Language and Thought – Linguistics

The mother tongue of about 300 million people is English and it is estimated that somewhere between half a billion and 2 billion people speak (or try to speak) English as a second language. We, as a translation company, provide multilingual translation services and it is interesting that most of our translations (and it seems that this is also the case for most translation companies) are from English or to English. English seems to be the modern day lingua franca (the common language) in the fields of science, technology, business and more.

Linguistic research deals extensively with the connection between language and thought. Charlemagne, one of the greatest European rulers in the Middle Ages, said that a second language adds another soul to the consciousness. It is interesting to explore whether the fact that more and more people speak English and are exposed to the English-speaking Western culture influences cognitive perception and thought.

Anyone who has ever learned a language knows that there are words that do not translate well from one language to another. Most languages have many words for colors, but there is a language in New Guinea where there are only two words that describe color – “mola” means bright and “mili” means dark. Could it be that the number of words for colors in a language affects the way speakers of different languages perceive color?

The colors appearing in the Bible and other ancient writings are different from the way we describe colors today. This discovery came about during the analysis of the writings of Homeric (the legendary ancient Greek poet of the eighth century BC). The British statesman Gladstone (four times Prime Minister of the UK, a philologist and a scholar) made this amazing discovery. He read the Homeric writings (Iliad and Odyssey) very carefully and found that Homer talks about colors in a strange way, for example, the sea has the color of wine. There was an attempt to say that Homer might have meant that the red color of the sea is at sunrise or sunset but, Gladstone, in his in-depth analysis, showed that this is not the case and that this is how Homer sees the color of the sea in general. Homer describes honey as green and sheep as purple. Gladstone and others thought that Homer was blind or color-blind and even that all Greeks in Homer’s time were thought to be color-blind. The reasoning behind this was that if it was unique to Homer, the person, then the Greek society would either laugh at or correct his use of colors.

The language researcher Eliezer Geiger found that in ancient days, the earliest texts mention only descriptions of black, white and red colors. In later texts, yellow and green appeared and at an even later stage, colors, such as blue and purple, are found. The finding revealed, amazingly, that the emergence of color in ancient writing coincided simultaneously in different cultures around the world. The realization today is that this is not an evolution of color blindness but rather that color names were added as mankind had the need for more subtle categories of color over the years.

Findings from lost tribes revealed that when asked to name the color of the sea, they identified it as black. But when they were tested for color blindness they were found to be able to distinguish between colors, and at the same time it seemed natural to them to described the sea as black. This is simply because they did not have the need to distinguish between the two colors by name even though they were able to see the difference.

Maybe today, too, we do not name everything we see. And as time passes and the need to distinguish will arise, we’ll also find ourselves giving new names to existing phenomena.

Linguists have been debating for many years about the relationship between language and thought. Since thought seems to precede language, the question was whether thought determines the developing language or only affects it, or possibly the direction of influence might be the opposite, and language determines or affects thought:

  1. The approach that claims that thought is what determines language is called the universalist approach. This approach claims, for example, that the fact that a particular culture does not have a variety of names for colors stems from the notion that the concept of those colors does not exist for this culture, and if it existed, they would have named those colors.
  2. The approach claiming that thought only affects language comes from observations of children’s cognitive development (Piaget). This approach argues that once children are able to develop a certain thought, only then are they able to develop a language that describes that thought. For example, when children come to the realization that disappearing objects still exist, they develop an understanding for words, such as “gone”, “missing” and “find”. That is, language development depends on cognitive development and the new discovery of the existence of objects, even though the objects are no longer visible.
  3. Another approach (Vygotsky) perceives thought and language as independent and the two converge as they both develop. Both exist independently and eventually the speakers learn to use them together. This approach stems from the perception that children learn a language from interaction with adults who already speak the language and through this interaction they learn to link the thought to the language they are learning.

These approaches exist in a field called linguistic determinism, where there are approaches that describe weak or strong determinism in the linguistic space – that is, how strong the influence of language is on thought and vice versa.

  1. Weak linguistic determinism describes a developmental influence of thought that cause us to create language and communicate in a particular way. For example, if we ask someone to imagine or draw a girl pushing a boy that causes him to fall, then if the person draws the girl standing to the left and pushing the boy to the right then it is likely that this person is a native speaker of a language written from left to right, such as English. And if the direction is reversed, then the person is probably a speaker of a right-to-left language, such as Arabic or Hebrew. This does not mean that it cannot be imagined or drawn in a reversed direction of writing, but the habit is inherent, and statistically significant, that the direction we perceive a chain of events correlates with the direction we write our native language.
  2. Strong linguistic determinism argues that language completely determines the nature of thought (linguistic relativity – Whorf hypothesis) – and that each language leads to a unique way in which the world is perceived. Thus, for example, Native Americans of the Hopi tribe do not have words describing time and tense and their perception of time is different from that of other cultures. Another interesting example from an Aboriginal community in Australia shows that they do not have words such as left or right, and when they need to give directions, they use north, south, east and west. This way of speaking and thinking sharpens the spatial ability of the speakers of this language, demonstrating that language may even have an effect on how abilities evolve. This community’s perception of time and t chain of events (compared to the right to left or from left to right direction of language discussed above) is always from east to west. This demonstrates cognitive differences that are determined by the use of language.

It seems that different language speakers are influenced and may evolve to have different perceptions, different worldviews and even different abilities. We should keep in mind that there are thousands of languages, but many languages, especially the unique ones, are gradually disappearing while more and more of us are exposed to a common language, English, and its effects. This means that the world is also losing a uniqueness and the developmental potential that is influenced by language.


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