Relationship between Thought and Language
The relationship between thought and language has been debated over for a long time by many linguists and psychologists as to whether or not they are independent or interdependent. Two popular theories on this topic are the ‘Mould theory’ and the ‘Cloak theory’. According to the Mould theory, “Language constructs our thought and they are interwoven in such a way that all people are equally being affected by the confines of their language”, while the Cloak theory says, “Language do not control our way of perceiving things and we imagine our world in the way we like to”. But in this paper, we will be discussing the aspects of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that is, linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism, to study the relation between thought and language. This hypothesis is created by two American linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf in the early 1930’s. the hypothesis consists of two linked idea, which are linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. It speaks of the relation between language and thought with its primary study based off of Whorf’s study on the Hopi Indians.
First it is important for us to understand the difference between linguistic relativity and determinism. Although both of them speak of how language influences thought, linguistic determinism speaks of how different languages impose different conceptions of reality, while linguistic relativity talks about how linguistic differences between cultures are associated with cultural differences in thinking. To put it in simpler words, linguistic determinism states that language limits our capability for voicing our thoughts or emotions and linguistic relativity states that language actually influences the way we think. It was Edward Sapir who put forth the idea of linguistic determinism and his student Benjamin Whorf put forth the argument of linguistic relativity. An example of linguistic determinism would be, eskimos living in Alaska have nearly fifty words for snow, while we have only one to describe it. They have a word called ‘aput’ for snow on the ground, ‘qana’ for falling snow, and a third one, ‘piqsirpoq’ for drifting snow. We use the word ‘snow’ in different contexts to mean the same. An example of linguistic relativity would be, he English words “you” and “I/me”. There is no single word in either Japanese or Korean that is equivalent to the English. In Japanese the words “watakushi, watashi, atashi, boku, ore” all mean “I/me” and “anata, anta, kimi, omae” all mean “you” but they cannot be used interchangeably. For his hypothesis Whorf studied the Language of the Hopi Indians. Whorf’s theory stated that their language has no concept of time as an objective being.
According to the article by Wolff and Holmes, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis assumes the following, First, Language can differ significantly in the meanings of their words and syntactic constructions. Second, it says that semantics of a language can affect the way in which its speaker perceives and conceptualizes the world, which shows the deterministic nature of language. Lastly, it is a given that language affects thinking, linguistic relativity believes people who speak different languages think differently. Wolff and Holmes say that if thought and language differ structurally, we consider three of the following situations, thinking before language, here they talk about the concept of thinking for speaking wherein the speaker must engage in a special kind of mental activity attending to certain aspects of experience, thinking with language, here they give two roles of language in the process of speaking, one is that language is seen as a meddler, which says, when the linguistic and non-linguistic codes are consistent with each other, speed and accuracy are facilitated, but when they conflict, speed and accuracy may be compromised and the other is as an augmenter, where linguistic representations may combine with non-linguistic representations to enable people to perform tasks that could not be completed with either type of representation alone. and thinking after language, where we learn that the long term use of a language may direct habitual attention to specific properties of the world even in non-linguistic contexts. In their article we also learn of ideas like, ‘Language as a Spotlight’, wherein certain aspects of the world are highlighted and stand out and ‘Language as an Inducer’, where language may prime a particular mode of processing that continues to be engaged even after language is no longer in use.
Based on the article by Stacy Phipps, most researchers today argue one of the following three positions with respect to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: language heavily influences thought (strong interpretation), language does not influence thought or language partially influences thought (weak interpretation). She mentions how researcher use three main topics to argue against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis they are, translatability, differences between linguistic and non-linguistic events and universals. Translatability means, although language may differ in the way we express certain details, it is still quite possible to translate those details from one language to another. Differences between linguistic and non-linguistic events, refers to the idea that there is no way to define language as influencing thought when there is no distinction between the linguistic and non-linguistic events and the evidence that supports language as influencing thought is based purely on linguistic differences. is the claim that there are deep structures that are common to all languages, is the claim that there are deep structures that are common to all languages. In. her article she mentions a lot of arguments place against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. For example the argument of the perception of colour across languages, which says that if one language categorizes colour differently as compared to another language, then their perception of that colour should also be different. She says, “Linguists and Anthropologists have been concerned with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and the implications that surround the claims made by Sapir in 1928 and continue to look for ways to prove or disprove the idea that language directly influences the way reality is perceived.”
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has remained a divisive topic for many years because many researchers feel that Whorf’s examples failed to show a real relationship between language and thought while others agree with Whorf that thought is truly dependent on language. The argument made by Eric Lenneberg against the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is that “linguistic and non-linguistic events must be separately observed and described before they can be correlated”. One of the criticisms to Whorf’s theory is that regarding the data he has used to build on his hypothesis, as he originally focused on Hopi, many people argue that Hopi was a timeless language. Many linguists also argue that if it so that language influences thought, would that mean those without language are unable to think. However, not all critics are negative, some are in support of Whorf’s theory, Lucy and Shweder performed a colour memory test which was found to support Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis. They found that colour recognition memory was directly affected by the words used to describe them, proving that language does affect thought in some way, but not to the extent as suggested by Whorf in his hypothesis. Carrol and Casagrande proved through their study on the Navaho Indian children were better at form recognition than western children, thus supporting Whorf’s hypothesis that language influences thought.
In conclusion I would like to say, quoting Chaika (1989) “Language and society are so intertwined that it is impossible to understand one without the other. There is no human society that does not depend on, is not shaped by, and does not itself shape language”. This statement best defines the relationship between language, thought and reality for language not only shapes the way reality is perceived but reality can also shape language. It is necessary to take into account the close relationship which exists between language and thinking. Most commonly accepted idea about language and speech is that they are the way of expressing the internal thought process of an individual. People express what they feel with the means of language and speech. However, the construction of language is not evolved in a uniform way among all the people. The social and environmental context influence their way of living and thought.