Thought and Language


23 Feb 2017

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Keywords: linguistic theory, mould theories, cloak theory, sapir-whorf

In the field of linguistic theory, the relation between thought and language is still an emerging topic of discussion. Different linguists and psychologists stand on different views and continued their argument to define this relation whether they are interdependent or independent. Broad categories of views are present and converging theories are yet to be gained.

The two extreme thought school concerning the relationship between language and thought are commonly referred to as 'Mould theories' and 'Cloak theories'. According to the mould theory, language constructs our thought and they are interwoven in such a way that all people are equally being affected by the confines of their language. People can be considered as mental prisoners as they are unable to think in any other way which the language he speaks does not support.

The cloak theory casts a different view and described language as a cloak conforming to the customary categories of though of its speaker. In this theory, language considered only as a media to express our thoughts just like the way we can use our physical movement to represent what we are feeling. Language do not control our way of perceiving things and we imagine our world in the way we like to. There is also a middle stand between this two which also popular in the linguistic theory. Without following the extreme, this view explains that language and thought is related but a flexible sense. Sometimes language drives our thought process and again sometime we construct the language with our thoughts.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, named after the American linguist Edward Sapir and Bejamin Lee Whorf is classified as mould theory of language. In 1929, Sapir presented his belief that the possible range of human behavior is controlled by the language he speaks. It is totally dependent on the vocabulary exist in the specific language we are part of. This hypothesis is known as the strong form of Sapir's Hypothesis. It also mentioned that as different languages have different structures, barrier free communication between cross-cultural groups is impossible as they will never able to think in the same way as they are bounded by different language.

After reviewing the two extreme theories of linguistic reality, I stand somewhere between the two .I think, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis cannot be totally denied but cannot be accepted fully. There are numerous arguments which support Sapir and also cross out the hypothesis. With a deep analysis of the different views and considering the examples from real world around me, I came to the conclusion that the relation between the language and thought is a continued process. Language instructs our thought and we often directed by the way our language constructs perceive the world. For example, in our country when we say the word "Pohela Boishakh", it automatically spells a magic of festivity in everyone's mind. It is the Bengali New Year and now this language construct evolved in such a way that it is now motivating the thought process of the people of our country. We are getting bound to think by this word. But it is also true in the other way around. The creative minds come out with thousands of innovative ideas and directing the language evolution. People growing up in the same surrounding and speaking the same language can possess different thoughts and communicate different ideas which contradict with Sapir's Hypothesis. So, I am more influenced by the theory that "language and speech can be though of as two intersecting circles. In their overlapping parts, thought and speech coincide to produce what is called verbal thought. Verbal thought, however, does not by any means include all forms of thought or all forms of speech. There is a vast area of thought that has no direct relation to speech. The thinking manifested in the use of tools belongs in this area, as does practical intellect in general. Furthermore, investigations by psychologists of the Wrzburg School have demonstrated that thought can function without any word images or speech movements detectable through self-observation."

While discussing about the topic with my group mates Dana Satriya and Sharad, I encountered different fabrics of thought in them. Dana came from Indonesia and Sharad from India. In Dana's opinion thought is an act of verbal. He seems to support Sapir's Hypothesis and mentioned that we the media informatics students came from different parts of the world. Though in Germany, we can be considered as a community but we have distinct thought process and it will eventually act as a barrier while we communicate with each other. And this distinct thoughts are somewhat influenced by the different language constructs we belong to. In some stage, I will not be able to express my inner feelings to Dana in a full sense as his language construct does allow him to think and follow my thoughts. Sharad being as an Indian got an opportunity to experience wide range of cultures and community in his country. He also agreed that language has some influence over the people as he has seen different concepts and views among the people using different language.

In my opinion, it is necessary to take into account the close relationship which exists between language and thinking. Most commonly accepted idea about language and speech is that they are the way of expressing the internal thought process of an individual. People express what they feel with the means of language and speech. However, the construction of language is not evolved in a uniform way among all the people. Living in different context makes people from different parts of the world to perceive reality in different manner. The social and environmental context influence their way of living and thought. Due to perceiving the context in different ways, their use of words depends on that particular context. From generation to generation, the language is evolved while keeping the relation with social reality. As an example, in my country, Bangladesh, the landscape is flat and people live on farming. Therefore, large part of the thought process is based on the agricultural activities and have special part of language constructs generated to explain this process. Eventually, the new generations grow up with the special language constructs related to agriculture which influence their thought process according to Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, describing the process of language influencing the thought process. However, I think it is not in that strong way according the hypothesis that language constructs the thought.

It is clearly evident that Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was built on a partially viewed concept. Whorf analyzed several examples of Native American Language, Hopi, to support his hypothesis, which state that thought is strongly based on language. According to Whorf, the Hopi language does not contain any words, grammatical constructions, or expressions that refer to the English concept of 'time.' He goes on to explain that it is possible in the Hopi language to express the world or reality in ways other than what many languages refer to as 'time.' The Hopi view of reality is specific to the language and can only be best expressed if one is familiar with the language. In this example where Whorf feels language strongly influences thought, he is often criticized with circularity because he "infers cognitive differences between two speakers from an examination of their respective languages," (Hopi and English). His proof of cognitive differences is only "based on reiteration of the linguistic differences". But several other studies were done which supports the hypothesis including the research on perception of color in English compared with a small tribe from Papua New Guinea called Berinmo.

However, I personally contradict to some extent with the basic idea of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It is not entirely ignorable that language has some influence on the thought process, although it is not the only mean which drive our thoughts. It can only be considered a little part of a much bigger paradigm. As an example, we can consider the example of infants, who is yet to talk. However, it is widely accepted that children go through thought process before they even learn to talk. According to Piaget, every child has two different thought processes which are directed and undirected. Piaget says,

"Directed thought is conscious, i.e., it pursues an aim which is present to the mind of the thinker; it is intelligent, which means that it is adapted to reality and tries to influence it; it admits of being true or false (empirically or logically true), and it can be communicated by language. Autistic thought is subconscious, which means that the aims it pursues and the problems it tries to solve are not present in consciousness; it is not adapted to reality, but creates for itself a dream world of imagination; it tends, not to establish truths, but to satisfy desires, and it remains strictly individual and incommunicable as such by means of language. On the contrary, it works chiefly by images, and in order to express itself, has recourse to indirect methods, evoking by means of symbols and myths the feeling by which it is led."

Therefore, this autistic thought is not influenced by languages and is evolved separately by the complex mental process. Same inference can be drawn for the physically retarded groups who can not speak and hear, but have their own thought process development of which is not blocked by any linguistic constructs.

Language is not the driver of thoughts but thought can eventually result in language. Poets and laureates often enrich us with new and innovative language constructs to materialize their thoughts. So, in this case they are generating language with their thoughts.

But there is always the other side of the coin. Language often acts as the catalyst for thought. If someone says a bitter word in a language which I don't know, it will not affect me. But if I am familiar with the word, it will certainly scatter some effect on my thought process and I will react over it. So, there are obviously many thought processes in individual which can only be motivated and initiated by the linguistic reality and not in any other way. In this context we can refer to George Lakoff's argument that language is often used metaphorically and that different languages use different cultural metaphors that reveal something about how speakers of that language think. For example English employs metaphors linkening time with money, whereas other languages may not talk about time in that fashion.So absence of language construct inhibiting the way of their thinking about time in the same way as English people do.

So, the basic idea we infer from the above discussion that language and thought continuously move back and forth from thought to language and language to thought. Language helps us to think with a specific point of view and thought again develop the language. And thought is not only being expressed in words, it also comes into existence through them. Every thought relates one object to another and it moves, grows and develops, executes function and solves problem. This flow of thought occurs as inner movement which can be based on language and can also be without language.


  • Lev Vygotsky (1986) "Thought and Language" (newly revised and edited by Alex Kozulin)
  • Ekkehart Malotki (1983) "Trends in Linguistics Studies and Monographs 20 Hopi Time"
  • Thomas Tsoi "The Relation between Language and Thought"
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