Language and Thought

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

As I bumble along learning my bastardised version of French, I realise that I am beginning to think more in French too.

I expected that I would carry on, for some time, thinking in English, translating my thoughts into French, speaking [with terrible pronunciation] and then reversing the process when [and if] the person responds.  But no, I was pleased to find myself thinking in French.  The problem was that my oh-so-clever thoughts and oh-so-witty jokes were stifled by my oh-so-limited knowledge of French.

And so I began to think about language and thought and how they were related.

As a baby becomes more aware of its surroundings it must be forming a world view, that is founded on some basic observations such as being cared for, the people around it, its parents, ideas of food, warmth, discomfort and nappies.  Of course, what is difficult to know is whether the baby develops words for these things.  Maybe for its simple world, it doesn’t need words since the things in the world are relatively few and there’s no need for any words and the baby doesn’t has have anyone to tell anyway.  Once the baby develops more abstract concepts of time and space it has acquired the language of the people around it and has no need to create its own words for these things.

And once we have a language, then we can use it to describe our thoughts and emotions.  Or can we?  A language not only comes with its words and structures, it is laden with cultural meaning too, meaning that goes beyond the word’s or phrase’s apparently obvious sense.  Take for example the two words “master” and “mistress”.  Ostensibly these two gendered words are equal but quite obviously, for an English speaker, they are not.  The male term “master” is one that is quite clearly about domination and control whilst its feminine equivalent “mistress” is a term more connected with extra-marital sex, maybe some temporary control and pleasure but little more.  A glorified whore if you will.

Like it or not, the traditional use of English is reinforcing a woman’s position in society through the meanings of the words that we have available.  It’s no wonder that there are so many battles over the language that we use when dealing with different groups in society.  English speakers may easily recall the discussions and influencing that has gone on over words and meaning that seemingly demean certain groups within society, such as the “differently abled” or the way that that some insulting words have been appropriated by the very groups who were once insulted by them, such as “gay” or “queen”.

The language that we are given affects the way in which we see the world.  Where languages contain gendered nouns, then the people who use those languages will tend to personify the nouns according to the assigned genders.  An example has been noted about the Viaduct de Millau in France.  When Germans described the bridge, they used terms associated with its grace, elegance and beauty whilst the French described its strength, power and size.  Is this connected with the fact that the word for bridge in German {die Brucke] is feminine and in French [le pont] is masculine?

There are also fascinating instances of how people place themselves in time, where is the future and where is the past in our world view?  Is it behind us, in front of us or maybe even above or below us?  Some recent research has shown that English speakers unconsciously lean forward when talking or thinking about the future and lean backwards when speaking or thinking about the past.

I’m going to post a link to a fascinating and provoking lecture by Lera Boroditsky.  There is a video of it, but for some reason the link I have is broken but it was working the other day.  Maybe it’s a temporary problem so here’s the link anyway.

If that doesn’t work, here’s a link to the MP3 of the lecture.

So it would seem that, at first glance, that not only do we think we use language to express and share our thoughts, the language that we have available to us shapes our thoughts and world views, almost constraining them to what our language allows.  Language is not some unthinking and pliable tool for our use.  It is a tool that has formed us.


2 thoughts on “Language and Thought

  1. Readers Cafe says:

    Really like the overall look of your blog. Like the way you have touched on different topics related to languages. We here love languages as well.

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