The Chicken or the Egg: Language or Thought?

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Is English turning into Newspeak? In George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Newspeak was Oceania’s obtuse language that conveyed a meaning opposite of its words and promised to eradicate freedom and independent thought in the future. “How could you have a slogan like ‘Freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished?” Orwell’s character Syme says. “The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

Today society is oversimplifying our language — ignoring grammatical structures, changing spelling, vaporizing concepts, truncating words, clouding connotations. We are losing our complex thought to that of the oversimplified and can no longer do what we cannot describe. Because language controls thought. Language controls all concepts and beliefs. It controls what we as humans can fathom. As once said by philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world.”

This concept of the inability to think what cannot be said has been pushing its way into our culture since the time of Immanuel Kant. Kant was known as neither an empiricist nor a rationalist but as a philosopher who balanced the two parties of thought. He believed that one’s senses played a major part in helping to understand one’s environment, but at the same time there were “certain conditions” in the human mind that are contributive to our conception of the world. The limitations of one’s mind limits the scope of one’s understanding.

It is like wearing colored lenses: The tint shades your world and determines how you perceive it. Culture is no different. The principle of linguistic relativity states that because of the varying cultural concepts within different languages, thinking is affected in such a way that two people who speak different languages will behave differently. Culture has developed around what is known, what has been experienced, and what can be expressed in language.

The power of language is said to be immense, even if language becomes more simplified. “To communicate effectively, speakers must also conceptualize their own experience in terms of the concepts that speakers habitually apply to their own experiences,” writes anthropologist Sean O’Neill in “Cultural Contact and Linguistic Relativity Among the Indians of Northwestern California.” Language plays a fundamental role in the development of thought and, in communities such as those of Northwestern Indians, a fundamental role also in the development of beliefs and culture.

Without words that specifically denote a concept, the concept does not exist in the mind. In the world that George Orwell created for Winston Smith in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Syme develops Newspeak, a language that puts constraints on its vocabulary so no radical thoughts are possible. This entails that for every word, all synonyms and antonyms are expunged so that there cannot be any imagination in word choice. Next, all negative words are erased, because the primary purpose of such a language is to harness power, to make the people obedient to a point where the only answer is “Yes.”

Eventually, according to Syme, all abstract words would be gone, and there would be no ability to formulate concepts such as “freedom” or “rebellion.” The obliteration of such words makes ideas of “rebellion” and “justice” unfathomable. Even if one understands the definition or translation of a word, one can never think in that way because it is so foreign to one’s understanding. Without the word “freedom” there can be no freedom, because there is no such thing as freedom. That label does not correspond to any experience. Thus, the totalitarian government in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” cements its control. Similar strategies are being employed by governments around the world today.

Our governments and leaders have tried to create the illusion that Newspeak does give us the ability to think conceptually and make rational connections. But this is not the case. For instance, Newspeak allows us to talk ill of certain people or beliefs, but restricts the number of ways in which that rancor can be expressed. In Oceania, it would have been possible to say “Big Brother is ungood,” but the words necessary to explain why would not be available. Newspeak can only succeed if and only if thought is dictated by words.


In a study done by Benjamin Lee Whorf, a notable linguist who, along with his mentor, Sapir, helped coin the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on linguistic determinism (language determines thought) and linguistic relativity (difference in language explains difference in thought), the language of the North American Hopi tribe was examined. It was found that the language has “mass noun and not many specific words.” Therefore, anything that flies has one word, whether it be an insect or a plane, and anything that does not have a form by which to group it does not exist. More specifically, Whorf looked at the Hopi concept of time, which has no nouns, but adverbs. To them, it is simply summer when it is hot, and winter when it is cold. Time is a cycle, not a definite block; it is just the act of “getting later.”

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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