In order to carry a positive action we must develop here a positive vision.
Recently, there appeared an idea of positive thinking, which influences life and helps to change it for better. There are many psychological and pseudo-psychological articles and books which tell how important it is to keep one’s mind positive. One may ask a question what is the difference between thoughts and life. It may come as a surprise that many scholars claim that there is a certain connection not only between the way people think and live but between the language they think in and the ideas they produce. The idea of the relationship between language and thought is not new, however, there still are many questions concerning the interaction of these two concepts.
First of all, it is important to mention that language is not a separate issue, as it exists in constant interconnection with many various spheres of life and society. According to Oxford Dictionaries, language is the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way (Dictionary, Thesaurus, & Grammar 2014). Linguistic communication is a feature, which distinguishes human beings from all other species. Except for communication, language is deeply connected with culture, psyche, and thought. Thought is seen as an idea or opinion produced by thinking, or occurring suddenly in the mind (Dictionary, Thesaurus, & Grammar 2014). Starting with the first works on the language, scholars were interested in the relationship between language and thought. For a long time it was believed that these two notions influenced each other, however later, in the 1960s the idea of the common way of thinking among all people and nationalities on the Earth paused the development and studies of language-and-thought-interconnection idea. Active studies continued only in a few decades.
The studies of language and its connection with thought began in the ancient times. The first person to make some suggestions about the relationship between language and thought was Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. As his main theory was connected with ideas, which are eternal, constituting the world, he stated that language naturally reflected the ideas in a very accurate way. Much later, in the 18th and 19th centuries German philosophers and writers, representatives of the classic school and belonging to Romantic movement continued the idea of interconnection between the two concepts. One of the most acknowledged linguists, the founder of Structural linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure suggested that there is the certain influence of language on thought and culture (Holdcroft 1991). He had the opinion that every researcher who wants to know the culture has to learn the language of this culture, first of all, it will allow him to comprehend the way people speak and, what is more important, think. After understanding the way of thinking culture of a particular country becomes not so complicated. Therefore, language is a key to understanding both thought and culture. Moreover, Saussure introduced one more concept along with thought and language – sound. He stated that language is a connection between thought and sound, this means that language serves as a tool, with the help of which thought can be conveyed as sound. The linguist referred to language as to marchland between thought and sound where these two notions consolidate to make communication possible. It is essential for the thoughts to be ordered for language to appear.
Prominent German scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt compared the language with a piece of cloth, fabric, but the one consisting of thought. Humboldt suggested that the worldview (called Weltanschauung by the scholar) of a particular nation depended directly on the language this nation speaks. He studied grammar as the most essential part of the language, believing that the differences in grammar of various languages did not only depend on the differences of thought but, on the contrary, provoked these differences. He claimed that “language is the forming organ of thought" and there is a definite connection between grammatical laws and the way people think - "Thinking is dependent not just on language in general but to a certain extent on each individual language" (Trabant 2000).
Studies of grammar led Humboldt to the idea that certain languages, such as English or German, were faultless because they belonged to inflectional morphological type. He believed that there is a perfect form of language and that all languages can be ranked into a hierarchical system – from the most well-organized to the least ones. The criterion of the division was the inflection; this is why the languages of inflectional type were seen as faultless. Words in such languages may change their forms either internally or by adding an ending to the word. What is so special about this type is that one and the same morpheme can be used to change some semantic, grammatical or syntactic features of the sentence. Telling about the unity of concept and categorization in mind, important for clarity of thoughts and ideas, Humboldt argued that it should be clearly expressed in language as well, however, only inflected language are able to do it. Therefore, inflected languages play in favor of thought process, which makes them perfect. Due to this factor the nations speaking this kind of languages could produce better ideas, therefore they belonged to superior layer and had the right to dominate over the nations, whose languages were not perfect. Thus, Humboldt produced the idea that the speakers of lesser languages faced intellectual problems as their languages were unable to develop serious and well-organized thoughts and notions.
One of the first scholars of the 20th century who openly claimed that language influences thought was Edward Sapir, as he conducted the studies of the relationship between the language people speak and the way they think. As one of the main ideas of Edward Sapir was that each language represents the world in a way, different from other languages, therefore the speakers of each particular language see the world in their own unique way – “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached” (Sapir).
Coming to what is nowadays known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the ideas of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf), it is necessary to introduce one more basic concept which is as important as language and thought. This is the concept of culture under which is understood social behavior, the ideas and customs of a particular people or society (Dictionary, Thesaurus, & Grammar 2014). It is essential to mention this concept, as the whole Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is based upon the connection between thought, language and culture. The connection between culture and thought has deep roots as the way people think and what they think form all the products of their culture, determining particular aspects of life and society. This is why these three concepts are often interconnected and studied together. This essay mostly focuses on the concepts of thought and language, however, Saussure, Sapir, Whorf and many other scholars studied them in interconnection with culture.
Edward Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf continued his teacher’s studies. He also believed that language influences thought. According to Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the way a person sees and perceives the world around highly depends on the language spoken, as it forms the picture of life. The main concepts of the theory are linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. The scholars claimed that people apprehend the world around them in a certain way, which is encoded into their native language – this is linguistic determinism (Linguistic Society of America 2012). Therefore, this is language, its grammar and lexis, which limits thought and knowledge. Moreover, language influences various thought-connected processes, e.g. perception, memory, ability to categorize. As a result of such influence, each particular language creates its own particular way and processes of thinking (Gumperz& Levinson 1991). The second basic concept of Sapir-Whorf theory is linguistic relativity. It means that each category, which is encoded in a particular language, is unique and cannot be repeated in any other language (Sapir). Taking into account both linguistic relativity and determinism, the authors of the theory claimed that language ‘is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but is itself a shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual's meaningful activity’. One of the examples of such influence is the data which shows that the languages that do not have grammatical forms for expressing future have become extinct. It happens because of structural inability to talk about future events, to make predictions and build plans, which limits human’s life and perception of the world. Studies of Pirahã people from Brazil serves as one more example of this theory. Having only three words to distinguish numbers – one, two and many – they were unable to count further. Even after studying for some time in school in Portuguese children of Pirahã remained unable to count at least to ten. It proves, that they were limited to a particular way of counting by their mother tongue, which did not let them imagine the existence of other numbers except those ones that had in their native language.
However, another example, provided by Whorf about Hopi people, was strongly criticized and it even led to rethinking of the whole Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. As the scholar claimed, in the language of Hopi people time was represented in a way, very different from most European languages. In the language of Hopi time was seen as a single process, as there were no words standing for a sequence of tense such as days, months, years etc. and had no past, present or future tenses. Due to this idea, Whorf ensured that the Hopi saw the world in a completely different way. However, this idea was strongly criticized afterward; one of the most prominent critics was Ekkehart Malotki, who proved that the Hopi language contains distinct tense for expressing future, while there is no clear distinction between past and present. Because of this Malotki stated that the vision of the world of the Hopi does not differ so much from the European one. This question was discussed by different linguists, who did not come to the single point and the ideas of Whorf did not lose their supporters.
One of the strongest critics of Whorf’s ideas was Eric Lennenberg, who claimed that the aim of all the languages is basically the same – to show events in the reality. Despite the fact that the ideas and events are expressed in different ways, the thoughts and the meanings of the events do not differ from each other. This means that the language the person speaks does not completely determine the way they think. On the other hand, Lennenberg did not object to the connection between language and behavior, stating that “language causes a particular cognitive structure” (Brown & Lenneberg 1954). Together with his colleague Roger Brown he conducted experiments with colors and their codifications. They checked how the representatives of two languages, in which colors are categorized in a different way, could recognize colors. The experiment showed that people who generally have the same name for green and blue face difficulties while categorizing different shades of this palette. This proved the idea of the scholars that the language people speak determines the way they see the world, but it said nothing about the way they think.
Another attempt to understand how language influences the way of thinking and perceiving the world was done by an Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher. In his book “Through the Language Glass. Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages” (2011) he gives a very detailed and thorough analysis of the color words in different languages and their influence on the way people think and see the world. The scholar provides an example about the can of red paint, in which someone slowly adds blue paint. Certainly, red color changes little by little, becoming purple. There are some words to describe these changes, such as reddish or bluish purple, but there appear more hues while the paint is changing its color – hues which the language does not have words to name. Therefore, people can see all these hues, but they are unable to name them neither mentally nor verbally as there are no words defining them. It means that to certain extent language restricts thought. Another example concerns the color blue, which stands for both dark and light blue, unlike Russian which has two words to describe it – siniy (dark blue) and goluboj (light blue). There is no doubt, that both English and Russian people can distinguish between them, however, for the first it is a shade, while for the second it is a separate color. The same can be said about red and pink, therefore it is a language which determines the way we think about these colors and see the world around.
However, not only linguists are interested in the question of language and thought connection. It is a problem of psychologists as well and there have been offered some theories concerning this connection. Thus, a psychologist from the University of California Dan Slobin offered his own version of the relationship between language and thought. In fact, his idea is based on the theory of linguistic determinism but slightly reformulated. Slobin offered an idea that thought itself is not influenced by the language, but thought in connection with speech is determined by the language. As a result of several experiments with children of different nationalities at the age of three, Slobin came to the conclusion that language does influence thought, but only while speaking (Gumperz& Levinson 1991).
One more experiment, held by psycholinguists Stephen C. Levinson and John B. Haviland prove the idea of language influence upon thought. The language spoken in the aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw in Australia has no names for such words as left, right, behind, in front of etc. Having no spatial terms, speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre use words standing for south, north, east and west. They employ cardinal directions in their everyday life, e.g. “the boy standing to the south of Mary is my brother”. The research, conducted by Levinson and Haviland has shown that speakers of languages which rely on cardinal directions find it much easier to orientate in the unknown places (Boroditsky 2011). Therefore, the lack of some words may lead not only to their substitution but to the development of certain skills of thinking, which means that language influences the way its speakers think and perceive the world.
A famous psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has the opinion that people depend on the language they speak, first of all, because it shapes their picture of the world around - “Human beings...are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. ...The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group” (Pinker 1991). Therefore, the studies and conclusions of Pinker coincide with the ideas of linguists Saussure and Humboldt, Sapir, and Whorf, as well as psycholinguists Levinson and Haviland. This fact proves that studies in different fields lead to similar conclusions of interconnection of language and thought.
Moreover, there is some evidence that not only language influences thought and culture, but culture and way of life shape the language as well. One of the brightest examples of such influence is the Japanese language. As Japanese are famous for their extreme politeness their language reflects this trait of their national character. Japanese has various ways how to say hello or goodbye and which way to choose depends on the age of the recipient of the words. Continuing the notion of politeness, it is important to remember about expressing gratitude. Thus, in Japanese there more than 10 various ways to thank somebody. The simplest form is ‘arigatou’, if one wants to say ‘thank you very much’, it is more appropriate to use the form ‘doumoarigatougozaimasu’. If a person wants not only to thank but also to apologize for the trouble someone faced for this person, the correct form will be ‘sumimasen’ (Sakura 2013). Therefore, the strong connection between language thought and culture is obvious. However, it is complicated to find out which influence is stronger – language on culture or vice versa.
To sum up, it is important to mention, that the debates about the connection between language and thought continue. However, there is a clear evidence that language and thought influence each other in different ways and it is difficult to state on which step language becomes thought. Some scholars claim that it is a mental process, while others argue that language turns into thought only when it is verbalized. Linguists of different centuries studied the connection between language and thought and separately came to the same conclusion – language and thought are strongly interrelated and have a tight connection with one more concept such as culture. Saussure believed that language and thought influenced each other and claimed that well-organized thoughts let the language (and communication) appear. Humboldt supported the idea of interconnection between thought and language, which later became the point of studies of Sapir and Whorf. All these ideas were proven by various experiments, such as Pirahã people from Brazil by Benjamin Whorf or the studies of color presented by Guy Deutscher. They showed how much language concepts influence and sometimes limit thought. Further psychological and psycholinguistic studies of Australian aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw came as support for the idea that language influences thought. Studies in many spheres of science such as linguistics, psychology, psycholinguistics show how strongly language people speak determine the way they think. In its turn, the way people think influences their culture, which appears to be interconnected with thought. This idea was developed by many linguists such as Saussure and Humboldt and further studied by Sapir and Whorf. The studies of Eskimos’ and Japanese language serve as perfect examples for this idea. It means there are certain proves that language determines thought while thought determines the vision of the world, which influences language. Therefore, the concepts of language and thought are inseparable and should be further studied in connection.
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