Linguistic Determinism – “freedom” & counting

Let’s talk more about language and thought. If you missed it, check out my post on linguistic determinism. Last time I concluded that if language keeps one from practicing thinking about something, then it succeeds in affecting the way one thinks.

Did you ever read George Orwell’s book, 1984? In Orwell’s dystopian society, the people speak a language called “newspeak.”  It is supposedly devoid of words that condone revolutionary thought and is meant to keep the people from rebelling against the government.  This claim is supported well (or, at least as well as possible considering 1984 was a work of fiction, not a real experiment) through his characters’ actions and interactions.  The citizens of Airstrip One (formerly England) cannot break free from their language.  Each day their vocabulary gets more and more condensed and each day there is less and less rebellion.  Occasionally there is a ‘bad egg’, such as Winston, the main character, but they are usually silenced discreetly.  The story of 1984 would be an excellent case to prove the idea that language can keep you from exercising certain thoughts and in turn influences thought. If only it were a true story, eh?

Well, recently there was a study done on a South American tribe called the Piraha.  Their language doesn’t have words for quantities other than one, two, and many.  The study analyzes the effect this has on their thought.  Basically, the results showed that it does indeed have a large influence.  They have trouble remembering quantities larger than three or so.  An article in the economist says that the lack of number words prevents them from thinking in quantities.  However, it’s more likely that the connection is less concrete.

It’s not that their language keeps them from being able to comprehend that, “yes, there are nine of them,” but that they don’t know how to say it and they lack proper training.  Their language keeps them from practicing counting, so it essentially limits the way they see quantities.  If they had enough practice, they could learn to count (we hope!).  However, they don’t have experience doing so, so they can’t.  This example solidly proves that language affects the way we think about abstract things.  Counting might not seem abstract, but in higher numbers it is – it’s much easier to remember that there were nine batteries (if you know numbers) than to memorize visually what an arrangement of nine batteries looks like.

It would seem that language has little to no impact on the way we see the physical things of our world.   Everyone sees the world the same way.  A blue mug is always going to be a blue mug no matter what it’s called or what it symbolizes.  Something like “freedom” is different. If a language lacks a word for freedom, its speakers cannot contemplate the idea of freedom; they don’t know such a concept exists.

Thus, when language keeps one from practicing thinking about something, it’s affecting the way one thinks.

Going back to our example – in 1984, the people didn’t have the words to think about freedom, so they couldn’t really talk about it.  Maybe the thought would pass through their heads occasionally, but they wouldn’t have a good way to say it because they didn’t have the words.  The words they were limited to kept them from being able to eloquently express this idea.  When an idea is presented poorly, it doesn’t have as much of an impact.  And, if they can’t express it, they probably won’t remember it, so the language definitely could keep that kind of thought from advancing.

Sometimes if I really need to remember something but I don’t have a piece of paper to write it down I’ll close my eyes and visualize writing down the word.  Strangely enough, I’ll be able to remember it later because I “wrote” it down in my head.  I think in words quite often, actually.  Sometimes when I think my thoughts come in sentences.  It can get annoying when I want to get to the end of my thought but I have to sort of fast forward through the phrase in my head.  This definitely means that language affects the way I think – my thoughts are coming prepackaged in words.

Do you think in words? Does it affect the way you think? Would you even be able to know?

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  1. 1

    I think I usually think in words, but there are definitely times when I think in pictures or sounds. Usually I call that dreaming, but there are times when it’s clearly thinking. Words are thought short cuts once we’ve learned them. They boil down what would be a large thought picture into a shirt thought that takes a nanosecond. What’s weird is when I was actually studying German pretty thoroughly and I started to dream in German. I hadn’t started actively thinking yet, but it really blew my mind. It just felt so different.

  2. 2

    There is a great episode of Dead Like Me (sometime in Season 1) where a character rips a soul out of a living body, then puts it back. The man (whose soul was returned) tries to describe the experience, but can’t, so he makes up words for it. They sound ridiculous.

    The reason there weren’t words for the experience, however, is that the population didn’t *need* words for it. It wasn’t something they had to think about, so it wasn’t spoken about. This is the main difference between newspeak and natural language. If there is something people need to talk about (or think about), words are generated. If someone tries to communicate a new concept poorly, they will do what they need to, and eventually natural language will expand to fit the concept.
    This is how we get language change from “gravity (heavy, weighty)” to “gravity (attraction between two masses)” – the latter meaning wasn’t quite the same, but it was a good start. That, plus formulae and further explanation created the language for a new concept.

    If we couldn’t think about things we didn’t have words for, how would scientific progress occur? How would we write fantasy fiction or science fiction? Star Trek is the best evidence against linguistic determinism I can think of: tricorders and tachyons would both be impossible without thought about non-existent things. Someone had to think them up (and who hasn’t wanted a handheld box that could tell you everything you needed to know).

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