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English Language & Linguistics

English Language



Does thought depend on language?


It may seem that we cannot speak without thinking ... but ...

Probably not because;
• we may use a word correctly before we fully understand the concept
• we express ourselves in paralinguistic ways of gesture and facial expressions
• some people certainly think in images and pictures and artists express themselves in this way
• sometimes we "know" something but can't find the right words to express ourselves
However ...

Does language determine thought?

Many psychologists believe that language dictates the way we think.
Others say that it actually determines our ideas themselves - not only how we think but what we think.

Important studies and theories have been made on this theme by
Bruner (child psychologist)
Sapir and Whorf (linguists)
Watson (behaviourist psychologist)
Bernstein (sociologist)
Wittgenstein (philosopher)
Vygostsky (developmental psychologist)

Wittgenstein: "the limits of language mean the limits of my world"
He meant that the only way we can understand our world is through language.

Sapir claimed that we experience things because the language we use guides our very thoughts. An extension of this is that different languages guide their speakers in different ways - different language speakers not only speak differently, they think differently.

Whorf: "... we cut nature up, organise it into concepts and describe significances as we do, largely because we are party to an agreement which holds in the pattern of our language."

So all of these researchers believe that language determines our concepts - and we can only think through the use of concepts (this is called "linguistic determinism") - and different language speakers "cut nature up" in different ways (this is the linguistic relativity hypothesis)

Examples of linguistic relativity:
• see "Eskimo words for snow"
• Hopi Indians: use the same word for "insect", "aeroplane" and "pilot"
have no tenses for their verbs -
"lightning", "flame", "meteor" and "puff of smoke" are all verbs eg "it puff-of-smoked"
• Zuni Indians: use the same word for "yellow" and "orange"

The use of language to describe the colours of the spectrum has been studied in depth as it provides strict criteria and definitions.
Brown and Lenneberg (1954) compared English with Shone (from Zimbabwe) and Bassa (from Liberia) and found that colours which have no name in the language are more difficult to recognise than those which do have a name in the language.
However it has been concluded that:
while language acts as a label to help us remember it may distort our recollection of things seen, or tend to make us think in a particular way, but it does not determine what we have seen.

Berlin and Kay (1969) determined that there are eleven basic colour categories: black, white, red, green, yellow, bllue, brown, purple, pink, orange, grey.
English uses all eleven, the Ibibio (from Nigeria) use four and the Jalé (from New Guinea) use two.

However many psychologists think now that the Whorf hypothesis is exaggerated and the general view is that
• as the similarities in the way that different languages interpret colours are greater than the differences, and
• as it appears quite easy for cultures with limited language words to learn new words identifying the "missing" colours (Rosch 1973),
language has a less significant influence on thought than Whorf supposed, though it does affect it in superficial ways.