Psycholinguistics/Language and Thought

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Introduction[edit | edit source]

The relationship between language and thought has been a subject of considerable interest over the years. Arguments on the subject presented started as early as period 19th Century Ancient Greek. The 1940s saw the rise and popularity of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that suggested that speakers of different languages think differently. Later on scientists raised criticism on the theory with most adopting the view that language and theory are universal. Particular concern has been directed in establishing whether there is a difference in how two people who speak differently also think differently. Recent research such as Leva (2011) however, suggests that the language people use may affect the way they think such that language conditions an individual’s perception of issues and the actions. This empirical evidence presented suggests that language shapes thinking putting to task the previously held theories on language universalism. The debate on the issue however continues. An understanding of this relationship has considerable implications for politics, education, marketing and other areas that involve human interaction. This paper aims to evaluate this relationship between language and thought. To achieve this, the paper aims to evaluate five major aspects; whether language dictates thinking, whether language organize thinking, whether people speaking different languages also think differently, whether multilingual individuals have broader thinking as compared to monolinguals and evaluating whether thought can exist without language. The paper is organized in two major sections; an evaluation of the various existing theories and concepts and subsequent section that specifically addresses the above specified questions of research.

Main Theories and Concepts[edit | edit source]

Ancient Greek[edit | edit source]

One of the major philosophers of Ancient Greek on language and thought was Gorgias of the Sophist tradition. In both his works of Palamedes and On Not-Being, Gorgias presents his thoughts that among other issues touch on his conception of language and thought. His argument was that language captures neither human thought nor what human beings perceive. Gorgias perceives language as action and that the converse is true that language informs human actions thus suggesting that language and action are “not only correlative but also coterminous” (Consigny, 2005). Gorgias suggests that every utterance is an action and every meaningful action lies within the horizon of language. His world is very linguistic with every gesture, posture, and action – including inaction is meaningful. He considers words to acquire meaning from their role.

Whorfianism[edit | edit source]

Tothesis has two major aspects; linguistic relativism and linguistic determination. Linguistic relativism considers the structural differences between languages, paralleled by non-linguistic cognitive differences in languages that manifest through the thinking of the speakers. Linguistic determination considers that the structure of language such as vocabulary, grammar and other aspects, strongly influences or determines the way its native speakers perceive or reason about the world (Andrew & Keil, 2001, p.444). The theory puts weight on the unconscious influence that language has on habitual thoughts (Skotko, 1997) highlighting that language comes first, and influences thought.

Cognition and Language[edit | edit source]

Recent decades have witnessed research and demonstrations indicating that language affects cognition. A mae theory related thinkithought considering the two as dynamically related. He argued that there is an emergence of vague thought, which is then completed in language. He considers it as an unfolding process that goes back and forth “from thought to word and word to thought. He argued that thought is originally non-verbal and language is non-intellectual and only come meet at around age two when thought turns verbal and speech turns rational. The concepts of thinking and cognitive are a result from the specific culture that an individual grows in. thus language has a major influence in the way a child as it acquires thought through words. His works have had substantial influence in study of mind and language. Cognitive science perceives the relationship between language and thought in a different way from Whorfism adopting the approach that thought does not equal language and thus both thought and perception are influenced by language, that in contrast language is influenced by thought as expressed by Geeorge Lakoff that; “Language is based on cognition” (Flohr, n.d). This approach perceives cognition and languages as existing side by side. It argues that human interaction with each other generates thoughts. To interact however, language is a vital element thus the theory suggests that language and thought are integrated and can therefore not be perceived separately. This is demonstrated by studies showing that changing how people talk changes how they think, learning new color words enhances a person’s ability to discriminate color, and learning new ways of talking about time imparts a new way of thinking about it (Leva, 2011).

Semantics and thought[edit | edit source]

In thought, ideas possess various orientations in such aspects as; time, space, epistemology, social interaction and context. These orientations influence the shape of language in various aspects and semantic resources of the various languages offer different prominence to different ones (Zelazo, Moscovitch & Thompson, 2007). For instance, English pays particular emphasis to tenses but the choice of particular tenses may vary from one telling to the next. Thus, this aspect is a choice taken in the actual act of producing the sound and not an underlying thought. Other language may pay particle attention to other orientations such as epistemology distinctions. Specific orientations express variable semantic choices and not necessarily, elements of thought may not directly influence consciousness of thought rather on semantic, linguistically imposed organization of thought. However, semantic choices usually feed back in the thought process so that an attempt to separate semantics from thought is misleading (Zelazo, Moscovitch & Thompson, 2007).

Aphasia and Thought[edit | edit source]

Although much about the brain is unknown, it has been noticed that damage to different regions of the brain develops specific types of aphasias or language disorders. Damage for example to the left frontal lobe results to speech impairments including slowness, needs effort, and poor words of sentence structures and although comprehension is retained, complex sentences in structure may not be clearly understood. Damage to left temporal lobe impairs fluency with such disorders as Wernickes aphasia where comprehension is undermined; speech may be fluent but may have errors in sound and word selection. Damage to superior lobes in the two hemispheres may result to the affected individual being unable to comprehend words (word deafness) thus being deaf for speech. The affected individual lacks comprehension of the words although they may hear the sounds, judge the emotional aspect and even identify gender of the source. BBC (2005) reports on a study done in UK where patients suffering from severe aphasia in that they did not understand or generate grammatically proper language. Although they could not comprehend differences in simple sentences when the order of words was interchanged, they nevertheless identified reversibility in simple sums. The findings that mathematical reasoning can be active without language is a strong indication that thought might not be dependent on language.

Animals, Thought and Language[edit | edit source]

Whereas there is agreement that animals use their brains, there have been discussions on whether they possess thought. In this context, thought is more than mere mental images, memories, and experiences and refers to the process of activating schemata to acquire new meaning, to reason, analyze and make decisions. When a dog buries a bone, or skips when its handler mentions some words, can this be considered as thought? Consciously, does a cat think to go hunting in a specific direction or is it led by instincts and memory? Some argue that animals are capable of language. A view expressed by Crist (2004) on prior investigation of the scientific controversy on if the honeybee dance is language concludes that it is a language – a dance language. Various authors however do not agree and express different views on the relationship of animals, thought and language. Descartes denied that animals have thought supporting his stand with the assertion that animals only communicate bodily movements and natural impulses and none has expressed using speech that is, word of sign that indicates thought alone and not natural impulse. Emphasizing the importance of speech, he argued that all human beings use it, however stupid or insane and “such speech is the only sure sign of thought hidden within a body” (Descartes as cited in Preston, 2001, p. 42). Human beings are able to respond in a distinct way to various circumstances – an aspect that is distinct from machines and other animals. Descartes came close to considering language as a criterion for thought as he considered it as necessary and sufficient for thought. It would seem plausible that genuine language is a sufficient indication for thought but his consideration that it is necessary for presence of thought may be questioned. The determination of whether animals such as dogs or cats can be considered to have thought may be considered a factor of whether their output can finitely be defined of is a mechanical response. A dog demanding to be fed may be considered too thin based on Descartes view to decide if they constitute genuine thought (Preston, 2001). Although Condillac (Coski, 2003) does not argue that animals are automata without thought or reasoned speech, he however does not consider animals to be at the same level with human beings. Animals have various limitations including; only animals that live close to man acquire human communication systems, the capacity of understanding the human language is highly limited, animals acquire this language out of need, they acquire this language through long habit and only then can they understand human speech without gestures, and they are passive receivers.

Language Dictates Thinking[edit | edit source]

The Whorfian theory was subjected to various criticisms from psychology. First, as argued by Steven Pinker, Wason and Jorhnson Laird is the lack of evidence that a language influences a particular way of thinking towards the world for its speakers (Skotko, 1997; Leva, 2011). By the 1970s, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had lost favor with most scientists with most adopting theories that considered language and thought as universal (Leva, 2011). The critics agreed that language expresses thought but criticized the idea that language can influence content and thought. The theory has been criticized for its extremist view that people who use a language cannot understand a concept if it is lacking in their language. Despite criticism on Whorf’s linguistic deterministic theory, recent research indicates that people who speak different languages really do think differently and that language does influence an individual’s perception of reality. Leva (2011) argues that language shapes the basic aspects of Guy Duetscher observes that language influences an individual’s minds not out of what it allows the individual to think but rather on what it obliges the individual to think (Jones, 2010). In real sense, speakers of a certain language do understand a concept even if it is not in their language as highlighted for example by the German word “schadenfreude’ which has no equivalent in the English language, English speakers do understand its meaning which is rejoicing from the bad luck of others. Another example is the Mandarin Chinese who although do not have words describing present, past, and future tenses, they nevertheless understand this concept. Language influences and enforces our thought process. Lev Vygotsky argued that thought is not only expressed in words but comes into existence through them (as cited in Perkins, 1997). In a related view Perkins (1997) points out that, “Although thinking involves much more than we can say, we would have far less access to that "more" without the language of thinking” (368). Research by Stephen Levinson shows for example that people who speak languages that rely on absolute directions perform better in keeping track of their locations even in unfamiliar grounds when place in the same locations with local folks although they may not speak the same language (Leva, 2011). How an individual perceives such aspects as time and space are affected by language. An example is that most European languages express time as horizontal whereas Mandarin Chinese express it as vertical. Similarly, English express duration of time in terms of length for example a “short” meeting whereas the Spanish use the concept of size for example “little” (Jones, 2010). Such other aspects include action orientation or conditional references that depict anecdotal hints of possible effects. An example of this is the cause and effect aspect difference exhibited from a video shown to English and Japanese speakers. For English speakers, they are likely to express it as “she broke the glass” with reference to the person who broke the glass irrespective of if it was accidental, whereas for the Japanese speakers it is expressed as “the glass broke itself” with less emphasis on the doer than if the action was intentional (Jones, 2010). These differences in language also affect how people construe what happened and affect eyewitness memory (Leva, 2011). For example in the above example, English speakers would on request to remember tend to remember the accidents more agentive thus identifying the door more easily than their Japanese counterparts. Language does not only influence memory, but also the degree of ease in learning new things (Leva, 2011). Children speaking a language for example that mentions base 10 structures more clearly than for example in English learn the base 10 insight sooner. The number of syllables the number word has also affects such aspects as remembering the phone number. People rely on language even in doing small things and the categories and distinctions in languages considerably influence an individual’s mental life. As expressed by Leva, 2011, “What researchers have been calling "thinking" this whole time actually appears to be a collection of both linguistic and nonlinguistic processes. As a result, there may not be a lot of adult human thinking where language does not play a role”.

Different Language, Different Thinking[edit | edit source]

Based on such prior works as Whorf hypothesis, authors in the past have been interested in establishing whether people using different languages think differently. Would it be expected that an individual speaking English and one speaking Japanese would think differently just because of the language they use? An examination of whether language influences an individual’s thought has its basis on the fact that languages differ from one another. An example of a statement “Michael went church” in English requires the use of the verb tense, which would not be possible in Indonesian. With Russian, the verb would connote not only the tense but also the gender. In Turkish, the same expression would give information on how the information was acquired. This example depicts the different requirements that languages demand from their speakers. Nevertheless, do these different languages remember their experiences differently due just to their different languages? Some scholars argue that this is so, that depending on the language; the different speakers will encode different aspects in order to apply them in their language. On the other hand, other scholars argue that linguistic utterances are wide such that just because Indonesian speakers have not included the same information as the Turkish does not meant they are not paying attention to that aspect – it only means they are not taking attention to the aspect. The argument is that all people think the same but just talk it differently (Boroditsky, 2009). Grammatical gender in languages is another aspect that shows that language influences how human beings think. In such romanticized language as Spanish, nouns can be masculine or feminine with words falling under the different gender is treated differently but those falling within the same gender being treated similarly grammatically. This reference for example of the Russians considering a chair to be masculine and a bed to be feminine affects and shapes how the individuals think. A word described in two languages that describe an item with one having a masculine and the other feminine word are likely to be described with different words by the two speakers even if they are being described in English, a language that has no grammatical genders. Similarly, when English speakers are grammatical gender systems, their their grammatical gender system is influenced. This depicts that some arbitrary uses of grammar do influence an individual’s perception of objects in real life (Boroditsky, 2009). Another common argument is that language under specifies meaning such that meaning is much richer than the communication process. The argument is that speakers compress their thoughts (putting thoughts into language), implying and not explicitly stating what their thoughts are whereas listeners deduce own versions from the language that is presented. An extension of this approach in cognitive science is the concept of the language of thought or mentalese. This suggests that when an individual wants to speak, they translate from mentalese to the spoken language. An extension of this approach is that human beings have the same cognitive architecture and mental processes thus the language of thought is universal although they express it using different languages (Saeed, 2003).

Multilingualism and Thought[edit | edit source]

An important consideration is whether being bilingual or multilingual affects how an individual thinks. Bilinguals for example change the way they perceive the world with the language they are using (Leva, 2011). Dr. Shai Danziger, a cognitive psychologist who was bilingual speaking both English and Hebrews confesses that he has different reactions to the two languages. He argued that an individual could exhibit different personalities depending on the language. Expressing his opinion that English is more polite than Hebrews, he gave an example that Hebrew Speaking Israelis who speak English are likely to think differently and to be more polite (for instance while driving) when using English than while using Hebrews (Jones, 2010). Luna, Ringberg & Peraccchio (2008) however qualify this assertion arguing that it is not enough for one to be just bilingual but one needs to be bicultural (having been inculcated in both cultures) in order to switch from one mental frame to another. Francois Grosjean (as cited in Flora, 2010) expressing similar argument however argues that thoughts can be visual-spatial and non-linguistic thus the effect of language comes into effect the moment the individual intends to speak. When using one language, bilinguals do not lose access to the other and this improves their processing time as it enables them to deep into their total language collection “in a natural quest for optimal self-expression and understanding” (Flora, 2010, p. 75). Emphasizing the importance of being multilingual, Flora (2010) points out that monolinguals are underutilizing their abilities. Another aspect expressed by Flora (2010) quoting a study done in Canada is that bilingual brains are healthier as they delay the onset of dementia four years on average, enhances attention, and cognitive control in children and adults and enhances the ability to learn other languages. Bilinguals are better at more divergent thinking for example in processing unrelated concepts and bilingual children are better able to process language at a fundamental metalinguistic level as compared to their monolingual peers (Flora, 2010).

Thought can Exist without Language[edit | edit source]

An example of this is as explained by Jones (2010) on the people of Tzeltal who use the concepts of “up the slope” and “down the slope” to explain left or right or some Amazon tribes who only count to two. Does it mean Tzeltal-speaking individuals do not understand the concepts of left and right or that those tribes in the Amazon do not understand there is more than two? In real sense, speakers of a certain language do understand a concept even if it is not in their language as highlighted by the German word “schadenfreude’ which has no equivalent in the English language, English speakers do understand its meaning which is rejoicing from the bad luck of others. Another example is the Mandarin Chinese who although do not have words describing present, past, and future tenses, they nevertheless understand this concept. Research indicates thought can exist without language. Babies and children exhibit interest in small issues even between three to four months whose study shows their concept that each object occupies its own space of five-months who exhibit some ability to do simple arithmetic despite having not acquired a language (Andrew & Keil, 2001). Further evidence that language can exist before language is the magical shows by Renee Baillargeon whose stunts that defied fundamental principles of numbers resulted to young babies who had not yet acquired language to stare at those scenes more than when they stared at physically plausible ones. Another example of existence of thought without language is in the study by Susan Goldin-Meadow on deaf children. The children had not been exposed to sign language but they invented their own sign language to communicate their thoughts, feelings and needs (Andrew & Keil, 2001). Mental images are further provided as examples of thoughts without language. Some of the creative works of scientists and visual artists have been inspired by mental and non-linguistic images such as the James Watson discovery of double helix of DNA and the works of Albert Einstein, which are examples that thought, is possible without language (Andrew & Keil, 2001). In addition, psychological studies have shown evidence of visual thinking where people can mentally manipulate images, rotate them etc. that are mental processes that do not involve language (Saeed, 2003).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The relationship between language and thought has been a subject of debate for many years. The Ancient Greeks perspectives, the 1940s Whorf’s theory that argued that language precedes thought, the subsequent cognitive approaches that considered thought to coexist with language all represent the various arguments that have been held on issue. The empirical evidence presented suggests that language shapes thinking putting to task the previously held theories on language universalism. Through a review of literature, the conclusion is that language and thought have interactive relationship in that language dictates thought whereas thought also influences language. Further conclusions include; language organizes thought, people with different cultures and languages think differently, multilingual individuals have broader thinking as compared to monolinguals, and that thought can't exist without language. Present research in this are however is not exhaustive and thus the need for further research especially one that utilizes the new technologies in brain neurology.

References[edit | edit source]

Andrew, R. & Keil, F. (2001). The MIT encyclopedia of the cognitive science. USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved from

BBC (2005, February 15). Key to intelligence questioned. Retrieved from

Boroditsky, L. (2009, June 12). How does our language shape the way we think? Retreived from

Consigny, S. P. (2001). Gorgias, sophist and artist. South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press.

Coski, C. (2003). Condillac: Language, Thought, and Morality in the Man and Animal Debate. French Forum, 28(1), 57+

Crist, E. (2004). Can an insect speak? The case of the honeybee dance language. Social Studies of Science, 34(1), 7-43.

Flohr, B. (n.d). The relationship between thought and reality in cognitive semantics. Retrieved from

Flora, C. (2010, November/October). Double talk. Psychology Today. pp 70-80.

Jones, C. B. (2010, September 24). Does Language dictate the way we think? Retrieved from

Leva, B. (2011). How language shapes thought. Scientific America, 304(2), 62-65.

Luna, D., Ringberg L. & Peraccchio, L. (2008). One individual, two identities: Frame switching among biculturals. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 279-295.

Perkins, D. (1997). The Language of Thinking. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(5): 368+.

Preston, J. (ed) (2001). Thought and language. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Saeed, J. (2003). Semantics (2nd ed). USA: Blackwell Publishing.

Skotko, B. (1997). Relationship between language and thought from a cross-cultural perspective. Duke University. Retrieved from

Vygotsky, Lev Semyonovich (2009). The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed). New York: Columbia University Press.

Zelazo, P., Moscovitch, M. & Thompson, E. (eds) (2007). The Cambridge handbook of consciousness. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Learning Exercise[edit | edit source]

After reviewing the chapter, please read the following, paying attention to the questions:

Language and thought as discussed in the chapter designates essentially, a distinctive element of human knowledge and communication, complex and mysterious in nature that closely embraces concomitance. Various theories postulated over the years advanced in the chapter, attempted to evaluate critically the possibility and extend of a thought-language relationship vis-à-vis the human intellectual difference in the world. Every theory was cognizant of the utility of language despite its complexity. Sapir and Whorf, Rene Descartes, Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, Wittgenstein, Frege Gottlob, Lev Vygotsky and many other scholars for instance, were confronted with the same paradigm of language-thought relationship, bringing forward different opinions not because of their difference in language that determined each ones thought process, but due to the universality of the objects of thought.

In understanding the relationship between language and thought, I have used the following analogy to support a number of questions presented. A professor of philosophy flew to Brazil for a holiday period. During his time in Brazil, he was caught by the Brazilian authorities drunk and disorderly in public and was arrested. When he was brought before the court and asked to defend himself, he said the following words “I don’t know why I died long time ago, when it was raining I died and the river washed me away. My clothes died too and the wristwatch I had. This house belongs to me”. Using his words, a person might say that the man is insane without subscribing him even for a medical test. However, in reality and despite his language, is the professor unintelligent? Absolutely not. To what extent then can language depict in reality the thought ability and process of another?.

Do animals not communicate? Moreover, if they do, how do they?' Animals cannot communicate without a definite language. We all agree that animals are irrational beings. If then language dictates or has a relationship with our thought process, how does it relate with the irrationality of the animals? When a dog barks at night, it communicates to the owner that a stranger may be around. A person can train a dog to take a responsibility of guarding a home and the dog responds by doing so. Training the dog involves a use of language be it sign language or verbal language. If the dog does not have a form of language, how can it be able to articulate to persons demands and act so as commanded? In addition, if then the dog has language and it is an irrational being, don’t you think, if language determines the thought process, it could have dictated a dog to think? Rene Descartes argument that animals only use bodily movements and natural impulses but not speech raises many questions. Is language only speech language? Alternatively, is it only the people who can communicate through speech who are able to think?