Does Language shape the way we Think?
Language does not change the content of our thoughts, but it changes the way we access that content. Content, in this context, is the non-lingual creation of thoughts and emotions. Language takes the content and formulizes it in a way that our content is accessible for everyone to understand. Language shapes our access and communication of thoughts but does not shape the content of our thoughts. In the first section, I will interpret the theory of linguistic relativity as a function of conditioning. In the second section, I will argue about the independence of thoughts relative to language. In the third section, I will explain the function and necessity of language. The three sections will provide an account of the different roles of thought and language.
Accessing thoughts, and becoming intuitive with language, requires for us to be habitual language users. By forming this habit, we are all conditioned by language. The theory of linguistic relativity argued by Whorf provides a good account of the impact of language:
‘‘It is that we are creatures of habit. If language is our most practiced resource, it should be no surprise that language instills deep cognitive habits: habits of attention and disattention, habits of reasoning — or failing to reason — in deciding how to act.’’
Language is deeply instilled in us due to the amount of practice we put into it every day. This habit of language, however, has an effect on our thoughts. We connect and reason with our thoughts through lingual form. Thinking without language is almost impossible to imagine for some people. Not only do we think through language, but characteristics of a language can even change the way we visualize thoughts:
‘‘Mandarin speakers tend to think about time vertically even when thinking for English.’’
In anthropology class, the Mandarin speakers in the class confirmed that they think about time vertically rather than horizontally. As a Turkish and English speaker, considering time horizontally almost felt natural until I heard about this. When I tried to think of time vertically, I even opposed it and thought that it is wrong to think this way. In many phenomena of life, we are deeply conditioned through language, and accept these patterns as our own identity. People tend to keep practicing what they are good at and avoid the things they have not practiced. Our thoughts about time or shapes are not affected by language. The conditioning of language is the way we access those thoughts. Thoughts are wide and wandering; through language, they get conditioned and easily communicated with ourselves and other people.
Although thoughts are inherently conditioned with language, this is not to say that thoughts are interdependent on language. Thoughts are definitely tamed through language, but the content of thoughts our independent relative to language. Through the theory of connectionism, Bloch argues in favour of the independence of thoughts:
‘‘The mental form of classificatory concepts, essential building blocks of culture, involves loose and implicit practical-cum-theoretical pattern networks of knowledge… therefore, language is not essential for conceptual thought.’’
Bloch argued that we do not tick off parts of a car, such as a tire, wheel, and metal to say that it is a car. We already know it is a car because our thoughts are not dependent on language. There are many things I agree with the theory about. When it comes to my memories, good or bad, it never has to do with the words attached in the memory. For instance, when a stranger in the street held a knife against my stomach and asked for my money, I remember the trembling sensation all over my stomach spreading to my body. When I went to my first football match, I remember a sense of overwhelming excitement when I saw the green pitch for the first time. The memories that I identify with are connected to emotions and a wandering mind. Language has no place in these memories. Many forms of bonding in culture has to do with non-lingual interactions: dancing, playing, working, the deepest bonds between people can be created without a single lingual interaction. Although I agree with the independence of thoughts in terms of memories and emotions, there are things that are wrong in this view. Language can help in the direction and development of thoughts. Without the knowledge of what a car is in lingual form, and without establishing the logical connectives of a roof, door, and walls through language, there is a possibility that we might have not intuitively conceived the concept of a house. As I intuitively associated that time is horizontal, it almost felt independent from language. It was language that formed this association. We might be forming the general idea of a house through lingually practicing the elements of a house. For this reason, I cannot argue that thoughts have a world of their own.
No matter how independent or interdependent thoughts and language can be, this is not a critique of language. It is one of the most useful and important things in our daily life, and we cannot live without it. I could not communicate my thoughts in this essay without language. For the last section, I wanted to elaborate on the function of language and how it helps with our thoughts and life. Language is necessary for the continuation of any civilization. Institutions and law cannot be established without language. Politics and ideology are another important function. People can form ideologies and establish a sense of cultural identity. The positive experience of cultural identity may be non-lingual, but it is language that allows the formation of it. Language forms logical connections that everyone can understand. Resolving conflict becomes easier, as people can articulate their emotions through language. In my personal life, when my mind is scattered, I often feel tense. In order to calm myself down, I take a notebook and write all my feelings down without judging them. Once I see it written down in a lingual form, I can reason with myself and understand why I am thinking irrationally. The human mind can be untameable at times. We need to discipline our thoughts and reason with ourselves during these periods. It is also fascinating that I had endless opportunities to meet people from other cultures, and even become good friends with them. Many of the cultural barriers have been eliminated by being able to speak a global language like English.
As habitual language users, we are dependent on language. The conditioning of language is deeply instilled in our identity. The content of thought, however, is independent from language. The Blochian theory of connectionism sheds light on the independent nature of language. We also cannot deny that language is one of the most important accomplishments of our species. In terms of communication and knowledge, thoughts are interdependent on language. In terms of the content of our mind, thoughts are independent of language.
N.J. Enfield. “Linguistic Relativity from Reference to Agency.” University of Sidney, 2006. https://www-annualreviews-org.gate3.library.lse.ac.uk/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102214-014053
Lera Boroditsky. “Linguistic Relativity.” Massachusets Insitute of Technology, n.d. http://lera.ucsd.edu/papers/linguistic-relativity.pdf.
Maurice Bloch. “Language, Anthropology and Cognitive Science.” Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, June 1991.