The Chicken or the Egg: Language or Thought?


As Whorf studied the tribe’s habitual behavior, he found that the Hopi people can understand the Western concept of time, but because of grammatical differences, they are unable to express time as a set measure in their own words, even if they can understand it otherwise. Language dictates thought, which dictates culture. With no language to express the thought, the thought will not appear in the culture. The Whorfian view is simple: thought and action are entirely determined by language.

This belief was further examined in a study on abstractions by Stanford professor Lera Boroditsky. Just as in the Hopi experiment conducted by Whorf, Boroditsky studied two different approaches to talking about time: the English way and the Mandarin way. She noted in her paper, “Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers Conceptions of Time,” that English people view time in a horizontal manner, while Mandarin people can view it from either a horizontal or a vertical perspective. (Horizontal thinking is defined as the cognitive process that looks at time as front or back, while vertical is seen as the process that looks at it as up or down.)

Boroditsky conducted multiple experiments. One showed that even while thinking how to respond in English, Mandarin speakers opted to think through a vertical process instead of a horizontal one, and the English speakers thought in a horizontal method. This was only true, though, if the Mandarin speakers were vertically primed beforehand.

For example, in a specific experiment performed by Boroditsky, the Mandarin speakers were first shown a vertical display of objects before they were asked questions involving time. If they were not primed vertically, the process became slower. The opposite was true for English speakers. The second test examined the thought process of bilinguals, and it was shown that their line of thinking favored that of their first language.

Overall, Boroditsky drew two very important conclusions: that language itself is a powerful tool in shaping abstract thoughts, and that native language shapes habitual thoughts. Boroditsky agreed with Whorf ’s theories, though not as strongly, and went on to explain the influence of different languages as a “Bias to attend to and encode different aspects of [our] experience while speaking.”

Linguist and psychologist Dan Slobin also called this “thinking for speaking,” or the idea that diverse languages entail different cognitive reasoning. In order for thought to come about, there has to be grammar for the parts of experience. Ultimately, after an experience, all cognitive thought is based upon finding the correct language to express that experience and make sure that the desired claims are made universal.

What we have is a task-specific shaping of attentional processes rather than any general reshaping of sensory capacity, so without language, there is no real evidence that suggests that any other type of sensory or acoustic cognitive processing can occur. As Slobin said, “No one can verbalize experience without taking a perspective. To have an opinion about anything is human nature, but to be able to hold that opinion is solely based on the capability to express it.”

To hold an opinion today — or to even have the ability to change someone else’s opinion — is based on the words available in a language. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, it has become illegal for any non-Muslim to utter the words “fatwa,” “imam,” “haj,” or “Allah,” or two dozen other phrases. The government of Malaysia banned the use of these terms in order to inhibit other religions attempts to convert the predominantly Muslim population. How can missionaries convert Muslims when they cannot use the Muslim terminology to lead them astray? Whorf believed that language cannot be translated and have the same desired effect. Therefore, for missionaries to have any impact on the mind of a Muslim, they have to be able to use the words that they understand, the ones that directly relate to a specific abstraction in a culture.

Language is critical not only in the communication between two people, but in the ability to understand another individual’s reasoning. To understand their mindset, their way of thinking, is reliant on understanding their language. Like Syme said before he “disappeared”: “It is a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” The direction in which our language is heading, it really must be.

This articles was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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