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

References

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 http://www.axzlyrics.com

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.

 

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

References

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.

Is language and thought just another chicken and egg situation? CHARLOTTE SCOTT ponders snow, colours and glass stains.

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

References

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 SnowOntology.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.

 

To what extent does language influence thought. KATHERINE BRIDGE weighs up universalism and relativity.

What is the relationship between language and thought? Do our thoughts influence our language, or is it the other way around? These are questions that have been dividing linguists for decades.

Frege (1892) saw language as a telescope, through which we see the world and develop thought (see Bloom, 1960, pp. 4-5). This argument encapsulates the relativist stance. and is popularly known as the ‘The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’, with the belief that language influences thought. Within this stance, linguists are divided as to what extent language influences thought. Whorf (1956) is often attributed with the idea that thought is largely determined by our language. Famously, Whorf gave the example of Inuit languages having multiple words for ‘snow’. His theory was supported by Weisgerber, who suggested that speakers of different languages have differing perceptions of the world around them. He states that their use of language resulted in cultural differences, (see Jones, 2013, pp. 6-9). Wittgenstein (1922) also argued in favour of linguistic determinism, and said that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.

The weaker version of this theory, ‘linguistic relativity’, suggests that language only influences thought. This view was suggested by Sapir, who argued that “a common language cannot indefinitely set the seal on a common culture…” (1921, p. 215). Bloom (1981) for instance, argues that children develop thought long before they develop speech. He argued that language cannot, therefore, entirely determine thought. Instead, he pressed the importance of asking not ‘does language determine thought?’ but rather ‘to what extent does language shape thought?’

The other side of the debate is the universalist stance, which argues that thought is independent from language. Regier, Kay, Gilbert, and Irvy (2007, p.165) support this theory, claiming that “language is shaped by universals of human cognition” and that our language is made up of “semantic distinctions drawn from a limited palette of universally available options”. Goldin-Meadow’s 2003 research studies the language of deaf children.  After noticing that deaf children developed communicative skills in patterns similar to that of non-hearing-impaired children, she argues that children do not need a traditional language model to develop cognitive awareness, (pp. 423-519).

In further support of this approach, Berlin and Kay studied colour and cognition. They found that the order in which colour terms were introduced into a developing language was predictable; for example: language begins with colour terms for only light and dark, followed by the introduction of other colours in a universal order. They conclude that languages acquire colour terms chronologically, which implies that thought shapes language (1969).

Kay’s research in brain lateralization concludes that “[the] Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left” (see Gilbert, Regier, Kay & Irvy, 2006). Therefore, though there is evidence to support linguistic determinism, there must be other factors influencing language and thought.

In conclusion, it is clear that this debate traditionally splits linguists into two groups: supporters of relativism, and supporters of universalism. The strong version of the relativist stance, ‘linguistic determinism’, argues that thought is entirely determined by language. The weak version, however, claims that language only influences thought. Linguists who support this weaker version of the stance suggest that the more important question is ‘to what extent does language influence thought?’. The universalist stance states that thought shapes the language that we use, and that our perception of the world enables us to develop languages. However, some theorists reject the idea of oppositional stances, and suggest that there must be elements of both when discussing the relationship between language and thought.

KATHERINE BRIDGE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 

References

Berlin, B., & Kay, P. (1969). Basic color terms: their universality and evolution. Berkeley,       CA: University of California Press.

Bloom, A. H. (1981). The linguistic shaping of thought. Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum    Associates.

Frege, G. (1892). On sense and reference. In P. Geach & M. Black (Eds.), Philosophical writings of Gottlob Frege. (1960). Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil  Blackwell.

Jones, W. J. (2013). German colour terms: a study in their historical evolution from            earliest times to the present. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins Pub. Co.

Gilbert, A. L., Regier, T., Kay. P., & Irvy, R. B. (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of   America, 103(2), 489-494.

Goldin-Meadow, S. Thought before language: do we think ergative? In D. Gentner, & S. Goldin-Meadow, Language in mind. (2003). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York: Morrow.

Regier, T., Kay, P., Gilbert, A., & Irvy, R. (2007). Language and thought: Which side are you on, anyway? In B. Malt., & W. Wolff (Eds.). Words and the mind: How words   capture human experience (pp. 165-182). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sapir, E. (1921). Language: an introduction to the study of speech. New York City, NY:  Harcourt Brace and Co.

Wittgenstein, L. (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: The Edinburgh Press.

Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought, and reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

JACK HOLLAND tries to distinguish dream from reality as he tackles linguistic relativity

The relationship between the language we speak and the thoughts we envision is rather hazy. In many ways it is like trying to remember a dream. You almost come to a conclusion, but you can’t quite finalise that last detail. Of the many sides to this debate, I aim to detail the belief that language determines or influences thought. This train of thought is often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Before delving into the two forms of this hypothesis, it is important to note that the titular Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf are not the first to propose this argument, but they are arguably the most strongly associated with it.

The first form we’re going to look at is the strong form, also known as ‘linguistic determinism’ (or, more affectionately, the ‘prison house’ view of Language). Edward Sapir is considered a proponent of this form of the hypothesis, and he’s quoted as saying “The ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality” (1958. P. 69). To dumb this down a bit (largely so that I can understand it), he’s basically saying that because different languages are, well, different, they can’t all possibly represent the same concepts. Let’s take a look at this in context.

Take an experiment that involved speakers from two different countries, straight lines, and squares. Then, according to McWhorter (2014: 5),  “show an English speaker – who says a long time – a line slowly lengthening toward an end point on screen, and then a square slowly filling up from bottom to top, and she’s better at guessing how long it will take the line to hit the end than for the square to be full”. Taking this experiment at face value, it seems obvious that linguistic determinism is relevant, and exists in the real world. To further support this, observations of Brazil’s Piraha tribe have shown that they don’t have numbers, and they also do not count. A proponent of linguistic determinism could reasonably argue that the lack of numbers in the Pirahas’ language has determined their thoughts (or should I say, lack of thoughts) involving numbers.

However, unfortunately for linguistic determinism, we don’t have to stop there. While there are differences in the times it took for different language speakers to guess how long the line or square takes to reach a certain point, these differences are practically insignificant. In fact, they’re so insignificant that it’s difficult for me to present it as an argument without feeling dishonest. We’ll come back to the Piraha tribe momentarily.

The second form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is known as ‘linguistic relativism’. Benjamin Whorf is strongly associated with this form (though some critics argue that he is misunderstood – the arguments never end!). Linguistic relativism argues that languages only influences thought, rather than determining it. Whorf states that “[t]he world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds” (1940: 213-14). Whorf is basically saying that as different concepts become apparent to us, it is the linguistic systems in our mind that sort and decipher them. This means that while language does not govern our thoughts, it organises and therefore influences them.

Earlier I mentioned the Piraha tribe. Well, it turns out “that the Pirahas’ lack of counting and their lack of number words are both caused by a cultural taboo against unnecessary generalisations beyond the here and now” (Everett, 2012. P. 256). To put it simply, while a linguistic determinist might (absurdly) argue that the Piraha can’t conceive the concept of ‘quantity’ because of their lack of words for it, a linguistic relativist might argue that their cultural taboo of generalisation has influenced the thought processes in their cognitive linguistic systems which in turn influenced their language, and their thoughts about quantity.

In case you haven’t guessed already, of the two forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I (and pretty much everyone else) support the weaker form, as the implications of the strong form (1984, anyone?) are just plain unreasonable. Unfortunately, I have a problem with linguistic relativism too. Earlier I made a rather odd comparison to dreams. Well that’s because nobody can provide concrete evidence for the weak form. Any evidence or claims provided are often weak, and are themselves, debatable, and it just doesn’t leave a curious linguist with any satisfaction, a bit like eating at McDonalds.

It’s always close to convincing me, but nothing more.

JACK HOLLAND, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Everett, D. (2012). Language: The Cultural Tool. London: Profile Books.

McWhorter, J. H. (2014). The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sapir, E. (1958). Culture, Language and Personality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Whorf, B. L. (1940). Science and Linguistics. Technology Review, 35, 229-31, 247-8.

 

‘Can we count on language influencing the way we think?’ asks OLIVER TAYLOR

Does language influence thought? Can we think without any linguistic influence at all? These questions present two conflicting stances in the debate as to whether or not language and thought do indeed share a relationship.

People who generally believe that there is a relationship between language and thought will mostly agree with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis is usually split into two forms, strong (linguistic determinism) and weak (linguistic relativism). Linguistic determinism, being the strong form of the argument, views thought as being completely determined by language. With no concrete evidence to prove that thought is determined by language, the weak form of the argument exists as a view of language only influencing thought, and not completely governing it. To argue against this hypothesis is to believe that language and thought share no connection. With no way to prove or disprove an influence of language and thought, let’s take a look at some key arguments for and against this relationship with a more focused look at those against.

In his research into the language usage of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe, Everett (2013) argues that a lack of number words in their language may affect the way the Pirahã think. They in fact do not count because of this absence of language. It’s hard to imagine a world without any concept of counting. Surely even without language for it there are ways of conveying number. Everett (2013: 256) concludes that “the Pirahãs do not count because they do not have number words” stating that this conclusion “would support the Whorf hypothesis”. This statement seems kind of obvious and leaves me feeling very underwhelmed by the conclusion. McWhorter (2014) responds that it’s no mystery that a lack of numbers “in the language of one group makes them bad at math”. Of course without language for numbers the concept of counting is void. McWhorter (2014) goes further to state that “hunter-gatherers don’t need to count, and thus often their languages have no word for the number 307”. You can’t just showcase a particular group’s restrictions in language and claim that therefore because there is no understanding of concepts around that particular language usage, their thoughts are influenced by language. If the Pirahã have no use for counting in their language, maybe it isn’t as fundamental to their lives as ours.

Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) argue that “thought does not require language” by giving examples of thought that couldn’t possibly be formulated as language in the brain, scenarios “in which children did not use spoken or sign language”. One example is of a girl reaching for candy in a grocery store. When she is told that she cannot have it by the mother, she throws a tantrum, “her mother’s cheeks flame, and she gives the girl the candy” (Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010: 51). Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) present the farfetched idea that because deaf children act in similar ways to other toddlers who are not “linguistically deprived” in scenarios like the example mentioned, they are able to think without linguistic input. I find this statement difficult to wholly agree with. There is no concrete way of truly knowing whether deaf children have developed without linguistic input just because they have not been diagnosed. We cannot know when a deaf child begins to interpret signs around them as a language, before conventional sign language is implemented into their life. Despite this obvious thought, Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) conclude that “there is no possibility […] that their thought is in a specific human language since they have not begun to acquire any specific human language”. It seems to me that they are just stating how things are with little evidence to support their claims.

With the problem being that “any influence of language on thought is difficult to prove or disprove empirically” (Deutscher, G. 2011: 20-22). I think we can only sit on the fence in this debate. The position of linguistic relativism seems a fair one to take as I believe language does influence thought to some extent, not completely. Since there’s no way to prove or disprove my position, it frustrates me to not be able to sufficiently argue it without holes being picked in backing theories, but I guess it’s better than having an extremist neo-Whorfian determinist view.

OLIVER TAYLOR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Everett, D. (2012). Language: The Cultural Tool. London: Profile Books.

Deutscher, G. (2011). Through the language lens: Why the world looks different in other languages. London: Arrow Books.

McWhorther, J. H. (2014). The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Napoli, D. J., & Lee-Schoenfeld, V. (2010). Language Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

How far can language really influence our thoughts? EMILY PAGE investigates

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

References

Beek, W. (2006). “Linguistic relativism: Variants and misconceptions”. Retrieved 2 December 2015 

Birner, B. (1999). Linguistic Society of America. [Weblog]. Retrieved 1 December 2015

Buzzfeed.com. (2015). BuzzFeed. Retrieved 3 December, 2015

Fromkin. V, Rodman, R. & Hyams, N. (2013). An Introduction to Language. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: Harper.

West, R., & Turner, L. (2008). Understanding Interpersonal Communication: Making Choices in Changing Times (2nd Ed). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning

Whorf, B. I, & Carroll, J. B. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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.