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language and thought

By newest99 Oct 26, 2013 1804 Words
Have you ever tried to catch yourself thinking? You can try to think while remaining conscious of your thinking process. Try and see if you are always thinking using language and, if yes, try to see if your language in the thinking process is very clear, grammatical or unclear and messy. Suppose we believe we can't think clearly without using language, what about those deaf and mute people? If they do not have a language, do they think without language or they do not think at all? Then what about children of two or three years old? Their language is certainly not adequate enough. Do they just think unclearly with whatever language they have acquired? Would it be true that children's clarity in thinking depends on their language ability? Do a small experiment on yourself before reading this section. The relationship between language and thought has long been a subject of discussion. There are a wide range of opinions about the general nature of the relationship. It is probably true to say that every possible relation between the two has been proposed by some theorists. Classical theorists like Aristotle argued that the categories of thought determine the language. To them, language is only the outward form or expression of thought. An opposing view was expressed by the behaviorist J. B. Watson. According to him, thought is language. He believed that thought is sub-vocal speech, like a very quiet whisper to oneself. Watson's position, in its radical form, is no LANGUAGE DETERMINES THOUGHT

There are dramatic vocabulary differences from language to language. In some languages, there may be only a single word for a certain object, creature or concept, whereas in another language, there may be several words, even quite a large number. Generally, the greater number would be to show finer distinctions. In Chinese, there is only a single term luotuo ( 骆驼 ); in English there is camel (or dromedary for the one-humped camel, and Bactrian camel for the two-humped animal). But in Arabic, it is said that there are more than 400 words for the animal. The camel is of far greater importance as a means of travel with most Arabic-speaking people. The greater number of words relating to the camel is an obvious reflection of this. The 400 or so words may show differences in the camel's age, sex, breed, size, etc.; they may indicate whether the animal is used for carrying heavy loads or not. It is said that there is at least one term which indicates that the camel is pregnant. The Eskimo language has a large number of words involving snow. For example, apun = "snow on the ground", qanikca= “hard snow on the ground”, utak= “block of snow”. Can all these examples tell us that language system forms thought or is necessary for thought, and a particular language imposes particular ideas of nature or of one's culture? Yes, some scholars, for example, E. Sapir and B. Lee Whorf, think so. This view is generally referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or Whorfian Hypothesis . According to them, the child's cognitive system is determined by the structure of the language he acquires. Since linguistic structures are different, the associated cognitive systems are also different. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has two parts. The first is called linguistic determinism , which says that linguistic structure determines cognitive structure. That is, learning a language changes the way a person thinks. The second part is called linguistic relativity , which says that the resulting cognitive systems are different in speakers of different languages. Sapir spoke of language as a "tyrant" that not only reflects experience, but actually defines it, imposing upon us particulars and ideas about the world. Whorf, who was Sapir's student, shared his views stating that language is not only a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas. We cut nature along lines laid down by our native language. He noted that some languages, Eskimo for example, have separate words for different types of snow. A child who grows up speaking such a language will develop more cognitive categories for snow than will an English-speaking child. When the former looks out at a snowy environment, he will, in some sense, see it differently from a child who has but one word snow . Whorf claimed that the perceptual events that we experience can be very different from those experienced by a speaker of another language who is standing beside us. When you look at the rainbow, how many colors do you see? Most English speakers see red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Whorf would say that the colors we perceive come from color-naming influence of the language. Some languages do not divide the colors into the same number of basic categories. One language may not distinguish between green and blue, for instance. A speaker of that language will not describe the rainbow in the same way as English speakers do. How much truth is there in the Whorfian Hypothesis? Whorf's writings contain numerous examples of how languages differ in the way their vocabularies segment the perceptual world. As we have mentioned, languages vary in the number of colors and terms they possess, and the parts of color spectrum to which the terms refer. What is the significance of such lexical differences? Does the fact that a language does not have separate terms for certain phenomena mean that the users of this language are unable to distinguish these phenomena from others? Certain aspects of language behavior challenge Whorf's thesis that the absence or presence of a lexical distinction can be taken as an indicator of a corresponding perceptual or conceptual distinction.It may not be possible to translate one language into another with term-for-term correspondence. However, it is possible to preserve some part of the original meaning in another language. This seems to show that there is no hard-and-fast identification of word categories with thought categories. Secondly, there are bilinguals among the general population in most communities who can express their ideas freely in two or more languages. Thirdly, languages borrow words from each other fairly frequently, which demonstrates that the existing vocabulary does not exhaust the discrimination of which the language users are capable. So a more acceptable conclusion might be that "languages differ not so much as to what can be said in them, but rather as to what it is relatively easy to say " (Hockett, 1954: 122). The ease with which a distinction is expressed in a language is related to the frequency with which a particular perceptual discrimination is required in everyday life. It seems clear that a strong version of the Whorfian Hypothesis--language determines thought--cannot be supported. However, it is equally clear that a weak version of the hypothesis--language influences thought-- is reasonable and supportable.

Those who believe that thought determines language would say that cognitive development comes earlier in the life of children and that cognitive categories they develop determine the linguistic categories that they will acquire. Many experiments have been carried out to test the validity of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The results of some experiments turned out to argue against it. B. Berlin and P. Kay's experiment in 1969 is a case in point. It was concerned with how speakers of different languages divide up the color spectrum. They used an array of 329 colors which they presented to speakers of 20 diverse languages. Berlin and Kay first tried to find out the basic color terms in each language. (Note, for Berlin and Kay, the basic color terms could not be compounds such as blue-green; basic terms were ones which stood alone such as red , blue and green in English.) After they found the basic color terms of a language, they then presented the array of 329 colors to the speaker of that language and asked the subject to name the colors and draw lines around them. After that, the speakers of the 20 languages were asked to mark with an "X" the most typical example of each color in their basic color vocabulary. This was called the focal color. There are a number of important results from the Berlin and Kay's study. First, the basic color vocabularies of the 20 languages are restricted to a small set of terms. Some languages have two basic color terms and no language has more than eleven. Second, the focal color terms are the same across the 20 languages. That is, if language A has four basic color terms and language B has six, the four focal colors chosen by speakers of A will closely correspond to the four of the six focal colors chosen by speakers of B. The boundaries between the colors are variable across languages, but the focal examples of the colors are not variable. For example, no language divides the color spectrum in such a way that the English speakers' blue is divided in half. In addition, it is worth noting that Berlin and Kay also found evidence suggesting that there is a standard order in which basic color terms are added to languages. If a language has only two color terms, they refer to dark versus light colors. If a third basic color term is added, it invariably refers to red. The next color terms to enter a language refer to yellow and green. If there are six basic terms, the sixth one is always blue. For our purposes, the importance of Berlin and Kay's work is that it strongly argues against the hypothesis that languages are free to divide the world of experience in any convenient way. In the realm of colors, at least, there appear to be some basic constraints that limit the way in which this aspect of our experience is coded in the language. This conclusion is directly contrary to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. If the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is accepted, i.e. language totally determines thought, there will be no thought without language. If there are no constraints on the variation to be found between people in the way they think, speakers of different languages will never see the world in the same way. It also follows that if one can find a way to control the language that people learn, one would thereby be able to control their thoughts. Therefore, if the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is true, then we are helplessly trapped by the language we speak. We could not escape from it and even if we could, we would fall into the framework of another language which would determine what we think, what we perceive and what we say. What is more, if language determines thought, people speaking diverse languages would never understand each other. The fact is that people of the world have been communicating over the centuries and that there have been radical changes of world-views within languages.

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