A conventional absurdity
The idea that thought is the same thing as language is what Pinker (1994:49) calls “a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications.” The idea that thought and language are the same is to claim that our thoughts depend on words. It is to claim that our particular language shapes our worldview and that some concepts, for some people, are unthinkable because their particular language has no names for those concepts (1). In sum, language determines (or shapes) our perceptions of reality.
But can this really be the case?
If a concept is nameless, is it consequently unimaginable? If a concept is unimaginable is it consequently nameless? Pinker (1994:47-78), whose work I draw on heavily in this article, presents an eloquent refutation of the proposal that thought and language are one and the same, concluding in his to-the-point style that it is “wrong, all wrong.” I shall not repeat Pinker’s arguments in full here – the interested reader is referred to his excellent account of the origins and nature of language in The Language Instinct – but I shall list a few of his more accessible refutations, the ones that seem to me to be testable through direct experience.
That’s not what I meant to say!
Pinker points to the common experience when, in the process of speaking or writing, we have stopped abruptly, realizing that what we have just said or written wasn’t really what we meant to say at all. Now, in order to have the feeling ‘that wasn’t what I meant to say’ there must be a ‘what I meant to say’ that is different from what we actually said or wrote. Thought is, therefore, demonstrably not the same as language.
I know what I mean, I just can’t find the words!
Often people cannot find any words to convey a particular thought: “I know what I mean, I just can’t find the words to explain it.” Again, it is easy to demonstrate that one can possess thoughts without corresponding words to describe those thoughts.
It’s on the tip of my tongue!
This is another common experience – the so-called ‘tip of the tongue’ feeling. Again, you know what you want to say (for example, the name of a film star) but you can’t recall the name – “I can see him in my mind’s eye…Oh, what’s his name?”
I’ve got the gist!
When we hear someone speaking at length or we read a text, we usually remember the gist of it, not the exact words. So, concludes Pinker (1994:50), “there has to be such a thing as a gist that is not the same as a bunch of words.”
Drunk gets nine months in violin case!
The presence of ambiguity in language points to the fact that thought and language are not the same thing. In the preceding strap line, the word case is ambiguous: is it the physical case that holds a violin, or the judicial case that brought the drunk to court? But the thought underlying the word is most likely not ambiguous. The writer of this strap line would surely have known which of the two meanings he or she had in mind. Consequently, if there can be two thoughts corresponding to one word, then thoughts cannot be words.
Language and thought are NOT the same
By now it should be clear that thought and language are not the same thing. There are, of course, more sophisticated arguments than the ones I have highlighted here that demonstrate a fundamental difference between the two. Many derive from recent advances in cognitive psychology that have improved our ability to study thinking and to separate this process from language. For example, we know from investigation of communication disorders such as aphasia – in which the ability to comprehend and use language is disrupted but general intellectual functioning may remain unimpaired – that people without language can still think. It’s possible for one’s inner, mental life to proceed without language. Indeed, there is no credible scientific evidence that language and thought are the same.
- This is typically framed as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, after the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Their work focused on the relationship between language and thought. In reality, however, neither linguist formally wrote the hypothesis: it emerged from other researchers exploring and interpreting their work. Whilst it gained much attention when first proposed it has now largely been debunked.
Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct London: Penguin Books. [Updated version published in 2008]