18 March, 2013

Does language "shape" or "distort" thought?

The question whether language affects thought has been of immense interest since several decades. There are several variants to what is meant by language "affecting" thought and let me give my perspective on this. (The terms Language and Thought are used in capitalized form when referring to them as objects.)

There are two basic forms of hypotheses regarding Language and Thought [1].

The "mould" hypothesis thinks of Language as mouldable clay that can be cast into some "form" by means of Thought. What this means is that, while Thought is necessary to form a cognitive structure, without Language (the clay) there is no Thought. The only way we can see Thought is by its footprints in the clay.

The second hypothesis thinks of Language as a "cloak" or "dress" for Thought. Here, Thought is supposed to exist on its own and is packaged by Language whenever it needs to be communicated. In the cloak hypothesis, the stuff that Thought is made of, is universally innate in all of us and we just need to cloak it in Language in order to communicate.

One of the early forms of the mould hypothesis is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. A strong form of this hypothesis is called "linguistic determinism" which says that language determines what people think, essentially that thought has no place without language. A weaker form of this hypothesis is called "linguistic relativity" which basically asserts that language influences our thought and what we think is relative to what language we speak/think in.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is mostly equated with linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism has failed to gain traction because of lack of enough supporting evidence. It however caught the fancy of science fiction writers like George Orwell, who introduced the notion of "Thought Police" in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Thought Police of Orwell's book held a powerful grip on the vocabulary used by the population. Terms representing personal freedom and liberties were completely removed from records and spoken language, so that no one really thinks them.

Such intense forms of linguistic influence theories were rejected by the scientific community as there is ample evidence to suggest that Thought does exist without Language. For instance, we often get into a state where we do not have the right words to express what we are thinking -- which basically shows that we are thinking without words.

Linguistic relativity though is an issue that cannot be easily settled. Linguistic relativity says that the language in which we speak influences the way we think. Let me return to linguistic relativity in a while, after we briefly visit the cloak hypothesis.

The cloak hypothesis contends that the stuff of Thought is something that is innate to all humans irrespective of the language they speak. In the cloak hypothesis, any notion from one language may be translated to any other notion in some other language, as Language is merely a packaging layer over Thought.

The cloak hypothesis is especially popular among philosophers of science. It is easy to see the universal nature of scientific theories -- the laws of physics for example, will be the same, no matter which language it is expressed in.

The cloak hypothesis also fits in well with Analytic Philosophy, that is widely seen as the underpinnings of philosophy of science. Prior to the 20th century, Western philosophical thought was dominated by the works of philosophers like Kant and Hegel, and was based on the notion of Absolute Idealism. It states that what we perceive as different objects in the material world and concepts in the mental world, are basically part of a unified whole containing everything. The only element that exists really (is "simpliciter") is the unified whole, so speaking about any concept in isolation is meaningless.

Analytic philosophy on the other hand departs from this position and claims instead that concepts do exist on their own (are "simpliciter") and there may be an infinite number of such concepts that exist on their own. It is just that the mind cannot readily "see" these concepts and their characteristics.

For instance, consider the concept of a prime number. Prime numbers have been shown to have several characteristics -- some proven, some unproven and several (potentially infinitely more) unknown. But then do prime numbers really exist or are they simply a fabrication of our minds? When there were no humans, and dinosaurs roamed the face of the earth, were there prime numbers? If we do not have the linguistic ability to express the concept of a prime number, will they then cease to exist, or will their properties change? Will prime numbers have different properties when expressed in English versus when expressed in Kannada?

Analytic philosophy argues that prime numbers do really exist and existed during the time of the dinosaurs too. It is just that the dinosaurial mind was not evolved enough to discover them. Even the human mind has not discovered their complete properties and every time we find something new about prime numbers, it makes news among mathematicians.

Accordingly -- it is Thought that influences Language, rather than the other way around. Because our minds could conceptualize the notion of a prime number, we invented linguistic constructs to express it.

The conceptual world is explained by what is called the "Plato's Cave" analogy. Imagine we are trapped in a cave and the conceptual world outside is casting some light and shadows inside the cave (our minds). Based on what we see inside our cave, we theorize and discover properties of the world outside.

Our ability to think something is determined by the ability of our minds to conceptualize it. The stuff of Thought is conceptual modeling, while the stuff of Language is grammar and vocabulary to express elements of conceptual models.

The cloak hypothesis is also supported by Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar and Pinker's theory of the Language Instinct. Both of these theories argue that humans have an innate capability for learning linguistic constructs. And this innate ability comes from our innate ability for abstract conceptual modeling.

But we are still left with some recent nagging questions concerning linguistic relativity..

Linguistic relativity states that while language does not determine how we think, it does influence how we think.

Among the most recent results in this is a recent paper by a cognitive scientist from Stanford named Lera Boroditsky, on how languages shape thought. Boroditsky details a number of very interesting experiments conducted in different parts of the world, showing how language used by the community influenced their thinking.

In some languages like in most Indian languages, the gender of a person is an integral part of any sentence involving that person. Hence, in these languages, we cannot say something like, "I went to a movie with a friend," without specifying the gender of the friend. Which in turn directly or indirectly influences our mind to think about the gender of the friend in addition to other pertinent thoughts about the sentence.

The paper also mentions about an Aboriginal community in Australia, where sentences in their language have cardinal directions as an integral element. Rather than using relative terms like "left" and "right" the language uses absolute cardinal directions like north, south, east and west. So rather than saying, "The one sitting to the left of me is my cousin," one would say "The one sitting north from me is my cousin.." This means that our mind needs to think of and about cardinal directions in just about every situation.

So the language in which we express a thought influences the kind of concepts that are brought into the working memory of our brains. Even though the central concepts representing the semantics of an uttered sentence would be the same across languages, the quirks of each language causes it to bring in other peripheral concepts like gender or cardinal directions, into our working memory, in addition to the central concepts.

So how does linguistic relativism reconcile with the cloak hypothesis and Analytic Philosophy?

To connect these two elements, we need to bring in another notion -- that of a mental model.

A mental model is an abstract, incomplete, but consistent view of the world around us, representing the axiomatic basis of our thought processes. We always think within the framework of a mental model and our brains may store several mental models.

Mental models are built from our experiences and our interpretations of our observations. Every time we parse something, it is done within the framework of a mental model, and the semantics extracted goes to augment the mental model.

Linguistic constructs that a culture develops is indicative of the shared mental model that characterizes the culture, rather than the other way around. For instance, the gendered nature of our languages shows how important gender is in our shared worldview. Rather than the language forcing us to think about gender, it is our propensity to think about gender that has developed such linguistic constructs.

In this way, yes, Language does influence the way we think. But I would argue that it is more accurate to say, Language "distorts" our thinking, rather than Language "shapes" our thinking. Thinking shapes our language, but linguistic quirks distorts our thinking.

The primary building blocks of our linguistic constructs are directly shaped by conceptual modeling abilities, while the way language influences thought is by bringing in extraneous concepts into our working memory, which are only peripheral to the issue of concern.

  1. Bruner, J. S., J. S. Goodnow & G. A. Austin ([1956] 1962): A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley