connection between language and thought? This blog summarises the three main viewpoints: linguistic determinism, linguistic relativity and no-connection, acknowledging critiques encountered along the way.
Linguistic determinism is the belief that a speaker’s native language determines how they perceive the world. Like a train track that dictates the route of a train, our world perception is trapped by what is and is not possible in our language. Presently dismissed due to a lack of feasibility, Whorf famously justified this theory by referring to the language of the Inuits. Inuits possess a mass of snow-related vocabulary and this, Whorf argued, causes them to perceive snow in ways that English speakers, with their ‘lone’ word for the substance, cannot (see Whorf 1940 in Carroll, 1956, p.216).
This controversial outlook has since been met with numerous critics. Pullum (1991) rejects any notion that English speakers have a single word for snow, confirming English snow-related lexis such as: ‘slush’, ‘sleet’, ‘hair’ and ‘frost’ (see p.163). Pullum also references Boas (1911) to illustrate how additional words are created though the modification of the root word ‘snow’ i.e. ‘snowflake’, ‘fluffy snow’, ‘good-packing snow’ etc. (see Pullum, 1991, p.163). Similarly, Garnham & Oakhill (1994) use the example of skiers to demonstrate that the reason for the Inuits’ snow-heavy vocabulary is not because of a difference in their concepts of snow, but because of their environmental requirements (see Lund 2003, p. 14). They state that skiers have a snow-full vocabulary but that this is different again to Inuits due to their differing surroundings (see Garnham & Oakhill 1994, cited by Lund 2003, p. 14). This point is reiterated further by Pastorino & Doyle-Portillo who argue that “researchers have found that despite significant differences in language, cognitive processing of information is often very similar across cultures.”(2011, p.283).
The other, less extreme half of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that “[w]e see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation” (Sapir, 1929, p.207). Linguistic relativity judges language to not determine thought, but to influence it. Evidence to support this theory can be found when observing the way that speakers of gender marked languages percieve the world. Fromkin, Rodmano, Hyams, (2013) give the example of a study which required Spanish and German speakers label the word ‘bridge’ with English adjectives (p.24). The results found that speakers described the word using adjectives which possessed connotations in line with its grammatical gender e.g. Spanish speakers labelled the femininely-marked bridge as “beautiful, elegant [and] fragile” and German speakers defined their masculine-marked bridge as “big dangerous [and][…] strong” (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, 2013, p.24). Here the influence that gender-marked languages have on a speaker’s perception of the world is clearly exhibited.
Despite this, some linguists still dismiss the language and thought connection all together. Pinker (1994) rejects the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, raising problematic matters such as the invention of novel words, which would be unfeasible if thought was reliant on language (see pp.57-58). Instead, Pinker puts forward the idea of ‘mentalese’, an “internal language upon which the expressed language draws” (Birtchnell, 2003, p.178). To demonstrate this claim, Pinker gives the example of writing a sentence that doesn’t accuraely express what we intended it to; this intended expression is the “language of thought” (1994, p.57). Defined by Birtchnell (2003) as “the ideas, meanings and concepts that lie behind the words, to which the words give expression” (p.178), Pinker highlights the more straightforward nature of mentalese with “constructions (like a and the) [being] absent” (1994, pp.82).
Although seemingly sounder than linguistic determinism, this theory also has its critics. As Gethin (1999) points out, a potentially problematic issue with Pinker’s mentalese is that “if words such as a and the do not exist in Mentalese, how can they arise in languages humans actually use?” (p.39). Surely we can think about these articles when translating thought into verbal language, but then how would this be possible if the language of thought did not contain them? (see Gethin, 1999, p.40).
So what, if any, is the connection between language and thought? I have tried to provide a small insight into the vast research available and the most rational explanation encountered thus far, is that of Birner (1999). Birner uses the metaphor of a braid, with the three strands represented by language, thought and culture, to comment on how “each one affect[s] the others” (see Birner 1999). Surely there is a slight connection between language and thought, but how can we truly prove that our language determines, influences or has no connection to our worldly perception?
HANNAH NESBITT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Boas, F. (1911). Introduction to The handbook of’ North American Indians, Vol. I , Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 40, 1 , Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Reprinted by Georgetown University Press, Washington D.C. (c. 1963) and by University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska (1966).
Whorf, B.L. (1940/1956). Science and linguistics. Technology Review, 42, 8, 229-231, 247-248. Reprinted in Carroll, J.B. (Ed.), Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (pp. 207-219). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.