Does Language Determine Thought?

Most people are familiar with the power of language to shape our thoughts and actions. They may not know, however, that linguists have used the term linguistic relativism to debate the issue for decades. Often called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism, it’s been contentious since its inception, and it will probably continue to direct research and fund studies for decades yet to come.In it’s strongest form, linguistic relativism hypothesizes that our language directly determines and limits which sorts of thoughts we can have. Without words to express an idea, we cannot even think it in the first place–or so goes the theory. If a language lacks the capacity to express an idea, how could we even think it?

I’ve encountered a lot of foreign ideas from studying Japanese, many of which lack a particular word in English. That doesn’t mean I can’t explain those ideas in English, though. 無理心中 (murishinjuu) is a pretty foreign idea to English speakers, but “tragic lover’s suicide pact in which one side commits suicide against his/her will” pretty well captures the idea. Not as elegant, I’ll grant you, but the question at hand is whether an English speaker can think the thought. You probably just did.

I think this strong form really does a disservice both to the creativity of language and to human thinking skills. Sure, English doesn’t have a word for “south-facing stallion with tentacles for hooves considering his next microwave oven purchase”, but I’m fairly certain you can imagine the image I’ve tried to conjure up for you there. Languages are quite versatile. It’s to be expected, since human language is infinite, after all. Now, are there thoughts that humans, in principle, cannot think? Probably. But I think our language system is well-formed enough to express any idea we might be able to think of.

The weak form of linguistic relativism says that language has some effect on the way we think. This is almost self-evidently true. A fair bit of scholarship has been done on color naming, finding that different languages will divide up the spectrum of colors differently, and that this has an effect on reaction speed on laboratory tests. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but they were trying to prove a relationship between cognition and language, not blow your mind. I imagine that the structure of languages probably has effects, although they’re unlikely to be really huge or obvious. Certainly nothing so huge as the common, ridiculous claim that Japanese people, lacking a future tense, are more inclined to “live in the now”. A quick look at Japanese savings rates will convince you that Japanese people are quite capable of thinking about the future!

So, coming around to the Stephen Fry video posted at the top. George Orwell’s 1984 painted a well-known, grim picture of what can happen when language is used as a tool of control, but he wasn’t a psycholinguist. And neither is Stephen Fry, for that matter, although I bet he’d be pretty good at it if he ever decided to stop hosting the greatest trivia show known to man. I do think Fry is on to something here, and I think it’s an interesting point for English teachers to consider.

When we teach a language, how much of our own thoughts and prejudices do we transfer? I recall teaching a few of my high-level students about unmanned drones, surgical strikes and collateral damage. Was I implanting them with a certain viewpoint on modern conflicts? Might they have thought differently about America if I’d also taught them the terms territorial incursion, civilian casualties and Western imperialism? I feel like I gave them a fairly well-rounded view, trying not to paint my own country as either savior or monster. But my language brings with it a certain way of constructing ideas. A fellow English teacher from Iran studying at Sophia would probably use very different language to describe those events, even though he and I agree quite strongly on most questions of American involvement in the Middle East.

As a language learner, how much of my view of Japan is shaped by the vocabulary I’m learning to describe it? I certainly take a dim view of the 右翼 (uyoku), literally “right-wing”. They drive around in big black jeeps, blaring nationalist songs, shouting into bullhorns, and waving the hinomaru. I might not be so worried about them, though, if they were called “scared old men”, or some such term. I take the term 自衛隊 (ji-ei-tai, Self-Defense Force) at face value most of the time, but if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s one of the largest militaries in the world, and it’s been deployed for non-defensive functions more than a few times.

I’m still not sure. Obviously the language we use can shape our perspectives, but the very fact that we can question these assumptions tells me that it’s not a terribly strong, decisive force in how we think about things. We should certainly think carefully about the language we use, but there’s no reason to think we’re trapped by it.


English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Brains, 言語と文化

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