Speech and Thought

jingber's picture

           The relationship between thought and speech has long been a question. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and renowned linguist, takes on the challenge of parsing out thought and speech (among many other things) in his book, “The Language Instinct”. He begins his chapter on this topic with a long quote from “1984”, the classic dystopian novel by George Orwell. In “1984”, Orwell writes about Newspeak, which is a governmentally controlled language that has been carefully constructed to eliminate all dissent by controlling what words the language contained and the meanings of those words. “The word free still existed, but… a person growing up with newspeak as his sole language would no more know that equal had once had the secondary meaning of ‘politically equal’… [than] a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to queen and rook.” (Pinker, 45) The idea is that if someone does not have a word for a concept, they are unable to think it.

            This is a fairly common-held idea. People fear language manipulation because they believe it will affect the way they think. There is in fact evidence for this; framing political issues in different ways results in people having different views on the issue. Pinker uses the example of feminists “who blame sexist thinking on sexist language, like the use of he to refer to a generic person.” (46) However, this does not mean people “think” in a given language, and are restricted by it.

            The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is often the go-to proof of language being the frame of reality for a given people. Everyone has heard that the Eskimos have lots of words for snow, while English speakers just have our one little word. The hypothesis claims that thought is controlled and restrained by the bounds of their language. Beyond this main claim, there is a weaker one called linguistic relativity. This states, “differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers.” (Pinker, 46) The history of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis provides some insight into its validity. Sapir was an acclaimed linguist who during a study Native American languages, realized that different languages use suffixes and prefixes for different concepts, so while English speakers focus on tense at the end of verbs (such as adding an –ed ending), Wintu speakers add a suffix based on if they got the information they are expressing by themselves or through other people.

            The real leap in claims came from Benjamin Whorf, who took classes with Sapir at Yale. Whorf was interested in Native American languages, and ended up making some drastic claims based on Sapir’s teachings and his own life experiences. He wrote “we are parties to an agreement to organize [nature] in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community… cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” (Pinker, 49) One example he gave as support for his claim was that different languages have different color distinctions. Latin doesn’t have gray or brown, while Russians differentiate sky and dark blue. Does this mean the speakers don’t see in the same color spectrum as English speakers? Highly unlikely, as all humans process light the same way, and while there may be small discrepancies in the colors a language emphasizes, there is strong evidence that we interpret them the same way overall. When languages have a very limited number of colors, the ones they do have tend to be the same. Furthermore, people who don’t have the words for a particular “base” color learn them faster than off-colors. “The Dani were quicker at learning a new color category that was based on fire-engine red than a category based on an off-red.” (Pinker, 52) Our perception shapes how we develop language much more than the other way around.

            This actually makes much more sense than the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. People frequently say that they aren’t quite saying what they mean to. How could your words possibly not mean what you had in your head if all you had in your head was language? As Pinker writes, “sometimes it is not easy to find any words that properly convey a thought.” (47) If we perceive purely through language, no new words could be coined, and a fundamental problem emerges. What did people do before they had language? Did they not perceive the world around them?
            But, you might ask, what about the Eskimos? Alas, they have no more words for snow than English speakers. They do have various words for snow-like concept, but so do we. Pinker lists just a few: “snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, avalanche, hail, hardpack, powder, flurry, [and] dusting.” (54) The myth likely plays off an exotic image we have of the Eskimo, and tries to show that they someone think and perceive the world differently than we do. Pinker quotes Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist, who pints out that “horsebreeders have various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of horses; botanists have names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have names for shades of mauve.” (55) Even if Eskimos had more words for snow, it would be completely unremarkable. The only reason the myth has spread so wide is that we view Eskimo culture as a curiosity. While language may have some impact on perception, language is to a much greater extent determined by environment and the demands of living in a particular place and time.



Learn more's picture

Literature and poetry

“differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers.” That couldn't be more true. I noticed while learning the second language, and reassured myself again when learning the third one, there are things that just can't be expressed in any given language. I would never have even thought that if I hadn't spoken the language. Maybe it's not a bad idea of everybody speaking the same language, but then, what will happen to literature? And poetry. Those arts just won't be the same.

Paul Grobstein's picture

language and meaning

There's an interesting extension on these arguments in Oliver Sack's Seeing Voices, a reflection on deafness, deaf culture, and sign language.  Yes, of course, there can be meaning without language, but perhaps, Sacks suggests, there are forms of meaning that aren't accessible to individuals without the interpersonal interactions that language makes possible?   

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