Is the self wrapped up in language or does the concept of the selfie exist outside of the word? GEORGE MORRIS engages in some self-reflection

Have you ever thought about how you think? Ever wondered if I know what you know? I know that you know, that I know that you know.

“What is a thought without a voice to voice it?” Reynolds (2010) asks. But another question is: ‘would we have any given thought if not for our language in which we construct them?’ Academics are often torn by the two potential answers to this question – either our thoughts are determined by the constraints of our language, or the thoughts can still exist outside the barriers of verbal communication. However, the pedantic linguists among us, such as Lund (2003) describe a ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ version of something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – where all the brain straining commotion stems from. For example Whorf writes, “[w]e dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it” (1956). The ‘strong’ form of this theory, as described by Lund (2003) states, “language determines thought”, whereas the ‘weak’ form suggests “language influences thought”.  The language and thought can of worms cracked and spilled, it allows us to decide how we approach the vastly complex understanding of whether we believe language is a proverbial ‘straight-jacket’.

Bloom and Keil write: “nobody doubts that language can inform, convince, persuade, soothe, dismay, encourage and so on […]” (2001, p.351) to which Evans agrees arguing that “it is a truism, then, that language influences thought: we do so almost every time we use language.” (2014, p.193). In everyday life, the influence of language is evident – education, politics, work place, or even our romantic and personal lives. The way we function and interact with the world around us, and especially other people, is widely influenced by our language system. This view of language and thought is described as ‘determinism’ (Evans and Green, 2006). Lamarque writes that “[w]ithout language there would be no possibility of abstract thought or even perhaps self-reflection” (1997, p.1). The potentially depressing subject of ‘self-reflection’ could however lead to a different approach to the language and thought debate: what if language holds little influence on our thought? What if our cultural exposure and worldview play a part in our thought conceptualisation?

Pinker disagrees with the idea of determinism, arguing that “[t]he idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called conventional absurdity […] there is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking…” (1994).  So in opposition to determinism is the idea that ‘universals’ (Evans & Green, 2006, p.54) exist and concepts of objects, actions or even numeric values would still be present in a linguistically void hypothetical society. Bloom describes human thought to be responsive: “[t]here is no such thing as thought. There is only behaviour. The things humans say, the operations they perform, the reactions they have, and the acts in which they engage constitute nothing more than an integration of the responses that they have been forced to make” (1981, p.4). Thought could be perceived by the universalists as a response to the world around them. If there is a need to do something or react to something happening then the thought process will occur. For example, in communities where language does not exist to describe colour it does not mean the concept is void – rather the community may have a description or unique phrase to determine the concept. Everett describes his research into the Pirahã tribe who use language to describe colour concepts in a different way to English speakers: “[e]ach word for colour in Pirahã was actually a phrase. For example, biísai did not mean simply ‘red’. It was a phrase that meant ‘it is like blood’.” (2013, p.257).

Furthermore, the invention of new words to describe new concepts also defies the notion of linguistic determinism. In modern society, the Oxford English Dictionary is continuously updated in order to ‘keep up’ with an ever-changing Web.20 society. With words like ‘selfie’ (a photo of oneself), ‘binge-watching’ (watching many or all episodes of a TV series in rapid succession), and ‘humblebrag’ (to make a modest statement that intends to draw attention to one’s admirable qualities) are now officially part of our modern vocabulary. Surely this could suggest that language is warped around culture and thought?

Personally, I believe that language does shape our day-to-day lives and thoughts, albeit influentially and not totally. Although we can influence and plant seeds of thought into our peer’s own worldview, we still need new language to describe our ever-changing culture… Or maybe the whole language and thought debate is just one big ‘facepalm’ (to cover one’s face with the hand as an expression of exasperation).

GEORGE MORRIS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bloom, A. (1981). The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: a study in the impact on thinking in China and The West. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawerence Erlbaum Associates.

Bloom, P. & Keil, F.C. (2001). Thinking through language. Mind and Language 16(4) 351-367.

Evans, V. (2014). The language myth: why language is not an instinct. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, V. & Green, M. (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Everett, D. (2013). Language, Culture and Thinking. London: Profile Books.

Lamarque, P. (1997). Concise Encyclopaedia of Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Kidlington: Elesevier Science Ltd.

Lund, N. (2003). Language and Thought. (1st ed.). London, United Kingdom: New York: Routledge.

Reynolds, R. (2010). Tribalism. Retrieved April 7, 2017, from

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: United States of America. Penguin: Penguin Science.

Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality.



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