exactly how the Language you Speak impacts the way You Think

The relationship between language and also thought is much from straightforward.

posted August 8, 2018 | reviewed by Ekua Hagan


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Time heaved a gentle sigh as the wind swept through the willows.

You are watching: What is the relationship between thinking and language

Communication go not require language, and also many pets communicate effectively by various other means. However, language is closely linked with symbolism, and so with conceptual thought, problem solving, and also creativity. These distinct assets make united state by much the many adaptable that all pets and allow us to engage in very abstract pursuits such together philosophy, art, and also science that specify us as human being beings.


Here’s a assumed experiment. Imagine what it would certainly be prefer to live without language—not there is no the capacity to speak, yet without language itself. Provided the choice, would you rather lose the faculty of sight or the faculty of language? This is probably the very first time that you have faced this question: The faculty of language is so an essential to what it means to be person that, uneven the faculty of sight, we take it fully for granted. ‘Monkeys’ quipped Kenneth Grahame, ‘very sensibly stop from speech, lest they should be collection to earn your livings.’


If rhetoric, the beauty beauty of language, can so bend us, how around language itself? In various other words, exactly how does the language friend speak affect the method you think? The ostensible objective of language is to transmit thoughts from one mind come another. Language to represent thought, that’s for sure, but does it additionally determine thought?


Wittgenstein famously created that ‘the boundaries of mine language was standing for the limits of my world’. Take away at face value, that seems too solid a claim. There are over 7,000 languages in the world—with, by some estimates, one dying the end every two weeks or so. The variety of basic colour state varies quite substantially from one language come another. Dani, talked in new Guinea, and also Bassa, talked in Liberia and also Sierra Leone, each have actually no more than two colour terms, one because that dark/cool colours and also the other for light/warm colours. But, obviously, speakers of Dani and Bassa are able come perceive and think about more than simply two colours.


More subtly, there is no English identical for the German indigenous Sehnsucht, i beg your pardon denotes dissatisfaction through reality and also yearning for a richer, ‘realer’ ideal. But despite lacking the word, the American poet Walt Whitman (d. 1892) to be able, very successfully, to conjure both the concept and the emotion: Is it a dream? Nay, but the lack of it the dream, And, failing it, life’s lore and also wealth a dream, and all the world a dream.


The English language has a word for children who have lost their parents (‘orphan’), and also a native for civilization who have lost your spouse (‘widow’ or ‘widower’), however no word for parents who have lost a child. This might mean that parents who have lost a child are much less likely to get in our minds, however not that they cannot go into our psychic or that us cannot conceive of them. We often think about or remember things that can not be put right into words, such as the smell and also taste that a mango, the dawn chorus of the birds, or the contours of a lover’s face or other component of your anatomy. Animals and pre-linguistic babies surely have thoughts, also though they have no language.


If language walk not recognize thought, how, if in ~ all, go it connect with thought? Russian, Greek, and many other languages have actually two words because that blue, one because that lighter shades and also the other for darker shades—goluboy and siniy in Russian, and also ghalazio and ble in Greek. A study uncovered that, contrasted to English speakers, Russian speaker were much faster to discriminate in between shades that goluboy and also siniy, however not shades the goluboy or shades the siniy. Conversely, one more study uncovered that Greek speaker who had lived in the UK for a long time watch ghalazio and ble as an ext similar 보다 Greek speakers living in Greece. By developing categories, by carving up the world, language supports and enhances cognition.


In comparison to modern-day Greek, old Greek, in common with many ancient languages, has actually no particular word because that blue, leave Homer to speak that ‘the wine-dark sea’. Yet the old Greeks did have several words because that "love", consisting of philia, eros, storge, and also agape, every one introduce to a different kind or ide of love, respectively, friendship, sexual love, familial love, and also universal or charity love. This method that the ancient Greeks can speak much more precisely about love, however does it likewise mean that they could think an ext precisely around love, and, together a result, lead more fulfilled love lives? Or perhaps they had much more words for love due to the fact that they led much more fulfilled love resides in the first place, or, much more prosaically, because their culture and culture placed much more emphasis top top the different bonds that have the right to exist between people, and on the various duties and also expectations the attend, or attended, to those bonds.


Philosophers and academics sometimes make up words to help them talk and also think around an issue. In the Phædrus, Plato coined the word psychagogia, the arts of leading souls, while discussing rhetoric—which, it turns out, is another word that he invented. Every ar of human being endeavour invariably evolves that is own committed jargon. There seems to be an important relationship in between language and also thought: I regularly speak—or write, together I to be doing right now—to define or filter my thinking on a certain topic, and language is the scaffolding by which I come at my an ext subtle or syncretic thoughts.


While we’re talking dead languages, it may come together a surprised that Latin has no straight translations because that ‘yes’ and also ‘no’. Instead, one either echoes the verb in the question (in affirmative or negative) or expresses one’s feelings around the reality value that the proposition v adverbs such as certe, fortasse, nimirum, plane, vero, etiam, sane, minime… This may have actually led to an ext nuanced thinking, and greater interpersonal engagement, though it must have actually been a nightmare for teens—if they also had teenagers in those days.


As i argue in my brand-new book, Hypersanity: Thinking past Thinking, much of the particularity that a language is extra-lexical, developed into the syntax and also grammar of the language and virtually invisible to native speakers. English, because that instance, restricts the use of the current perfect it s too dirty (‘has been’, ‘has read’) to topics who space still alive, noting a sharp grammatical divide between the living and also the dead, and, by extension, in between life and death. Yet of course, together an English speaker, you currently knew that, or at least subconsciously. Language is complete of built-in assumptions and also prejudices the this kind. This is another, an ext substantial example. Once describing accidental events, English speakers have tendency to emphasize the agent (‘I fired the gun’) more than, say, speaker of Spanish or Japanese, who favor to omit the agent (‘the gun walk off’). One study uncovered that, as a result, English speakers are an ext likely to remember the agents of accidental events—and, ns surmise, to attach blame.


Some languages seem an ext egocentric than others. Countless languages forgo the explicit usage of the an individual pronoun, i beg your pardon is instead developed into the verb. Because that example, ‘I want’ in Spanish is just quiero. English in comparison requires the explicit usage of the personal pronoun in every cases, as does French. Those more, French speaker often twin up top top the first-person personal pronoun, as in Moi, je pense que… v the stress on the moi. Sometimes, they likewise redouble top top other personal pronouns, Et toi, qu’en penses-tu? . Yet redoubling on the first-person personal pronoun is much more common: Bon aller, moi j’en ai marre . This redoubling, this pleonasm, is more a feature of the spoken than the written word, and, depending on the context, can serve come emphasize or merely acknowledge a distinction of opinion. Equivalent forms in English are an ext strained and recondite, and also less typically used, for example, ‘Well, together for me, i think that…’ The redoubling, in French, on the first-person personal pronoun appears to inject drama into a conversation, together though the speaker were acting out her own part, or play up her difference and separateness.


In English, verb express tense, that is, the time relative to the moment of speaking. In Turkish, they also express the resource of the details (evidentiality), that is, even if it is the information has been acquired straight through feeling perception, or only indirectly by testimony or inference. In Russian, verbs encompass information about completion, through (to leveling a bit) the perfective facet used for completed actions and also the imperfective facet for ongoing or habitual actions. Spanish, on the various other hand, emphasizes settings of being, v two verbs because that ‘to be’—ser, to suggest permanent or lasting attributes, and estar, to suggest temporary states and locations. Like plenty of languages, Spanish has more than one mode of second-person address: because that intimates and also social inferiors, and usted for strangers and social superiors, equivalent to tu and vous in French, and also tu and lei in Italian. There used to be a similar distinction in English, through ‘thou’ used to express intimacy, familiarity, or downright rudeness—but since it is archaic, many human being now think of it as much more formal than ‘you’: Shall i compare thee to a summer’s day? thou art more lovely and an ext temperate… that stands to factor that, compared to English speakers, Turkish speakers have to pay much more attention to evidentiality, Russian speakers to completion, and Spanish speaker to modes of being and also social relations. In the words of the linguist roman inn Jakobson (d. 1982), ‘Languages differ basically in what they should convey and not in what they might convey.’


In many languages, nouns are divided into masculine and feminine. In German, there is a third, neutral course of nouns. In Dyribal, an indigenous language, there are 4 noun classes, including one for women, water, fire, violence, and also exceptional animals—or, as George Lakoff placed it, ‘women, fire, and also dangerous things’. Researcher asked German speakers and also Spanish speaker to describe objects with opposite sex assignments in German and Spanish and also found the their explanation conformed to gender stereotypes, even when the testing took ar in English. Because that example, teutophones had tendency to explain bridges (feminine in German, die Brücke) as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, whereas hispanophones tended to describe bridges (masculine in Spanish, el puente) as big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.


Another research looking at the personification in art of abstract principles such together love, justice, and time found that, in 78% the cases, the gender of the principle in the artist’s language suspect the sex of the personification, and also that this pattern held also for uncommon allegories such as geometry, necessity, and also silence. Contrasted to a French or Spanish artist, a German artist is far an ext likely to paint fatality <der Tod, la mort, la muerte> or victory <der Sieg, la victoire, la victoria> as a man—though every artists, or at least all european artists, tend to paint fatality in skeleton form. Therefore grammar, it seems, have the right to directly and also radically affect thought, perception, and action.


It is frequently said that, through de-emphasizing them, language perpetuates biases against women. Because that example, numerous writers in English continue to use ‘mankind’ to talk about humankind, and also ‘he’ because that ‘he or she’. Similarly, plenty of languages use masculine plural pronoun to to express to groups of civilization with at the very least one man. If 100 women turn up through a infant in a pram, and also that baby happens to have a penis, French grammar dictates the usage of the masculine plural ils: ils sont arrivés, ‘they have actually arrived’.


Language changes as mindsets change, and sometimes politicians, push groups, and others attempt to change the language to readjust the attitudes—but, ~ above the whole, language, or at least grammar, offer to preserve the standing quo, come crystallize and also perpetuate the stimulate and culture that offered rise come it.


Language is additionally made up of all sorts that metaphors. In English and also Swedish, human being tend come speak the time in terms of distance: ‘I won’t be long’; ‘let’s look at the weather for the mainly ahead’; ‘his drinking finally recorded up with him’. Yet in Spanish or Greek, people tend come speak that time in terms of dimension or volume—for example, in Spanish, hacemos una pequeña pausa quite than corta pausa . An ext generally, mucho tiempo is wanted to largo tiempo , and, in Greek, poli ora to makry kroniko diastima. And guess what… according to a research of bilingual Spanish-Swedish speakers, the language used to estimate the duration of events changes the speaker’s perception of the family member passage of time.


But all in all, through a few exceptions, europe languages, or even Indo-European languages, carry out not differ considerably from one another. In contrast, to talk about space, speaker of Kuuk Thaayorre, an indigenous language, usage 16 indigenous for pure cardinal directions instead of relative references such together ‘right in front of you’, ‘to the right’, and ‘over there’. As a result, even their youngsters are always aware the the specific direction in i beg your pardon they room facing. Once asked to arrange a sequence of snapshot cards in temporal order, English speaker arrange the cards native left to right, whereas Hebrew or Arabic speakers often tend to arrange castle from best to left. However speakers that Kuuk Thaayorre repeatedly arrange lock from east to west, i beg your pardon is left to ideal if lock are dealing with south, and right come left if castle are dealing with north. Reasoning differently about space, they seem to think differently about time together well.


Language might not recognize thought, but it concentrates perception and attention on specific aspects the reality, structures and thereby boosts cognitive processes, and even come some degree regulates society relationships. Ours language reflects and also at the same time forms our think and, ultimately, our culture, which in turn shapes our thoughts and also language. Over there is no tantamount in English of the Portuguese word saudade, which describes the love and longing for someone or something that has been lost and also may never ever be regained. The increase of saudade corresponded with the decline of Portugal and the yen for its royal heyday, a yen so solid and for this reason bitter regarding have written itself into the nationwide anthem: Levantai hoje de novo o esplendor de Portugal . The three strands the language, thought, and culture are so tightly woven the they can not be prised apart.


It has been claimed that when an old guy dies, a library burns come the ground. However when a language dies, the is a whole human being that crumbles into the sea.

See my connected article, beyond Words: The benefits of being Bilingual.


Winawer J et al (2007): Russian Blues Reveal impacts of Language on shade Discrimination. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104(19):7780-5.


Boroditsky l et al. (2003): Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. In Language in Mind: developments in the study of Language and also Cognition, ed. Genter D & Goldin-Meadow S, pp. 61-80. Cambridge college Press.

See more: What Does Smog Stand For In Driving Test The First Time, How To Use The Smog Model While Driving


Bylund E & Athanasopoulos p (2017): The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration with the Language Hourglass. J Exp Psychol Gen. 146(7):911-916.