Does language shape the way we think?


14 Answers

Ray Dart Profile
Ray Dart answered
In "1984" George Orwell describes a society where "Newspeak" was a version of the English language being developed so that it would be it was be impossible to have independent thought or anti-government opinion, because there would be no mechanism for self-expression.

Famously, an American economist once said "I'm not supposed to refer to a recession, because it makes everyone panic, so instead, I'm going to call it a banana. Watch out folks, there's a banana coming!"

I believe the way we think shapes language, rather that the other way around.

Not sure any of that means anything - perhaps I just like to waffle. Hey did I just demonstrate the premise?
yarnlady Profile
yarnlady answered
Yes, there are many studies that explain the different ways our thinking is affected.
Anonymous Profile
Anonymous answered
Get ready, this is going to be tl;dr.

In a nutshell, I think it's unclear and complicated. The intersection between psychology and linguistics is particularly murky when you're talking about this, but there are many interesting people writing about it.

Here's a recent NYT article by Guy Deutscher on this subject:

In the article, Deutscher lays out the evidence in favor of a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

He essentially argues that although language may channel/shape thought and even influence our perception of the world (see the bit on geographical orientation and colors), it does not prevent or "forbid" us from thinking certain thoughts. I think the bit on colors is especially cool - look up the studies by Berlin and Kay for more info on that.

Overall, I think his analysis is a very reasonable treatment of a subject that many linguists wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.

The reason for the ten-foot pole is, basically, Noam Chomsky. His conviction that the building blocks of language and thought - the capacity for performing every language - are innate, universal and little affected (I exaggerate, but so does Chomsky) by society and culture has been taken as canon for many years.

Recently, a guy called Daniel Everett challenged Chomskian doctrine with his studies on Pirahã, a language from the Amazon, that has some very peculiar traits:

After living with the Pirahã for several years, Everett concluded that the lack of certain elements in the language had profound effects on thought: The Pirahã couldn't learn to count, they didn't draw or paint, they had no creation myths or communal history past a few generations back, and they didn't seem to have a sense of time in any Western sense. Most startling of all, they didn't have recursion:

Chomskian theory holds that ALL human languages have recursion: Indeed, that's the argument Chomsky, Hauser and Fitch use in a 2002 paper to refute (sort of) the idea that animal communication systems can be called "language", because we haven't found evidence that, say, dolphins can deal with recursive structures... That may be because we haven't tried that yet. We're working on it.

Cultural relativists reacted with horror: Common PC thought on this is that no culture, language, or group of people is inherently more "primitive" than any other. The thought that one's means of communicating ideas could stunt one's capacity for having ideas was not a comfortable one.

Chomsky hasn't commented much on this, but there's a definite air of dismissive condescension wafting down from his ivory tower.

Speaking as a relatively informed amateur, I have mixed feelings about this. I don't think it's quite defensible to take anything but a very nuanced, qualified position on the whole argument, and I think Deutscher does a good job of explaining the evidence while keeping his ass planted firmly on the fence.
thanked the writer.
Ray Dart
Ray Dart commented
Please don't be offended - that is not the intention. Have you ever heard of Pseuds Corner in the British satirical magazine "Private Eye"?
Jack Mahon Profile
Jack Mahon answered
No,  I don't believe language does, however, it is the culture that is behind the language which mainly shapes our thoughts  I tried to speak Japanese one time and got so tongue tied that my tongue got in the way of my eye tooth and I couldn't see what I was saying.
Joe B. Profile
Joe B. answered
I don't know the specifics but at one time or another I've heard about different languages lacking words to describe certain things, such as failure for example. They might not know what it is to "fail" maybe instead they choose to look at it and think about it as an opportunity for learning rather than something to feel bad and dwell on.
So in that sense language could possibly alter how we perceive the world and ourselves.
greg gowen Profile
greg gowen answered
That would explain the progress of animals in the past 100,000 years.
Annie Devore Profile
Annie Devore answered
In A Way.  If You Are Very Irresponsible  About How You Speak. People Will Judge You Immature And  You Will Behave That Way Because Of How People React To You. Does This Make Sense?If I  Said All Tall People Should Play Basketball That Is Not Taking Into Account How Different People Live  It's Generalizing People.. It's Not Really Thinking Before I Speak. And People Would Say That's Rude
Anonymous Profile
Anonymous answered
Not for me. I hope thats not a bad thing. Because I would have to still say ,not for me!
thanked the writer.
Anonymous commented
For me it is actions. If i would have let my parents whome i love dearly,and my whole being!!! 'language' shape the way i think, then i would have had never know love in my heart.........not for me..........
Christian Profile
Christian answered
Yes, unless you do not watch what you say nor care what you say like swearing. But other than that yes, it fits in well and is a great way of communicating.

Answer Question