Language and Thought

Perhaps because we typically think in words, language and thought seem completely intertwined. Indeed, scholars in various fields -- psychology, linguistics, anthropology -- as well as laypeople have entertained these questions: Is thought possible without language? Does the structure of our language shape our thinking? Does our perception/cognition shape the structure of language? Are our abilities to learn and use language part of our general intelligence?

Is thought possible without language? Research on babies and children who have not yet acquired any language suggests that little babies muse over rather important things. For instance, 3- to 4-month-old babies seem to think that each object occupies its own space and so one solid object cannot go through another solid object. Five-month-old babies can do simple arithmetic. If they see a hand carrying two objects to the back of a screen and reappearing empty-handed, they seem to expect two more objects behind the screen than before this addition event. When developmental psychologists such as Renee Baillargeon and Karen Wynn concocted "magic shows" that violated fundamental principles of physics or numbers by clever subterfuge, preverbal babies showed surprise by staring at the scenes longer than they would at physically plausible scenes. Other evidence for thought without language came from profoundly deaf children who had not been exposed to any sign language. Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychologist, found several such children growing up in loving families. They invented their own signs and gestures to communicate their thoughts and needs (e.g., talking about shoveling snow, requesting someone to open a jar).

Still other evidence for thinking without language has to do with mental images. Scientists and writers as well as visual artists have claimed that some of their most creative work was inspired by their mental images. One of the best known examples, perhaps, is James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Albert Einstein was another self-described visual thinker. It seems, then, brilliant as well as mundane thought is eminently possible without language.

Does language shape or even dictate thought? The linguistic anthropologist Edward SAPIR argued, "No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality." His student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, asserted, "The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized . . . largely by the linguistic systems in our minds." The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has two tenets: LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY HYPOTHESIS (i.e., structural differences between languages will generally be paralleled by nonlinguistic cognitive differences) and linguistic determinism (i.e., the structure of a language strongly influences or fully determines the way its native speakers perceive and reason about the world).

John Lucy, an anthropologist, has written about language differences associated with perceptual differences. For example, speakers of languages with different basic color vocabularies might sort nonprimary colors (e.g., turquoise, chartreuse) in slightly different ways. But such subtle effects were hardly what Sapir and Whorf had in mind when they wrote about how language might be related to, or might even shape, its speakers' worldview (e.g., time, causality, ontological categories).

One notable exception is the psychologist Alfred Bloom's intriguing claim that the lack of a distinct counterfactual marker in the Chinese language might make it difficult for Chinese speakers to think counterfactually -- that is, to think hypothetically about what is not true (e.g., If Plato had been able to read Chinese, he could have . . .). Upon close scrutiny, however, Chinese speakers' purported difficulty in understanding Bloom's counterfactual stories disappeared when researchers such as Terry Au and Lisa Liu rewrote those stories in idiomatic Chinese with proper counterfactual markers. With 20/20 hindsight, perhaps we should have realized that Bloom's initial finding had to be too fascinating to be true. Note that when we feel lucky and realize that things could have turned out badly but didn't, or when we regret having done something and wish that we had acted differently, we have to think counterfactually. How can something so fundamental and pervasive in human thinking be difficult in any human language?

Despite early disappointing efforts to uncover evidence for language shaping thought, a "Whorfian Renaissance" seems to be in the making. For instance, the anthropologist Stephen Levinson has reported interesting variations in spatial language across cultures (see LANGUAGE AND CULTURE). However, how each language carves up space seems to be principled -- influenced by the direction of gravity (e.g., up, down), human perception (e.g., near, far, front, back) and so forth -- rather than random or arbitrary. Moreover, there is as yet no evidence for fundamental differences in spatial cognition associated with linguistic variations. For example, unlike some Papuan languages, English has no simple word meaning "that far away up there." Are English speakers less capable than Papuan speakers to construe such a location? Probably not. While the jury is still out for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it is probably safe to say that important aspects of our worldview are unlikely to be at the mercy of arbitrary aspects of our language.

How about the other way around? By virtue of being human, we tend to perceive, organize, and reason about the world in certain ways. Do languages build upon our perceptual categories and conceptual organization? Consider color perception. Four-month-old babies prefer looking at primary colors (red, blue, green, yellow) to colors near the boundaries of primary colors; toddlers can identify primary colors better than nonprimary ones. Interestingly, anthropologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay found that, if a language has fewer than five basic color words, it would include red, blue, green, and yellow (in addition to black and white). Nonprimary colors such as brown, pink, orange, and purple are encoded only in languages that have encoded the four primary colors (see COLOR CATEGORIZATION). Perceptual salience, then, seems to shape the encoding of color words rather than the other way around.

Our cognition also seems to shape our language. For instance, when asked in their native language "Paul amazes Mary. Why?" and "Paul admires Mary. Why?", the psychologist Roger Brown found that both Chinese and English speakers tended to talk about something amazing about Paul and something admirable about Mary. Note that in English, "amazing" and "admirable" -- rather than "amazable" and "admiring" -- are entrenched adjectives for describing people's disposition. These cognitive causal schemas, then, might be a universal and may have influenced the derivation of dispositional adjectives in English, rather than the other way around .

One more central issue in the study of language and thought: Are our abilities to learn and use language part of our general intelligence? Or, are they subserved by a special "language faculty"? Recent findings on language-specific impairments (i.e., language delay or disorder experienced by children who are not hearing or cognitively impaired) and Williams syndrome (i.e., extreme mental retardation with almost intact language abilities) suggest that cognition and language can be decoupled (see LANGUAGE IMPAIRMENT, DEVELOPMENTAL). In short, although language and thought might be quite modular (see also MODULARITY OF MIND), there is some evidence for our cognition and perception shaping the evolution of our language. Evidence for influence in the opposite direction, however, seems more elusive .

See also

Additional links

-- Terry Au


Au, T. K. (1983). Chinese and English counterfactuals: The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis revisited. Cognition 15:155-187.

Au, T. K. (1986). A verb is worth a thousand words: The causes and consequences of interpersonal events implicit in language. Journal of Memory and Language 25:104-122.

Baillargeon, R. (1993). The object concept revisited: New directions in the investigation of infants' physical knowledge. In C. Granrud, Ed., Visual Perception and Cognition in Infancy. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 265-315.

Bellugi, U., A. Bihrle, H. Neville, and S. Doherty. (1992). Language, cognition, and brain organization in a neurodevelopmental disorder. In M. Gunnar and C. Nelson, Eds., Developmental Behavioral Neuroscience. Hillsdale, NJ: Erl-baum, pp. 201-232.

Berlin, B., and P. Kay. (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bloom, A. H. (1981). The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bornstein, M. H. (1975). Qualities of color vision in infancy. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 19:410-419.

Brown, R., and D. Fisher. (1983). The psychological causality implicit in language. Cognition 14:237-273.

Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of B. F. Skinner's monograph "Verbal Behavior." Language 35:26-58.

Goldin-Meadow, S., and C. Mylander. (1990). Beyond the input given: The child's role in the acquisition of language. Language 66:323-355.

Leonard, L. (1987). Is specific language impairment a useful construct? In S. Rosenberg, Ed., Advances in Applied Psycholinguistics. Vol. 1., Disorders of First-language Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, S. C. (1996). Language and space. Annual Review of Anthropology 25:353-382.

Lucy, J. A. (1992). Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow.

Shepard, R. N. (1978). The mental image. American Psychologist 33:125-137.

Wynn, K. (1992). Addition and subtraction in human infants. Nature 358:749-750.

Further Readings

Au, T. K. (1988). Language and cognition. In L. Lloyd and R. Schiefelbusch, Eds., Language Perspectives II. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed, pp. 125-146.

Au, T. K. (1992). Counterfactual reasoning. In G. R. Semin and K. Fiedler, Eds., Language, Interaction, and Social Cognition. London: Sage, pp. 194-213 .