The relationship between language and thought has been debated for centuries by linguists. A good way of explaining this complex topic is to think of translating a joke into another language … no matter how hard you try, the joke is never complete until the very last detail. Linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf tried to make sense of the dilemma and were subsequently labelled the originators of what became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis supports the notion that language strongly influences thought and “that language influences the way people perceive and think about the world” (Lund, 2003, p. 10). It is important to note that they did not formally write a hypothesis nor support it with empirical evidence. Other linguists built on the original ideas which were put forward by Sapir & Whorf to form the linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism hypotheses.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis (this can be very complicated) and two versions were recognised. “The ‘strong’ version is that language determines thought […] [and] [t]he ‘weak’ version is that language influences thought” (Lund, 2003, p. 11). The strong version includes many ideas and concepts that we have. Thoughts which are possible in one language may not be possible in another. If you have a word for something in your language, you are more likely to recognise and remember it. For example, “the Italians even have a word for the mark left on a table by a moist glass (culacino)” (Bryson, 2009, p. 4) whereas in English language we do not. Whorf (1956) noted that Inuits use a range of words for ‘snow’ to indicate its category. Try and pronounce the following examples: ‘katiyana’ – night snow, and ‘kiln’ – remembered snow (James, 2017). Lenneberg and Roberts (1956) criticised this theory as it was a circular argument which assumed that “because languages differ, thinking must differ” (as cited in Lund, 2003, p. 13). Think back to those wintery nights, how would you describe snow? Slushy, thick or thin? Does this demonstrate that in the English language we do have variations?
The weak version is broken down into two sections. Firstly, language influences perception and secondly language influences memory (Miller & McNeil, as cited in Lund, 2003, p. 14). Carmichael et al. (1932) supported the weakest form and they showed participants a series of nonsense pictures with a verbal label. This seemed to influence the memory of these nonsense pictures, showing the influence of language on the memory of objects. The second theory links to the way that different languages name and divide colours into categories. Berlin & Kay (1969) compared the basic colour terms that were used in 98 different languages. If a language had two terms they would use black and white but if a language had six terms black, white, red, yellow, blue and green would be used. They were used systematically and the 11 basic colour terms were called the focus colours. People usually pick out the same 11 colours regardless of the colour terms in their language. Can you name all the 11 colours or are you on the conflicting side of the debate?
On the opposing side is the linguistic determinism hypothesis. It is often referred to as “‘the prison house view of language’” (Mooney & Evans, 2015, p. 28). This theory claims that language and thought are separate entities and “[i]f a linguistic sign is not available for a particular concept, that concept is difficult […] for the speaker to imagine” (Mooney & Evans, 2015, p.28). It is believed that different cultures are shaped by different social interactions and experiences. They would therefore have a language that reflects the perception of their habitat because our thought processes originate from the experiences of our culture. For example, “Italian is the language of love” (Evans, 2014, p. 192). This shows a distinct characteristic of languages due to the way their native speakers think. Political correctness (sorry to add another dimension at this late point) could be described as a social phenomenon. The society and culture we are born into may determine whether we think a word is offensive or not. This shows that we are shaping our language because of the world around us.
So how is language and thought connected? And does language affect how you think? At this rate language and thought will become another chicken and egg situation, so I think we will continue debating this for centuries!
CHARLOTTE SCOTT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Berlin, B. and Kay, P. (1969). Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
Bryson, B. (2009). Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Carmichael, L., Hogan, P. and Walter, A. (1932). An experimental study of the effect of language on the reproduction of visually perceived forms. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 15, 1-22.
Evans, V. (2014). The Language Myth: Why Language is not an Instinct. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
James, P. (2017). Inuit Words for Snow. Ontology.buffalo.edu. Retrieved 28 March 2017, from http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/varia/snow.html
Lund, N. (2003). Language and thought (1st ed.). London; New York: Routledge.
Mooney, A., & Evans, B. (2015). Language, society and power: An introduction (4th ed.). London: Routledge.
Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writing of Benjamin Lee Whorf. New York: John Wiley.