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1.11: Language and thought

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    Language and Thought, from Sarah Harmon


    Video Script

    Language and thought. There has been quite a bit of discussion over the years and, especially, it has resurfaced in the last 15 years about whether language and thought are connected. By that I mean whether or not how we speak the language affects how we think, or how we think affects how we speak the language. There has been quite a bit of discussion; it is not a new topic, in fact, this has been openly discussed in academic circles for over 100 years. Certainly with respect to the philosophical side of things, probably…well, how long has philosophy been around? .🤣 Certainly, this is a discussion that warrants a little bit of light, especially with respect to getting into a mind frame of analyzing language like a linguist would, so let's talk about it.

    Frequently, the term the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is put out as a way to say that language affects how we think. There are some things to keep in mind. First of all, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf never wrote anything together; in fact, I believe Sapir predates Whorf. Also, it's really important to remember that both of them were early anthropologists. ‘Early’ is the key term there, because even anthropology has moved on significantly from both of their work. It is not something that is espoused necessarily even today in anthropology. But what it really refers to is this concept of linguistic determinism, the fact that our language determines how we view the world. That has been absolutely debunked in every way possible, both by linguists and by anthropologists. That is in fact not even exactly what Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf wrote about; it is just what people interpreted from their works.

    A different version of it, a softer version of it, has come out as linguistic relativism. That there might be some connections, that it is potentially the case that how we speak a language and how our language is set up might inform certain perspectives of how we see the world. A linguist will say, probably not. It could be true, but it bottom line is very hard to determine this, to analyze this. That is because we cannot, for example, measure how a person thinks in such detail that we can see the connection between the language and the thought process. We just can't do that. For right now, it is what we affectionately like to call ‘armchair philosophy’, as in you sit in an armchair and you think deep thoughts about life. It's not actual social science and our colleagues in anthropology would say the same thing.

    What we can say?

    We can question about a few things. First of all, the work of Dan Sullivan, who promotes this concept of Thinking for Speaking, that there is some interesting data that we can collect. For example, there are a number of languages throughout the world, where this concept of past, present, and future (the three verbal tenses) doesn't really exist, but it does exist in a different way. For example, you may not have ‘I speak’, ‘I spoke’, ‘I will speak’—present past future—you may not have those very three linear breaks between how you say those reactions. But you will convey that same information in some way, shape or form. There's also the concept that in many cultures, you do not refer to things being above or below, up or down, to the left or to the right; you don't think in those terms. You think north, south, east, west. Again, this is something that is interesting and certainly linguistically, as well as anthropologically very interesting. Can we prove that those differentiations in language affect how a person thinks? It may just simply be a case of perspective or focus, but it may not exactly be what we would consider a change in thought process.

    The work of John McWhorter really speaks to this. He has written a number of books and has a couple different podcasts on language and specifically really highlights how nothing with respect to language implies actual differences in the psychological linguistic connection. It's just a matter of different perspective that being said. It is interesting to think and perhaps in the future we may get some way of measuring this connection. For right now, though, there really isn't one that we can say shows a different perspective. A lot of it is cultural. That doesn't mean it is not linguistically relevant; it just means it's different and a different element to analyze. It is, overall, still a controversial thing to say, “Well, language has a major impact on thought.” We don't really know that to be true.

    What do we know to be true?

    Well, we know that there are some, shall we say, linguistic universals, things that we have observed over 100-150 years, give or take, of linguistic analysis. Here's a few things that we know. We know we can prove that there is a difference between knowledge or competence, on the one hand, and performance, on the other. We also know, without question, that human beings understand a language before they're able to produce it. That part we can say, and we can say that that is a psychological linguistic connection that we have to understand the tool before we use the tool. We have to know what a hammer is before we can use it. We have to know what a language does before we can use it, and that is something that we know. As far as other universals, that's the next section.

    1.11: Language and thought is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.