Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

4.6: Language and Thought

  • Page ID
    5307
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Noam Chomsky and Universal Grammar

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author, and lecturer.

    Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author, and lecturer. In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky revolutionized the study of syntax with his concept of transformational-generative grammar. This idea states that before we speak we have formulated an idea of what we are going to say. Universal grammar, a basic prewiring of the brain that presupposes all people to encode experiences linguistically in a specific way, converts those ideas into phrase structure rules. The universal phrase structure rules lead to the deep structure. To be understandable to others, the deep structure must be encoded into the specific grammar of the language that one speaks. Once the experience is encoded in the deep structure, it is transformed by moving, deleting, substituting, or inserting various elements until a grammatical utterance is formed (surface structure). The same deep structure will, therefore, have different surface structures in different languages, or even within the same language, depending on the style of the speaker or the circumstance under which the utterance is spoken. [13]

    Universal Grammar is linguistic theory proposing universal principles of grammar used by all languages. This theory is said to be inherent in humans and has been studied in relation to child development for some time. This study is known as Language acquisition which involves the processes through which a person acquires language. Universal Grammar incorporates conceptual generalizations called linguistic universals which follow a variety of traits. Such traits can include word orders of different languages, phonemes found in languages and also questions as to why children display certain linguistic behaviors. Acclaimed intellectual Noam Chomsky has held a very substantial influence in the study of Universal Grammar by posing many questions and theoretical answers to the significant amount of uncertainty on the topic. Chomsky has persuasively claimed for the existence of a Universal Grammar that all languages are born out from. Chomsky then goes on to describe the cause of these universal ideals of language which are:

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Some of the areas of the brain involved in language processing: Broca's area(Blue), Wernicke's area(Green), Supramarginal gyrus(Yellow), Angular gyrus(Orange) ,Primary Auditory Cortex(Pink)

    1. That universal grammar is in some way concealed in the physical workings of the human brain, and

    2. That universal grammar is the end-product of a progression of evolutionary accidents or DNA mutations that have taken place over millions of years.

    Neither of these theories has much evidence to prove them as fact, but in Chomsky's opinion, they are the best explanation yet. According to the Poverty of the stimulus argument, there are countless facets of linguistic proficiency of adult speakers that could not have been acquired solely from the linguistic material accessible to a child during the period of language acquisition. Therefore, these features are not learned traits and must be considered innate properties of the human brain.

    Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

    The argument that language defines the way a person behaves and thinks has existed since the early 1900's when Edward Sapir first identified the concept. He believed that language and the thoughts that we have are somehow interwoven and that all people are equally being affected by the confines of their language. An example of this idea is given in George Orwell's book 1984, in which he discusses the use of a language entitled "Newspeak" which was created to change the way people thought about the government. The new vocabulary they were given was created to control their minds. Since they could not think of things not included in the vocabulary, they were to be zombies imprisoned by the trnace of their language.

    Later Benjamin Lee Whorf, Sapir’s student picked up on the idea of linguistic determinism. Whorf coined the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also referred to as the Whorf hypothesis, which states that language is not simply a way of voicing ideas, but is the very thing which shapes those ideas. One cannot think outside the confines of their language. The variety in language structure and how that affects people’s thoughts and actions helped define this idea of linguistic relativity.

    An example of this is the studies Whorf did on the Hopi language. He concluded that Hopi speakers do not include tense in their sentences, and therefore must have a different sense of time than other groups of people. The way a culture's perception of time affects the ways in which they communicate is known as chronemics. One consequence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the belief that time is somehow subjective, and perceptions of it can, therefore, be dramatically different across cultures. However, in recent years, the Hopi have been studied in order to further understand this issue, and it has been discovered that although the Hopi do not include references to the past, present or future in their grammars, they do include two other tenses, manifested and becoming manifested. Manifested includes all that is and ever has been, physically. This includes the senses and concrete items. Becoming manifested includes anything which is not physical, has no definite origin and cannot be perceived by the senses. Verbs are always expressed in terms of these two tenses. In this way, the Hopi do include some aspect of time, but in a different way than a native English speaker would recognize.

    Another claim embodied in this hypothesis is that the structure and lexicon of one's language influences how one perceives and conceptualizes the world. Thus the lexicon of a specific language mirrors whatever the nonverbal culture emphasizes. For example, aspects of the society which are not associated directly with language seem to have a direct impact on the formation of language. 

    Focal Vocabulary

    • Lexicon: Meaning
    • Semantics: In linguistics, semantics is the study of meaning. A better explanation would be that semantics is the study of explanation of signs as used by a person or communities within particular situations and contexts.
    • Semantic domain: a set of linguistic expressions with interrelated meanings (e.g., a metaphor; referring to police officers as pigs)

    The study of semantics has been a topic highly avoided in the past due to the difficult to explain what is meant by the meaning of a word. Before the formal study of semantics defining the meaning of a word meant taking the literal meaning of the word in a sentence without taking into consideration things like metaphor, which will be discussed later. This means that for each sentence or phrase the meaning is the truth and it is taken to be how the world is. After much debate about the definition of semantics, Noam Chomsky carried out a formal analysis to better explain this topic. He concluded that in order to understand the true meaning of a phrase or word grammars needed to represent all of the knowledge and background that the speaker had with that particular language.

    With this new formal study of semantics, it was discovered that many words or phrases that have one meaning in one culture may have a completely different meaning in another. Synonyms, different words with the same meaning, homophones, same sound with different meaning and metaphor, a form of figurative or non-literal language linking two expressions from different domains are all examples of these cultural differences. For an example of metaphor, in the U.S. pop culture, the term “ill” is often referred to something that people really like where in other cultures if this term were used it may be taken to literally mean that the object of place being referred to had a sickness.

    The formal study of semantics has helped to give a more clear understanding of different words and what they may mean in different languages and cultures. Although these studies have helped a lot there are still words which may have open-ended meanings, such as honesty or trust, which cannot be linked with a concrete object and thus are difficult to assign one meaning to.


    4.6: Language and Thought is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Wikibooks - Cultural Anthropology.

    • Was this article helpful?