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.

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