Are thought and language divorced from each other or destined for inextricable coupling? ISOBEL STANFORD acts as arbiter.

Language and Thought – the most controversial linguistic couple of the 21st century. The relationship between language and thought is certainly a highly debated topic in the field of linguistics. The relationship between language and thought can be defined in the sense that language is used both to communicate with others and to monitor our internal thoughts, or as Harley (2001, p. 1) notes, “in some form or another it so dominates our social and cognitive activity that it would be difficult to imagine what life would be without it’. But that’s exactly it. How would we be able to communicate our thoughts and feelings without language?

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is probably the most well-known theory of the language and thought relationship. We will begin with the fact that there are two versions of this hypothesis. The first is the ‘strong’ version (also known as linguistic determinism) which states that language determines thought. Seems like a good idea in practice right? Wrong. The theory is that the language we speak determines the nature of our thoughts, including ideas and concepts that we are able to have (Lund, 2001, p. 11). It also proposes that thoughts are possible in one language but may not be possible in another. Obviously this sounds like a ridiculous idea because different languages do not necessarily lead to different thoughts about the same concept. A perfect example is the German word ‘Schadenfreude’. Everyone has that little bit of evil in them that takes pleasure in the misfortune of others. Speakers of other languages recognise the concept without needing to have a word for it (Bryson, 1990, p. 4).

To put this into context a little, I will discuss the people of the Pirahã tribe. Everett (2005) noted that members of the tribe do not have numbers within their language. This means that they do not have the concept of being able to count. This side of the argument would say that this is because their language has determined their thoughts leading to them not being aware that numbers exist. If a language lacks a certain concept such as numbers, the question to be answered is whether or not lacking these concepts affects their lives in any way? It can be argued that if they do not know that this concept exists, they are not ‘missing out’ as it signals that they do not need this concept to live their lives. I mean it must be a good tactic to play down how many children you have!

The second is the ‘weak’ version (also known as linguistic relativism) which states that language influences thought. This means that language has a more subtle effect on thought and only influences what we perceive or remember about events or objects. This relates to the idea that if you have a word for something in your language you are more likely to recognise it and remember it than someone who does not have it in their language. Hunt and Agnoli (1991, p.377) have claimed that the hypothesis that language influences thought is so vague that it is unprovable. It seems that it is hard to distinguish whether studies relating to this identify whether perception or memory are being investigated.

Davidoff et al (1999) studied the Berinmo language of Papua New Guinea and identified a colour boundary in English (between blue and green) that does not exist in Berinmo. They also identified a similar colour boundary that exists in Berinmo (between ‘nol’ and ‘wor’) that does not exist in English. Those involved were asked to remember a colour over 30 seconds then to select it from two similar alternatives. The English speakers showed an advantage for blue-green decisions and Berinmo showed an advantage for nol-wor decisions. Davidoff et al (1999, p.204) claim that their results are “consistent with there being a considerable degree of linguistic influence on colour categorisation” and therefore support the weak side of the hypothesis.

Which side would you take in this controversial argument? I and many others are in support for the ‘weak’ side of the argument and this is simply because the ‘strong’ side is simply too abstract in what it believes. Linguistic relativism does have its drawbacks too though and these should not be forgotten. The arguments for the ‘weak’ side of the argument are exactly that – weak. The reasons for this are that there is a lack of tangible evidence for this form.

Language affects thought or thought affects language… Who really knows the answer to this million dollar question?

ISOBEL STANFORD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bryson, B. (1990). Mother tongue (1st ed.). London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

Davidoff, J., Davies, I., and Robertson, D. (1999). Colour categories in a stone-age tribe. Nature, 398, 203-204

Everett, D. (2005). Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã. Current Anthropology 46 (4). 621-646.

Harley, T., A. (2001). The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory (2nd ed.). Hove, United Kingdom: Psychology Press.

Hunt, E., and Agnoli, F. (1991). The Whorfian hypothesis: a cognitive psychological perspective. Psychological Review, 98, 377-389.

Lund, N. (2003). Language and thought (1st ed.). Hove, United Kingdom: Routledge.


One thought on “Are thought and language divorced from each other or destined for inextricable coupling? ISOBEL STANFORD acts as arbiter.

  1. Megan Moody says:

    It is clear that the answer to your title question is complicated. Montgomery (2008:253) answers the question stating ‘thought is difficult to separate from language; each is woven inextricably into the other’. Alternatively, Bloom and Keil (2001:364) argue that ‘thought does not require language’ by providing ‘instances of thought that couldn’t possibly have been formulated in the brain in terms of language’. This emphasizes how controversial the language and thought debate is.

    This debate refers to the chicken-and-egg question, however I feel there is so much more involved than just language and thought but also cultural factors. Birner agrees, stating “it seems likely that language, thought and culture form three stands of a braid, with each one affecting the others” (1999, For example, social media has hugely impacted language and how it has evolved, such as new slang words, acronyms and abbreviations have been created.

    I agree that the weaker form of the Saphir Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativism is slightly more convincing. The idea that language influences thought rather than determines it, especially if we refer to Boas claim that Eskimos have hundreds of word for snow. However questions arise about whether they are forced to inherit the words because of the natural environment around them.

    Do you think learning a new language would change the way you think? Do polyglots think differently when speaking different languages?


    Birner, B. (1999). Linguistic Society of America. [Weblog]. Retrieved 15 April 2017.

    Bloom, P. & Keil, F.C. (2001) Thinking through language. Mind & Language 16(1), 351-367.

    Montgomery, M. (2008) An Introduction to Language and Society. (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

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