The chicken or the egg? Which one came first? This question has puzzled humanity for a long time. Linguists ask themselves a similar question. Do we think before we speak, or do we need language to shape our thoughts?
Two famous linguists have worked on what is called linguistic relativity. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf have separately worked on this problem and came to the conclusion that the structure of one’s language affects the way in which we perceive the world. Our worldviews shape the linguistic structures of our respective languages, influencing thoughts and modeling linguistic behavior.
Whether linguistic relativity exists or not has been and still is heavily disputed amongst linguists. At the beginning of the 20th century in the early stages of linguistic relativity, Sapir and Whorf looked for clues to find out whether language determines thought or thoughts determine language. Around 1960 when the Universalist Theory of Language became popular, the relativity theory was heavily criticized since Universalists believed linguistic structures to be innate and all cognitive processes to be universal in human beings and therefore not influenceable by language. Whorf’s most famous argument in favor of linguistic relativity was what he believed to be a major difference in the concept of time in Hopi languages compared to English. He claimed that Hopi speakers do not have the same temporal units, and therefore their culture was fundamentally different in its respect to ours. Of course this theory was disputed by Universalists. Their studies demonstrated that Hopi had different concepts of time than what Whorf had believed them to be and claimed that Whorf did not understand Hopi languages well enough.
Other relativists however countered, arguing that universalist misinterpreted Whorf’s work and tried to force Hopi grammar into models that were not fit for the structure of the Hopi language. In the 60s, a study was set up to discredit the relativistic approach. At that time it was believed there was no specific rule which determined between how many different colors a language would differentiate. Rather, differences were attributed to the culture in which languages were spoken.
Berlin and Kay examined the color terminology of different languages and found Universalist trends even though languages have different color terms certain hues are seen as more focal than others. Also, the choices of colors are not arbitrary. Instead there appears to be a hierarchy of colors. A language which recognizes the color blue also recognizes the colors black, white, red, green, and yellow, but not necessarily brown or pink. If speakers don’t recognize the colors green or yellow, the only colors that speakers of this language categorize are either black and white only or black, white, and red. These observations were seen as a powerful argument for the Universalist theory.
In the view of John Lucy, a relativist, is the word of Berlin and Kay had methodological shortcomings and was biased by the Western point of view. He conducted a different kind of experiment. He compared Mayan Yucatec and English grammars. He showed speakers of each language single objects and afterwards two different objects: one with the same shape but different material and the other one in the same material but differently shaped.
Which one of the two objects is more similar to the first one? English speakers tended to choose the object with the same shape, whereas Yucatec speakers or the material of the object as a more decisive factor. But why was there such a difference? Mayan Yucatec uses so-called classifiers, a specific linguistic device to categorize different nouns by shape. In his experiment, however, the questions were asked in a way that such classifiers did not apply. The objects were shapeless to the Yucatec speakers.
Recently, relativist studies have focused on bi- and multilinguals—people who speak two or more languages—to test the possibility of language shaping thought. But why bilinguals in particular? If different language has changed the way we think and perceive the world, bilinguals who speak two languages might think differently when language A is activated compared to when language B is active.
If we go back to the prior example of shape versus interior, how would a person who is brought up speaking both English and Mayan Yucatec answer the question, “Which object is more similar to the first one?” Linguists have found differences in the language use of monolinguals and bilinguals when describing colors, motion, time or space, but why is that? Aren’t bilinguals supposed to speak either language like a native speaker?
It is not that easy. One theory claims that language systems which are storing our minds are not entirely separated from each other. They overlap. Instead of the two languages being independent from each other, they are interconnected and share certain features. This phenomenon is called merging. If two or more language systems merge, it is possible that certain features in one language are dropped in favor of features of the other language. Merging of language systems has, for example, been found in semantics of Russian English speakers as well as in French speakers. Also, definitions of certain words and phrases can be broadened or limited. This is what linguists call boundary shifting, which will be shown with the following example:
A particular study on color perception in 2010 examined the change in the perception of the color blue in Greek speakers. English has one concept for blue. Greek has two: one describing light blue and the other one describing a dark blue. Two groups of Greek speakers were formed. Participants in the first group had lived in an English-speaking country for a much longer time than participants in the second group. The question was, would their perception of color differ from each other?
Greeks who had had a longer exposure to the English language learned to separate when it came to distinguishing the two types of blue they knew from their first language. So had English influenced their view of the world so that they did not see colors in the way they had before?
Do we think before we speak? Or do we need language to shape our thoughts? Is language in its structure already innate and does not influence our thoughts, or is it true that even though we are able to understand how others think we are not able to actually think in that way because our languages are different? What is your opinion? Do we think before we speak, or do we need language to shape our thoughts?