Is language a straight-jacket for thought?

To have another language is to possess a second soul.  Charlemagne


Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. Benjamin Lee Whorf


Infants are born with a language-independent system for thinking about objects. These concepts give meaning to the words they learn later. Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard



As we can see from the Charlemagne quote above, the notion that the language we speak somehow channels our thoughts goes back a long way. It clearly informed George Orwell when he created his fictional language Newspeak, the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year. The rationale of Newspeak is if something can’t be said, it can’t be thought. Thus you can remove ideas such as freedom, rights and rebellion.


Newspeak seems to have been influenced by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which Wikipedia is “the idea that the varying cultural concepts and categories inherent in different languages affect the cognitive classification of the experienced world in such a way that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it.” This is a tantalising thought but is it really true? I am very sceptical; it seems to have causation in the wrong way. I am more convinced by the argument that concepts precede vocabulary.


What is clear is that different languages express things differently. But does that mean some thoughts can only be expressed in one language? Is it possible to have thoughts in one language that can’t be translated into another? I am a big fan of the quirks of language. A while back I did a piece on untranslatable words and they are a lot of fun. The Japanese have one word, kyoikumama: for a mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement and the Germans have backpfeifengesicht: for a face that cries out for a fist in it. Does the lack of one-word English equivalents mean that English speakers are incapable of recognising these concepts? In Spanish you haves conocer and saber where in English you only have know. Does this mean that Spanish speakers are somehow more attuned to the difference between knowing a person and knowing a fact than English speakers are.


A lot of the evidence in this debate comes from analysis of tribal languages such as Hopi, a Uto-Aztecan language spoken in north-eastern Arizona, USA. I am not a professional linguist so it can be a bit difficult to analyse the conclusions that the opposing sides come to. A lot of the motivation behind Whorf’s studies was to demonstrate that indigenous peoples were not “primitive.” And studies of tribal languages have shown that they are incredibly complex. But Whorf wanted to overcompensate. His description of Hopi seems to be trying to show that the Hopi language existed on a higher plane of thinking. Whorf also appear to have got the grammar wrong when he claimed that the Hopi had no words or grammar that refer to past or future time. But it appears that Hopi does have time markers.


Another tribal language that has come under the spotlight is Pirahã, an Amazonian language. This language has no words for numbers. They are incapable of performing even the most basic mathematical operation. This is said to be because their language has no words for number, they are prevented from doing maths. A more logical explanation is that it is the lack of need which explains both the lack of counting ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary.


Some people say that they feel like a different person when they speak another language. I can’t say I have ever had that feeling. I wouldn’t want to say that language has no influence on our thinking but it is greatly exaggerated.

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