What’s the Relationship between Thought and Language?

People have argued for centuries about the relationship between thought and language. Does our language limit or change the way we think? Do people with very different languages see life differently, as well?

For most of our history, people could not really prove their arguments about how language affects thinking. Recently, however, scientists and linguists have developed tools and made discoveries that provide some answers.

How Language Affects Thought

'What's the Relationship Between Thought and Language? Hint: It's complicated!'
Photo of a young woman frowning at her computer screen while thinking.

This TED talk is an excellent introduction to the question.

Ms. Boroditsky explains how an aboriginal Australian culture she worked with has no words for left or right.

Instead, any explanation of location involves the cardinal directions (east, west, north, or south.)

Even to say ‘hello’ you need to give the direction in which you are going.

As a result, everyone  who speaks that language (even little children) will stay oriented in a way most of us cannot.

She also discusses language differences in counting (or not counting), color perception, gender assigned to nouns, and the ways we talk about accidents. These differences have very definite consequences. 

Experiments have shown that people whose language emphasizes that an action was an accident tend to remember that. English speakers are more likely to remember who did it, “because English requires you to say, ‘He did it; he broke the vase.’"

In a second article, a young eastern European woman on an exchange program in Ecuador discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the various languages she knows. (For example, she suggests that English encourages informality, with only one word for ‘you’ whether you are talking to a close friend or a supervisor.)

She mentions favorite words in each language (and how her host mother teased her that the reason she doesn’t get up early is because her previous languages lack the verb madrugar (to get up very early).

Her conclusion: “This year has only proved to me that languages we speak shape the way we act and express ourselves.”

How We Can Use Language to Express-- & Hide-- Motives

In Steven Pinker’s long, somewhat difficult, (but entertaining) TED talk, he explains several ways that language can express—or sometimes cover up—our thoughts.

He starts with the linguistic difference between "Give a muffin to a mouse," and "give a mouse a muffin." {He probably chose this example because of a famous children’s picture book with the second name. We don’t normally give muffins to mice or to other pests (unwanted animals.)

He also explores why we use intentionally ambiguous language when we’re not sure how the other person will react. (It’s ambiguous—implied but not clearly stated-- so that we can reasonably deny part of the message depending on their reaction.) 

Pinker gives as an example the communication during a traffic stop in the movie Fargo.

A kidnapper is stopped for a traffic violation by a police officer. He would like to bribe the officer (give him money illegally) so he will leave quickly and not discover his bigger crime. However, the kidnapper will be in more trouble if he offers a bribe and the officer is honest. 

So, when he gets out his wallet to show his driver’s license, he holds it so that a 50-dollar bill shows under it. A dishonest officer will take the hint, accept the money, and leave. An honest officer will not take the money, but he cannot prove that the man was trying to bribe him.

Since the kidnapper doesn’t know if the officer is honest or not, he limits his risk by keeping his communication ambiguous.

Thinking about Languages: Are Some Better Than Others?

In the last 40 years, most linguists have argued that languages are different but not superior or inferior to each other. Even “creole” language blends have definite rules and are not just an ignorant version of a “good” language. 

In this explanation of Singlish (Singaporean English, with some elements of Chinese and Malay), the author argues that it’s a useful language. He understands why the government of Singapore wants its people to be able to use “standard” English, so they can do business with people in the rest of the world. 

However, he feels the government needs o stop campaigning against Singlish. He argues that, like African-American Vernacular English, Singlish has been considered a second-class language. He believes, a linguists have insisted, that both should get credit for the creative, fully-formed languages they are.

How Changing Pronouns Express the Relationship between Thought and Language

As this article on gender-neutral language points out, in English many of us have begun using ‘they’ as a singular when the person we’re talking about might be either a man or woman. Using ‘they’ for one person is awkward grammatically, but so is using ‘he.’ 

We also use ‘Ms.’ more and more when we’re not sure if the woman we are speaking to is married or not, or if she might object to ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.”

The author believes that such changes can slowly change our thinking, perhaps reducing male dominance. He bases that conclusion on the results of a Swedish experiment with a gender-neutral word.

Linguistics & Thinking Vocabulary

You can practice some of the vocabulary from these articles with a crossword on Language and Linguistics. The answers are here.

Here are a few explanations of other words that you might not recognize. (These are mostly not on the crossword (or at least not fully explained there):

  • concept- an idea. To conceive is to begin forming & developing an idea (or a baby. Conception is the moment a baby is first formed)
  • creole- a language that blends features of two or more languages. (Creole with a capital ‘C’ can have several other meanings, including in the U.S. the culture and food originating with the early French settlers of Louisiana, or the language of Haiti, a blend of French and African influences)

The Singlish article offers a good example of a context clue for the meaning of creole: “Singlish can broadly be categorized as a creole, which is a full language that arises suddenly, usually with one language as its base, but with unique grammatical features and many words from at least one other language.” (Paragraph 3. It goes on to explain the difference between pidgin and creole.)

  • despite- in spite of
  • plausible denial- a reasonable claim (or justifiable excuse for saying) that something didn’t happen or didn’t mean what it appeared to mean
  • solicitation- a request, often for something illegal (often offering sex for payment), or encouraging someone to do something illegal
  • tongues- In English we sometimes call languages tongues, so our “mother tongue” is our first or native language.
  • veiled- covered with a veil (meaning partially hidden). A veiled threat is a suggestion that something bad might happen if a person doesn’t cooperate, but without clearly stating “I will harm you if you don’t do what I say.”
  • versus- against or compared with. Pinker points out that the way an argument is worded suggests the way the speaker wants others to look at a problem. He gives two examples often used in debates about abortion: "’ending a pregnancy’" (the words used by “pro-choice” advocates) “versus ‘killing a fetus’” (the “pro-life: perspective), or "’a ball of cells’ versus ‘an unborn child.’" 

Want to Practice with These Ideas? 

After watching this 5 1/2-minute video, answer a few comprehension questions, then “dig deeper” with some excellent ideas and additional resources.

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