Language ≠ Thought


One of the great philosophical debates of cognition (and science fiction) is whether language is identical to higher thinking or just a way to encode thought. One version of the theory of language as thought is called the “Strong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” which essentially claims that the structure of your native language’s grammar and vocabulary exclusively controls how you “categorize” the world.

A classic “example” Whorf cited was Hopi which did not use “tenses” such as English has. In the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this would mean that these speakers might not be able to distinguish the time of events in the same way someone speaking English would.

However, you may be surprised to learn that many modern theoretical linguists do NOT equate language with “thought”. That is, many theoretical linguists feel that many key aspects of thought are outside of language. Some examples are listed by Stephen Pinker in his book The Language Instinct, but here are examples of what I have found.

In terms of the Hopi example, discussions with native speakers did show that they could distinguish past, present and future events (and even have some grammatical cues for them).

Grammar Bypassing Meaning

Many people assume that grammar represents "thought", but there are many counterexamples to this. Two include:
  • The word for "car" in French can be either masculine l'auto or feminine la voiture.
  • English lacks the hodiernal past tense (past events happening today), yet English speakers can distinguish past events happening today from those which happened before yesterday.

Visuals Bypassing Language

Some information can be stored in "picture form" only and may be hard to translate into words.
  • I can drive home almost automatically, but have to “think” about how to give written directions in words. My internal driving instructions are not stored as a set of linguistic procedures but in some other format (visual, kinesthetic?). And I remember very few road names around town, just at which building to turn.
  • I’ve been to enough shows in Impressionist art that if I see a new work by Monet, I’m often able to identify him as the artist before seeing a description. However, I absolutely cannot describe in words or even pinpoint which combination of colors/strokes I’m using as cues.

Other Senses Bypassing Language

Ever try to describe a new flavor to someone? It’s almost not worth the bother. Yet, you can probably “taste” your favorite flavor of ice-cream.

Here are two way's to describe "cumin". I wonder which works better?

  1. One of the spices found in taco mix
  2. Spicy and nutty and almost sweet

There are no Words for:

Intuition Bypassing Language

I think we’ve all had that sense that “something’s wrong” or “doesn’t sound right” but could not describe what made you think that.

Language does have some influence on thought, but even so, it is possible for thought to go beyond the confines of the target language.

An interesting case is that Arabic distinguishes “aunt” (mother’s sister) from “uncle’s wife” whereas English only has the one word “aunt.” Yet divorce has actually given English speakers access to the distinction that Arabic already defined even if you have “no words” to describe it. If your mother’s sister gets divorced from her husband, it’s clear that she remains your “aunt.”

But what happens if your uncle divorces his wife and remarries? Do you have two aunts, one aunt? Is length of marriage a factor. Does having a cousin from either marriage count? Remarriage after all is why we have the famous question - “Do I have to call you Mommy now?”

What impact does this have on education

1. I think most educational specialists a priori assume that what you teach is somehow stored as words. Thus, it is assumed that instruction contains words which are “supplemented” by images or simulations. Yet, is that always valid? When it is valid?

An interesting case is learning new software. Newer users may desperately want a step by step users manual, but more technically adept users may be just as comfortable clicking buttons and seeing what happens.

Do we need a manual to help users or is it too much of a “crutch”? I confess I still believe in the manual for new users, but also know that a manual cannot ever represent the full capabilities of a technology (nor can it be used all the time if you want to gain any proficiency). Somehow a user must transition from manual (verbal) to manual (non-verbal) usage.

2. We have seen many language campaigns where alternate words are suggested in order to “change” people’s thinking. But do the campaigns change attitudes or must attitudes/reality change before language shift truly takes hold? When I was a child, the notion of a “Congresswoman” was almost a joke among some older men. Now that we have many more women in Congress, no one thinks twice about the term, and it was certainly necessary to designate the title “Madam Speaker” for Nancy Pelosi.

You could argue that you might need a term like “Congresswoman” to imagine a different reality, but some queens of Egypt like Hatshepsut were perfectly able to “imagine” the concept of "independent female rule" - they just co-opted the preexisting male terms and went about their business of suppressing rival opposition and administering the government. Language is powerful, but maybe not as powerful as imagination.