Can you think outside your language?

There is a strong relationship between the language you speak, the words you know, and your ability to think. There are theories claiming that if a word or concept does not exist in your language, you will not be able to grasp the concept entirely! Could this possibly be true? And if so, can we break this tie?

Does language shape thought?

There are two distinctive abilities that, among all living creatures, seem to be given only to human beings in such an advanced form: speech and thought. Although we can surely affirm that animals also communicate to a certain degree, we would not compare this to the sublime form of human language. Conversely, the ability to use reason, seems to be what truly distinguishes humans from animals, as already claimed by Aristotle. 

The question of how these two faculties relate to one another is more complex however. Does language shape thought or does thought precede language? Many philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, linguists and writers have tried to answer this very question. Still, none of the answers given can be held as absolute and universally true. 

Does language shape thought or does thought precede language?

The main question in this matter is whether thought is caused and determined by language or vice-versa. Even though there are examples that support either side of the discussion, there is no absolute consensus on which one is true and which one is false. The only thing that appears evident is that even though we do not know exactly how thought and language interact, we seem to have enough proof to affirm that there certainly is some sort of essential and unbreakable link between these two faculties.

Would this then mean that people who speak multiple languages have more flexibility in their thought? Potentially yes! The main difference between our native tongue and languages we learn in later stages of life is fundamentally the following: you learn your first language by association and the subsequent ones by translation. Therefore, except in very rare cases, your native tongue constitutes the foundation for your speech and in some way also for your thought! It follows that knowing more languages will in some way expand your faculty of thought, yet only speaking one language, must not necessarily limit you. As long as you are aware of the limits of your language and the impacts this has on your toughts, you can overcome them without the necessity of foreign language skills. Let’s see why…


Counting without numbers

Peter Gordon, a psychologist at Columbia University, tried to give an answer to this riddle through an experiment. He tried to teach the Pirahã how to perform simple mathematical exercises. Pirahã is a Brazilian hunter tribe whose language has the particularity of only containing a definition for the numerical value “one”, “two” and “many”; they have no extended numeric system as we commonly expect in our languages.

Interestingly, Gordon only managed to make them do exercises with numbers up to three; all numbers higher than three were impossible for them to picture. With this experiment Gordon intended to demonstrate how language is prior to thought, and how language really is what shapes thought. Because if we cannot define or imagine a concept with words, we will not at all be able to grasp it or even think of it.

A similar thesis had been put forth by the linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and student Benjamin Whorf. They affirm that there is a systematic relationship between the language of an ethnic group and their action. More precisely they say that the way of living, acting, thinking and behaving is determined by language and therefore culture. It follows that certain ethnicities cannot think of a concept if this cannot be expressed in their language.

In sum, both Gordon and Sapir’s view claim that language shapes thought; it does not merely influence it.


Do words define our reality?

Another example given by Sapir and Whorf, sustaining this thesis, is the experiment with the colors of the rainbow. People were asked to say how many colors there are in rainbow and the common answer was a list of about six colors everyone could identify. In reality though, we know that a rainbow has an infinite spectrum of colors fading from one into another. People only listed colors they know, because they have a word for them. All the stated colors were therefore inherent to their language, while colors for which there is no common word were consequently not thought of.

A similar point of view is developed by the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. His intention is to identify the relation between language and reality, and to explore the limits of language and how these influence the limits of our thought. Wittgenstein holds that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Thus everything that is outside the realm of language cannot be grasped.  He maintains that “language is itself the vehicle of thought” and therefore language alone determines our way of thinking and our outlook to the world.

“The limits of my language, mean the limits of my world” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

His view clearly develops in the direction that holds language to be the extreme limiter of our thought. Thus language is prior to thought, and thought is shaped by language itself.

The famous writer George Orwell delves into this topic too in his masterpiece “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. The book depicts a nightmarish dystopia society where free-will and freedom are not even a distant dream. Orwell explains how the rulers of this society eliminate entire words from the dictionary – and enforce these changes with severe punishments – all to avoid people realizing the misery of their situation. Furthermore, they introduce a new language (Newspeak) that must be used by everyone, which again only contains those words that the rulers want to make available to society.

For this reason, Orwell explains in his book, if we do not know how to express something, because no words or concepts exist for that given thing, we will not even be able to imagine it; thus we cannot think of anything that goes beyond language. This process will prevent individuals from committing “thoughtcrime”; because if there are no words that would allow us to have bad thoughts, no bad thoughts can ever be generated in our minds. This imaginary scenario illustrated by Orwell shows once more how thought is dependent on language.


What about the opposite: can thought change our language?

Now that we have explored how language can potentially not just influence but actually shape thought, let’s see if the opposite can be true as well.

At times, we conceive ideas in our minds for which there are no words. Concepts which indeed are real, even though we have no definition for it yet. This calls for the invention of entirely new words, or an adaptation of the definition of common words. E.g. if we speak of a “server” nowadays, we may not just be talking about a human (server at a restaurant for example), but also about a computer (hosting our software or acting as a cloud – where hosting, software and cloud all take on new meanings). Of course, we could go much more into detail here and analyze how words have changed over the course of time and which words have been invented in the past decades, but let’s just conclude with the following statement: thought can influence language and even change it. In fact, the evolution of language still follows thought, since language would otherwise just be a collection of sounds or scribbles.

The question of which one is prior and which one has a greater influence remains partly unsolved. Nevertheless, what we can say with absolute certainty is that there is a very strong interrelation between the two.


The relationship between thought and language

As we have seen, there are many different theories on the subject, yet most seem to agree that there is a relation between thought and speech. Some believe that language shapes thought, other that language strongly influences thought. 

From personal experience I can say add that people with different linguistic backgrounds can think different thoughts in different languages, since different languages also have specific words for specific things (not all of which have translations!). This raises the following question: can certain concepts only be fully grasped by a native speaker of that specific language? If so, could a non-native speaker ever learn this language so well as to truly understand the underlying meaning of particular words (the ones that have no translation)?

As with almost any philosophical question there are always arguments and counterarguments. There is hardly ever an answer that settles the questioned matter. Yet some questions are powerful even when they cannot be conclusively answered. How could language exist without thought? And how could thought ever be generated if we had no words or definitions for any existing thing? 

So, bear this in mind when "judging" cultural differences, beliefs and thoughts that vastly differ from your own. You and I are just as limited by our very language as anyone else is, no matter what culture, background or race. Practice tolerance, for there is no right or wrong language (though there may be wrong usage of language). Stay creative, just because you cannot think of something – i.e. create it in your mind with your own language – does not mean it cannot be done!

And remember, only an open mind can truly develop understanding and an open exchange, leading you to expanding the possibilities of your thought and – consequently – of your action!