Relationship Between Language and Thought

We are all aware that language is not only essential to specialised disciplines such as linguistics and translation but is, in all its forms, at the core of human experience and civilisation. It is such an integral, natural part of our cultures and social lives that it may be worth stopping for a minute, not to smell the roses, but to consider what language really is, its implicatures and implications, and more importantly for this article, how it is related to our thought process and interpretation of reality.

The correlation between language and thought has been the focus of many researchers in the past century and is still open for discussion nowadays. Many have indeed referred to the debate as a chicken-egg situation, to point to the famous impossibility of determining which one of the two processes shapes the other. How are language and thought related? Is language shaping our cognitive processes, are we talking about a mutual influence? Is there a universal language system, or is language completely relative?

From a communicative point of view, language possesses the duality of connecting people together when shared and creating barriers when intercomprehension fails. This duality is perfectly illustrated by the field of translation, whose purpose, as the etymology of the name itself suggests (lat. translatio, translationis originally meant carry across, convey), is to remove language barriers and allow people to communicate across them while still using non-universal target languages. When it comes to linguistic diversity, two schools of thought come to mind:

– Those who regard it as beneficial to human society and defend its preservation alongside ethnic, cultural and biodiversity, due not only to the traditions and knowledge that all languages encapsulate, but also to the multiplicity of thought patterns and interpretations of reality that they reflect. For instance, time can be perceived as linear, circular or cyclical, fixed or continuous, as moving from left to right, from front to back or back to front according to different cultures and languages; while Western cultures tend to compartmentalise time in smaller units and refer to it as a valuable entity that must not be wasted (think about expressions such as time is money, a waste of time), in cultures where time is seen as cyclical, the latter is not divided into small units such as minutes or hours, but is told, for instance in the Masai culture, by the cycle of rainfall (see this article if you are interested to learn more about the cross-cultural perceptions of time). In that perspective, being multilingual would therefore allow us to have access not only to different cultures, but also to different perceptions of “reality”.

– Those more concerned by practical questions, who may invoke the “survival of the fittest” argument to explain the natural extinction of hundreds of minority languages in the past centuries and centuries to come in favour of “globalised” languages, and put forward the obvious economic and communicative benefits (such as reduced translation costs) of a reduced number of spoken languages.

This debate could nevertheless be the subject of another, longer article. To come back to translation, both translators and non-translators are aware of some of the constraints that the exercise involves; the inability to convey certain ideas or expressions from the source language into the target language, and therefore to find linguistic, cultural and/or “psychological” equivalence, the necessity to resort to different strategies to alleviate meaning losses and respect the original message. As suggested by the words cultural and psychological, these constraints go well beyond language and bring an interesting question onto the table; should we indeed believe that individuals who speak different native languages perceive reality differently, which would imply that language itself influences our perception of reality?

Some linguists such as Sapir and Whorf, who gave their names to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, stated that certain thoughts in one language cannot be understood by other individuals who think in another language. The latter has gone as far as saying that reality is relative and subjective – in terms of physical objects or phenomena – because shaped by the different native languages through which individuals think. An example as famous as controversial used to illustrate linguistic relativity is the distinctive words in the Inuit language to refer to different types of snow; for instance, while “tlapripta” refers to a type of snow that burns your scalp and eyelids, “aqilokoq” refers to a “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” to a kind of snow good for driving sled.

Although these different words seem to suggest that Inuit speakers are able to perceive and name different “stages” of snow due to their repeated exposure to and experience of it, we could also argue, as Pullum did in “The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax”, that it does not imply that the same ideas are expressed differently in other languages. Is the fact that these ideas are expressed through single words really relevant? These examples may indeed only illustrate the different natures of languages; as opposed to English, which tends to use separate words to convey a message, Inuit conveys the same information with single words, which are created by combining – or agglutinating, to use the linguistic term – morphemes, the smallest units of meaning containing semantic information.

The different basic colour words that vary from one language to another have also been considered to determine whether they influence the colour perception of individuals. For instance, while English distinguishes green and blue, other languages, such as Tarahumara, only possess one word for both colours. Does it mean then that Tarahumara speakers do not perceive the difference between green and blue? Certainly not, but it may mean that their perception of colours is not discriminated by what is called a “naming strategy”.

Some experiments have indeed been led to determine how much lexical categories for colours (e.g. blue versus green in English) affect our perception of them, and suggest that, although we cannot assume that all thought is constrained by language (otherwise, how could we explain prelinguistic thoughts of babies?), language may influence thought and our perception of reality. Many other researches, on the other hand, continue to point towards the existence of a universal language system, and notably to the existence of eleven basic colours that all languages are able to recognise, which continuously revive the old universalism-relativism debate.

The issue of linguistic relativism and the influence of language on our perception of reality is a vast field and leads to a questioning of many concepts that we may have taken for granted. The representation of gender – a very topical topic – in language and its influence on our perception of it may be one of them. Many feminists have turned to language to denounce it as the root of inequalities and sexism, and sensed the potential that changing what they perceive as a “man-made” language, resistant to change and subject to norms, could have on mentalities, since putting categories and labels on individuals affect the way that we perceive them.

This notably explains the attention that has been brought in those circles to the supposedly “gender neutral” use of masculine words in languages such as English (for instance, the use of the word “man” or “mankind” for human), Italian, Spanish or French (the masculine plural pronouns to refer to a group of people made up of at least one man), which, feminists argue, contribute further to the invisibility of women. The more and more common use of the word “gender” as a social construction opposed to sex (which refers to biological differences) and not as a grammatical category is evidence itself of the use of an alternative language to draw further attention to the social roles enforced on people through language, and demonstrates how intertwined language, culture and thought are.

What are your thoughts on this?


by Mallaury Clément

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