Relationship between Language and Thought

03 Apr 2018

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To what extent is thought affected by language?

Language is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as method of human communication, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way. Schacter, Gilbert and Wegner (2012) expand on this stating language is a system for communicating with others using signals that convey meaning and are combined according to the rules of grammar. Not only human beings use language as a form of communication; many social species employ a system, verbal or otherwise, that allows the sharing of important information, coordinating group actions and building social bonds with each other. Karl von Frisch (1974) found that honey bees convey information regarding the location and distance of a food resource to the hive by performing a ‘waggle’ dance. Furthermore, Cheney and Seyfarth’s research (1990) with vervet monkeys discovered the species have three separate warning calls for their three main predators; leopard, snake and eagle.

There are three main principles of human language that isolate it from the simpler signalling systems it originated from (Schacter et al. 2012). Firstly, most humans can express a wide range of ideas and concepts, showing the complexity of our language structure. Secondly, humans have developed labels for intangible things, (such as the concept of democracy) which couldn’t have originated from primal alarm sounds. Schacter’s final principle is that humans have the ability to name, categorize and describe objects to ourselves whilst we think. This affects the way information is arranged in our brains – a system that simpler creatures, like bees, are very unlikely to utilize.

Thought, described by the Oxford Dictionary as an instance, state or condition of thinking, is closely associated with language. Levelt (1989) suggested that the procedure of speech involves three independent processes; Conceptualisation, Formulation and Articulation. Conceptualisation is the speaker’s planning stage. Clark and Carlson (1981) express that conceptualisation operates at the ‘thought level’, and reflects the message to be conveyed within the context of the situation. Planning is based on the people around the speaker, the necessary points to be said and the immediate situation. Ferreira and Swets (2002) state that if there isn’t any pressure of time, speakers are able to completely plan their words, however when time constraints interfere, this isn’t always possible. Formulation is when the speaker transforms the planned speech into sentences. This stage requires lexicalization; the thoughts that lie behind the words are transformed into sounds (Schacter et al. 2012). The final process described by Levelt is articulation; the message is produced. This process occurs in the oral cavity; the larynx, tongue and mouth physically shape the airflow to produce different sounds.

There are two main views regarding the relationship between language and thought. First, the Linguistic Deterministic Hypothesis (LDH), which holds the view that language shapes the nature of thought. Benjamin Whorf is the driving force behind this theory. Cook (1978) says Whorf’s own statements referring to his principle of relativity “holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated”. Cook goes on, stating that Whorf believes grammar shapes people’s ideas and provides thought materials. Hence, people who use very different grammar systems will have very different views of the world, or more simply; the nature of a culture’s language affects the way the people within that language think (Whorf, 1956). However Whorf’s work as he often was criticised. Pinker (1994) criticised Whorf for his anecdotal observations. Harley (2008) proved false Whorf’s declaration that the English had a limited word range in relation to the Inuit people’s many words for snow. Rosch (1973) found the Dani (a Western New Guinea tribe) who have only two terms for colours (and therefore by Whorf’s hypothesis should have difficulty perceiving and learning different shades of colours) were just as capable of learning them as people with many colour terms in their first language. Finally Bloom (1981) criticised Whorf for being unable to properly deal with the question of exactly to what degree a language determines the shape of thought. Bloom also gave this to be the reason Whorf’s work was so often interpreted in several different ways.

The second view that must be considered when exploring the relationship between language and thought is the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (LRH). This is defined by Lucy (1997) as the proposal that whichever language we speak, it influences the way we think about reality. Schacter et al. (2012) goes on to say that not only does language shape the way we think, but also the way in which we perceive.

There are several studies that support this view. Firstly, Boroditsky (2001) designed an investigation involving two groups of participants, the first was English speaking and the second spoke Mandarin. In English, spatial terms are frequently used, (e.g. looking forward to something or moving a meeting back to fit the schedule). Often, these spatial terms are horizontal (e.g. taking three steps forward or two steps back). In contrast, Mandarin speakers usually refer to time in a vertical spatial dimension (e.g. Earlier is up and later is down). To test the effects of this, Boroditsky showed the participants either a vertical or horizontal display of objects and then asked to make a judgement involving the time. For example, if June comes before July. Unsurprisingly, the English speakers were far quicker when presented with a horizontal display, and Mandarin speakers with a vertical display. However, once the participants had learned to use the other languages spatial terms, they became much faster at completing the task. This shows a direct influence of language on thought.

Secondly, the Roberson et al. (2004) study showed that language had an effect on thought related to colour processing. English children (who use 11 basic colour terms) were compared to Namibian children (with just 5 colour terms). The task involved a series of coloured tiles being shown to each child, who then had to point out the correct coloured tile from a set of 22 options. At first the young children struggled, but as they acquired more names for colours, their choices increasingly reflected the colour terms they had learned, with each child making less mistakes when they were required to match a colour that was in their own language. This showed that although the language difference was a barrier to the children’s performance at first, it could be overcome.

The final study to support the LRH is Butterworth et al. (2008) where Australian Aboriginal children (who spoke Walpiri) were compared to English speaking children in tasks that required counting. The Australian Aboriginal languages contain a very limited number system, with only three number types; one, two and more than two. However, when this comparison was made, very little difference was found between the two groups of children. Again supporting that language, although has an effect on how people think and perceive, it does not entirely control and shape the thought processes.

In conclusion, there seems to be very little support for the LDH view on language and thought. Although language and thought may have a very large influence on each other in certain situations, it seems unlikely that without language, our thoughts wouldn’t function, as Whorf would have us believe. Especially bearing in mind that there are rare cases, like Smith and Tsimpli’s 1995 study of a boy who could pick up and understand the rules of many different languages, very easily, but failed simple cognitive tests. It is a prime example of a situation where thought or language capabilities can be severely impaired, leaving the other relatively spared.. This leaves the LRH, which seems much more plausible, and clearly with a greater support base. These three studies that I discussed clearly showed the impact that language had on thought; showing language to be a large influence, not only on the process by which our own personal thought occurs, but on a much larger scale.


Bloom A. H. (1981) The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West. Psychology Press.

Boroditsky 2001.

Butterworth et al. 2008.

Cheney and Seyfarth. 1990.

Clark and Carlsson 1981.

COOK, J. W. (1978), WHORF'S LINGUISTIC RELATIVISM. Philosophical Investigations, Chapter 1, Pages 1–30. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9205.1978.tb00177.x

COOK, J. W. (1978), WHORF'S LINGUISTIC RELATIVISM II. Philosophical Investigations, Chapter 1, Pages 1–37. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9205.1978.tb00180.x

Ferreira and Swets 2002.

Karl von Frisch (1974).

Harley 2008.

Levelt 1989

Lucy 1997. Oxford English Dictionary:

Pinker 1994.

Rosch 1973.

Schacter, Gilbert and Wegner. 2012.

Smith and Tsimpli 1995

Whorf 1956.

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