Does Language Affect Thought?

NickOtani's picture
Submitted by NickOtani on Mon, 2007-07-16 18:03

Steven Pinker is no more right about Benjamin Lee Whorf than was Chomsky. They both misrepresented the man’s views and then knocked over their own straw men, adding argumentum ad hominem when their reasoning was too weak. In this paper, I’ll focus first on responding to some of what Pinker said about Whorf in the third chapter of The Language Instinct (55-82). Then, I’ll submit my own views on language and thinking.

Pinker began his third chapter in The Language Instinct referring to George Orwell’s works which warn about a controlling power of words on thought. In his novel, Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell developed the concept of “Newspeak” as a way of brainwashing people by controlling their language. If people did not have words with definitions of political or intellectual freedom, then they would not be able to think about these things. In his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell talked about how euphemisms such as pacification are used to describe the bombing of large populations of innocent people. Orwell inspired other movements which raised consciousness about language and thinking. Feminists pointed to the dominance of masculine nouns and pronouns which are supposed to include women. Even the word “woman,” implies only an appendage to men. An extreme movement in this direction, according to Pinker, was General Semantics, begun in 1933 by Alfred Korzybski, Stuart Chase, and S.I. Hayakawa (55-57). (Pinker also pointed out here that S.I. Hayakawa was also a college president in California who achieved fame by jumping on a van to remove a megaphone from a student protester. Later, Hayakawa was a U.S. senator who got caught on film falling asleep at a senate session (57).)

Steven Pinker downplays the assumption that words determine thoughts. He credits Benjamin Lee Whorf with a hypothesis of linguistic determinism, stating that people’s thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language, and its weaker version, linguistic relativity, stating that differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of speakers (57). Later, he summarizes this all as the view that “thought is the same as language,” (57) and, later still, he simply characterizes this as the view that thoughts can be words (79).

Pinker says this is “…wrong, all wrong (57).” He says it’s a “conventional absurdity.” People believe it, according to Pinker, in the same way they believe myths such as that we use only five percent of our brains (57).

So far, Pinker is setting the stage. He wants us to believe that the people who disagree with him are people like Orwell, who wrote exaggerated science fiction long ago, radical feminists who whine about too much masculinity in the language, and characters like S.I. Hayakawa, who is known for being a conservative college president who quashed free speech and a U.S. senator who was caught snoozing. This is poisoning the well. And, he isn’t finished yet. Soon, after misrepresenting Whorf’s research and conclusions, he will reference Whorf’s mystical views. Pinker wants us to think that those who disagree with him are weird.

His first argument is: 1. If we have trouble finding the right words to express our thoughts, this should prove that language is not identical with thought. Thought must be separate (58 ) .

This assumes that there is thought first and then language. However, Pinker has to acknowledge, himself, that it is a little difficult to demonstrate conceptual thought without language. On page 67, he says,
People can be forgiven for overrating language. Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see. Thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker. To know what someone else is thinking, or to talk to each other about the nature of thinking, we have to use—what else, words! It is no wonder that many commentators have trouble even conceiving of thought without words—or is it that they just don’t have the language to talk about it?

Certainly there is some kind of thought which invents or discovers language. It is not, itself, language. Otherwise, this would be like a chicken/egg type problem, that we need language for thought, but, before language, what language did we think in?

Pinker posits that it is “mentalese” that we think in first. Then, comes the structured form of symbol manipulation we call the human language.

However, Whorf said, in Language, Thought, and Reality, that he sees language to be "in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before communication ..., and which also can, at a pinch, effect communication without language's and without symbolism’s aid (Whorf, 239). Could this be what Pinker calls “mentalese”?

2. If thoughts depend on words, how could a new word ever be coined?

My question would be, “What created mentalese?” Asking how something begins is an old philosophical trick. If something begins to exist, it must have not existed at one point. However, it is not possible, in consistent logic, for something to not exist, even as a concept. Bertrand Russell pointed out, ““A is not” must always be either false or meaningless. For if A were nothing, it could not be said not to be; hence A is.” This trick allows one to say that things do not come into being, they just always were.

Pinker attacked some of Whorf’s research, but he got a few things a little wrong. At the bottom of page 60, Pinker produced three sentences which he used to charge that Whorf was trying to show a difference between English language and thinking and Apache language and thinking. However, the sentences are not from the Apache language. This was Pinker’s mistake. The sentences are from Nootka, a language spoken in the Vancouver Islands.

Second, Pinker charged that Whorf was rendering the sentences as clumsy, word for word translations, designed to make the meanings seem as odd as possible (61). However, what Whorf was demonstrating was that the American Indian sentences did not separate subject and predicate, actor and object, the way English and European languages do. When we would say, “The boat is grounded on the beach,” the Nootka would say, “It is on the beach pointwise as an event of canoe motion.” They don’t use nouns to express events. Canoe motion is more like a verb than a noun.

This could have consequences for expressing ideas. If Einstein found the language of calculus more effective for expressing his theory of relativity, because of its structure and the way it deals with certain concepts, then perhaps other languages cold have an impact on our thoughts. In English and most western languages, for example, the concept of “is,” or “being,” seems static. If I were to ask, “Where was the man when he jumped off the bridge?” The answer would be difficult because of the way we see this form of the verb “to be.” To answer that he was in the air would be wrong because that was after he jumped. To answer that he was on the bridge would be equally wrong because that would be before he jumped. If, however, we say he was in the “process of jumping,” we may be on the right tract. We have to think that “isness” or “wasness” is not static but in a process of becoming. This may also be a key to understanding many Asian philosophies which see time and space as more of a process than a static things.

If we define thinking as communicating with ourselves, then we need to have a language to do so. If different languages have different structures and different ways of dealing with certain phenomena, then it is not outlandish that some ideas can be expressed differently or seen in a different light with different languages.

If, as according to Benjamin Lee Whorf, it is through our language that we analyze nature, channel our reasoning, and build the house of our consciousness, this implies that our language not only facilitates but also limits our awareness. Our language allows us to conceptualize rather than depend on percepts and sensations as do other living things. It is because of our language that we can grasp the gestalt of our experiences. We can formulate cognitive maps which guide us where our inherent reflexes and automatic functions cannot. Without language, we could not make many of our generalizations from our observations. However, we are also limited by the limitations and structure of our language. There are different languages with different structures which may very well shed a different light on my ideas. How do I know that the pattern of my language is the most reliable and accurate guide for showing the relation of my words to each other? Our logic is like the strands in a net that drags the ocean for objects we identify and categorize. Little things slip through the holes in the net. Some of those little things may have some impact on the objects we catch. Those nets which are woven in slightly different configurations may catch slightly different objects. In this way, different languages may facilitate different learning and different thinking.

Perhaps Orwell is engaging in science fiction in what he said about Newspeak. Perhaps we cannot control people’s thoughts by controlling their language. Perhaps we cannot control languages entirely, unless we discriminate against people who use certain languages. Languages do adopt and adjust to changing needs. However, there may still be value in being concerned about aspects of our languages which shape our thoughts. Ossie Davis wrote about how there are many words in the English language which have negative connotations associated with blackness or darkness while there are many positive connotations associated with whiteness (73-81). Does the language, itself, discriminate? Perhaps it is not as crazy as Pinker and Chomski seem to think it is to wonder about the connection of language and thinking. It may be good to think they work together.

Works Cited

Davis, Ossie. "The Language of Racism: The English Language is my Enemy." Language in America. Ed. Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner, and Terence P. Moran. New York: Pegasus, 1969. 73-81.

Pinker, Steven. “The Language Instinct.” New York:William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994. 55-82.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. “Language, Thought, and Reality” Ed. John Carroll. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1956. 239.

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