Linguistic determinism is the idea that language shapes thought. There have been myriad arguments for and against this claim.
The main proponent of linguistic determinism was Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist who (like me) developed an interest in linguistics later in life. He graduated from MIT with a degree in chemical engineering; later on he studied Linguistics at Yale, working with his mentor, Edward Sapir. The idea of linguistic determinism is often called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. They believed that language has such a strong influence on thought that it determines your culture – your thoughts and behaviors. Whorf passed away in 1941 at age 44, and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis fell out of favor for a while. Interest was rekindled in the 1980s through the present day.
A major challenger of linguistic determinism was Steven Pinker, a contemporary linguist. Pinker is actually a cognitive scientist, but his main focus is language acquisition. He believes that language and thought are independent. He says that humans don’t even think in language; we think in something called “mentalese“, a kind of meta-language that is universal to all people. He says we are all born with and retain the same cognitive abilities; language has no ability to mold our thoughts.
Both of these positions are too extreme. We can’t say for sure that language determines thought; we can’t say that it has no impact. A better way of looking at it is this: if language keeps you from practicing thinking about something, then it succeeds in affecting the way you think. I’ll be writing more on this topic sometime soon, and giving some examples that I hope will illustrate what this hypothesis would mean.
So far, which side are you on? Do you think that language determines thought, or are they independent?