There is an undeniable connection between thought and language. And as thought is so crucial to our knowledge, a study of our language itself is necessary. This essay examines how our language might affect our thought. In doing so, I shall examine the question, ‘what is language?’. So, what is language? Etymologists, those who study language (in how it develops and changes), generally agree that language first started developing thirty thousand to a hundred and fifty thousand years ago.
It began when, by an evolutionary chance, the oesophagus moved in human beings. This did two things: firstly it made them very prone to choking (this is often taken as proof that the ability to speak is innate in human beings – for if benefits of speech were not developed quickly this should have died out almost immediately in accordance with the theory of evolution) and secondly it dramatically increased the range of sounds they could produce orally. It is thought that the natural calls animals make – shrieks of alarm to show danger etc – developed and became more complex to form a very basic language.
Soon, these developed connotations: variations of alarm calls could be used to convey fear, pain or sadness whilst variations of triumphant calls could be used to show happiness, safety or the location of food. Imitations of the sounds things made also developed: a stream could be indicated by a gurgle, wind by a whoosh and so on. Examples of these two phenomenons continue: laughter and crying is pretty universal in babies whilst young children often refer to police cars as ‘whah – whah’ in an imitation of their sound. Language was further developed, reflecting the need to talk about the speaker’s environment.
A commonly quoted example of this is that the Inuit have twenty words for snow. Not only is this debateable – Inuit nouns are formed as in German, where nouns are tacked onto each other – but also, English has at least fifty! However, a better example would be the aborigines of Tasmania who have a separate word for every kind of native tree, over two hundred in total, but do not have a word for ‘tree’. This is because in their environment, all the trees which surround them appear to be drastically different. It is also said (perhaps somewhat dubiously) that Arabic has approximately six thousand words for camels and camel-equipment. T is doubtless that language is affected in its evolution by our surroundings and our need to communicate about them.
The main problems with language can be its vagueness and also the fact that it evolves according to our needs. Language is very vague and words can have myriads of meanings. In the English language, the word ‘set’ has fifty eight non-obsolete uses as a noun, one hundred and twenty eight as a verb and ten as a participial adjective. The Oxford English Dictionary uses sixty thousand words, including abbreviations and symbols, to define it – and ‘set’ is by no means alone.
The fact that language reflects its environment means that when someone has an original thought they often have to come up with an entirely new vocabulary to explain it. An example of this would be the concept of the ‘big bang’. When the idea originated, the language used to describe it was completely new and very few understood it. As the theory grew in popularity, its language was accepted into common usage. However, when the majority of the populace does not concern itself with that idea, the vocabulary become jargon, to be known only by experts. Language reflects or needs of it.
Written language originated as logograms in the form of pictograms – where to write ‘house’, one would draw a picture of a house. Soon these became ideograms where, as in language, associations where used – e.g. a sun to represent heat. This is the basis of all languages and today can be seen in Chinese and Japanese, as well as the ancient hieroglyphs, Linear A and Linear B. Some languages went one step further, changing from logograms to phonograms. This resulted in syllabic or alphabetic symbols, where words were written using their sounds in spoken language. This was the first link between written and spoken language. Written language, in our society, is now completely dependant on spoken language so the two are often seen as synominous.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that the nature of a particular language influences the habitual thoughts of its speaker. Different patterns of language would therefore lead to different patterns of thought. Thus this challenges that the world can be represented objectively, as language will influence its user. The most extreme supporters of this theory argue that thought is reliant on language and that therefore there can be no thought without language. The twentieth century Austrian philosopher, Wittgenstein says that, because of this, language hinders us. For example, when we say that ‘we saw nobody on the road’ we have not actually seen ‘nobody’. More accurately, ‘we did not see anyone on the road’. Another twentieth century philosopher, a Rusiian named Vigotsky, would disagree with this.
He held that language helps us to think. He says that the thought is ordered and is clarified by using language. However, a large number of people disagree with the extreme view that thought is impossible without language. Look, they say, at when we are ‘lost for words’ or the words are on the ‘tip of our tongue’: we know what we’re thinking but can’t say it. Another example would be that we can often imagine in our heads as an image something – for example, the beginning of the universe – but can’t describe it. This theory states language is created by thought, although language may later by used as a means through which to think. Many etymologists would agree with this theory as it complies with their theory on how language develops: you see something, you think about it and then you develop language to convey these thoughts and to clarify them.
So, our language is shaped by the world around us, and our thoughts are shaped by our language. So our thoughts are influenced, not just out of practicality, but empirically by our surroundings. For if we are not familiar with a concept or object or person then we are unlikely to have the language to describe it: and if we don’t have the language then we are unlikely to be able to think about something properly, even if we wished to.