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Language over Thought

If I were to get one Euro for every time I was at a loss of words—”it’s like giddiness, but not quite”—or could not think of a more distinct word than “awesome”, I would probably be able to swim in my money like Uncle Scrooge. Now consider the fact that, like most of you, I have not one but two languages at my disposal. The combination of these facts strikes me as faintly disappointing. It is also at odds with a language-related phenomenon that goes by at least three names—but I shall restrict myself to one: linguistic determinism. Linguistic determinism has been debated by smart people throughout the past few decades (as they do), and can be broken down into two theses. Firstly, the semantic structures of languages differ considerably from one another. Secondly, these differences may result in dissimilarities in those parts of our lives that seem unrelated to language (Hickmann). To give you an example of what this entails: the idea is that Russians distinguish more easily between shades of blue than native speakers of English because the former have more words to describe variants of the colour (Boroditsky).

However, researchers who ponder this matter on a regular basis do not sit around a fire sipping Martinis and nodding their heads in agreement. After all, does the fact that speakers of English do not care as much about a primary colour result from the limited freedom of expression in their language, or does their perception of the world cause them to group together a range of blues under an umbrella term?

Let us look at two further examples. Boroditsky argues there are cultures which do not discriminate left and right, but rather operate in terms of north and south, east and west. Also, some cultures, such as the Amazonian Pirahã community, cannot (or do not) count beyond a handful. As her article suggests, the lack of a word for, say, “twelve” in a language means that people who speak that language are unable to grasp the concept.

A fairly obvious but nonetheless excellent point is raised by blogger Simen: perhaps there is no need for the Pirahã to define items in dozens due to their lifestyle, so it would make little sense for them to coin a term for it. Simen also posits the following question: “Do they not learn to count because their language has no numbers larger than two?” Should the answer be yes, this would support linguistic determinism, as language would define thought. Said fireside linguists are still arguing this point, so for a relative laywoman like yours truly, it is difficult to draw a conclusion. Nonetheless, I believe it far more likely that a concept demands a word than that a word creates a concept. Before I delve further into why I think so, we must first pay a visit to determinism’s antithesis.

In her review article, Hickmann notes that these seeming extremes can actually play quite nicely together. This suggests that such a thing as a universal tongue does, in fact, exist. Gumperz and Levinson, whom she quotes, claim both notions are “entirely compatible, as long as one subscribes to the distinction between atomic and molecular levels of semantic representation”. Or, omitting the scientific terminology: determinism and anti-determinism can coexist if you accept the idea of human beings having two languages. One would be the universal; the other the individual or the culturally bound. Gumperz and Levinson support their statement by touching upon bilingual speakers, who seem to embrace “two different world views”. If linguistic determinism is correct, language would contribute to these dissenting views. For the bilingual speaker to unite both views, I imagine she would have to draw upon her universal language, which would tell the individual ones to make friends.

In my opinion, the existence of these two layers — the individual and the universal — seems acceptable enough. Then again, it is important to consider that the same (or largely similar) language can be applied across a variety of cultures. Perhaps that individuality is a little overrated. English, of course, is a prime example. Yes, Americans and Brits will understand each other, but the values on which their societies are based are not identical. Language must be able to express that dissimilarity.

So, back to the concept-demandsword statement of three paragraphs ago. In order to express, for example, the issue regarding British and American values, two hundred years ago we might have had to allow for English to adapt to new concepts. After all, values are not determined by the fact that a propersounding term for them exists. Or if, say, the Pirahã were to suddenly realise a need for “twelve”, they might coin a word for it, or borrow one from a neighbouring community. In another case, they might even opt for lexical broadening. For instance, the Japanese have one common word for crow and raven: they use カラス “karasu” for both (Denshi Jisho); and the only people who might object to this are, I imagine, ornithologists.

While some support or refute linguistic determinism entirely, others are willing to accept a “weak” version, which still opposes generality, but does not dismiss determinism altogether. In certain circumstances, language most definitely influences the thought process, such as in conversation (Hickmann 413): a situation in which we are more likely to formulate our thoughts by drawing upon our lexicon, even if we do not speak those thoughts aloud. As I said at the beginning, though, sometimes no single word encompasses what we are hoping to express (likely something abstract). So while language does occupy a salient role in such situations, it is not omnipotent, and occasionally fails to come up to the mark; these lexical gaps, I believe, indicate not everything needs a name for us to be able to experience or perceive it—which is, of course, problematic when stating that having a name is considered proof of existence within a specific culture.

So, linguistic determinism: does it exist—is our freedom of expression limited by our lexicon? Or is it more logical to say that culture dictates the language? Personally, I am more inclined towards the cultural option, but for now I shall let the bickering to the real linguists. In the meantime, yours truly will be going for a swim in her imaginary riches.

by Valerie Brentjes



Works Cited


Boroditsky, Lera. “Lost in Translation.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 23 July 2010. Web.

Hickmann, Maya. “Linguistic Relativity and Linguistic Determinism: Some New Directions.” Linguistics: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences 38.2 (2000): 409-34. ProQuest. Web.

“カラス.” Denshi Jisho. Web.

Simen. “The Limits of My — Oh, What the Hell.” Enthusiasms. Enthusiasms.org, 27 July 2010.Web.