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Language and how it affects the way people think and act has been a topic of discussion for a very long time with different theories being floated around. According to Gentner and Goldin-Meadow (14), the idea of language influencing thought also generally referred to as the Whorﬁan hypothesis, has drawn so much controversy and any advocates for this theory have been regarded by some as being so naïve or at times seen to be crazy.
Marlowe (1) also argues that in studies concerning language, it is not uncommon to find people raising serious concerns about the relationship that exists between the languages that are spoken by people and the effect this has on how they end up thinking.
Some theorists according to Marlowe have argued that since it is possible to have words from different languages imply the same thing, it automatically follows that the language spoken or used to write by a particular group of people will not extensively influence the way these people think (1).
Still others are very much convinced that whatever differences there may be in languages can easily be eliminated if translations are done without the use of idioms to make sure that the meaning of the original text is not distorted as one does the translation to the target foreign language (Marlowe 1).
According to a study done by Edward Sapir, an American linguist who also happened to be a Jewish emigrant, there are no two different languages that can be so similar to such an extent that they can imply the same in a social setup. The truth of the matter is that societies live in completely different worlds with different labels attached to them. Consequently, the way people will see and hear is a product of the habits that are associated with the language of the community they grew up in (Marlowe 1).
Research has revealed that translations from one language to another tend to vary greatly from one language to language. Whereas it may be easy to carry out certain translations, there are some that are just but difficult to perform. If such translations are done tried, the outcome is usually pathetic and the originality of the translated sentences is completely lost in the process.
Counter factual thinking for example has been found to be quite difficult in the Chinese language than it is in the English language. Certain constructions of English sentences can not be easily translated to the Chinese language due to the fact that the Chinese language makes it so difficult for people to think about certain scenarios (Bloom & Keil 356).
This paper argues the case that language does influence thinking. Thoughts by various authors are discussed.
Effects of Language on Thought
The famous Whorﬁan hypothesis, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as it is sometimes known, points out three key things. The first is that different languages will show variations in their semantics about the world. Secondly, the way a person’s language is ordered will have a great effect on how he or she will recognize different things in the world.
Finally, the conclusion that follows from the above two statements is that people who speak different languages will see things or situations in the world very differently (Gentner & Goldin-Meadow 15). These are hypothesis that for a very long time, people have argued for or against.
Even though the belief that language affects a person’s thought process is regarded to be erroneous by critics of the Whorﬁan hypothesis, Marlowe argues that the ideas of these opponents are only a recent development and do not have a strong basis to stand on (1).
He explains that the hypothesis about thought being influenced by language is held by many linguists worldwide and he also strongly argues that opinions that are contrary to this belief are only by a small minority and as such, they should be rejected and must never be taken seriously (Marlowe 1).
In addition, a lot that has been written to challenge the fact the thought is affected by language only looks at the how the grammar associated with a particular language will have an effect on its speakers. There is no mention that is made about the vocabulary of the language and how this also has a great influence on the thought process. Apparently, meaningful end results can only be realized when studies done put both grammar and vocabulary into consideration (Marlowe 1).
Gentner and Goldin-Meadow present a very interesting scenario that strongly supports the Whorﬁan hypothesis (15). In doing this, they considered how retelling a story in Turkey by a Turkish national greatly differed from the way an English person will do the retelling one.
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When a Turkish is re-telling an incident that took place, the language requires that he or she clearly states if as a matter of fact he or she actually witnessed the event or not. Although the speaker would know whether or not he or she witnessed, it is possible that one may decide not to disclose every detail of the event to the listeners. On the contrary, it is upon an English speaker to make a choice as to whether or not to disclose or leave out details about having witnessed the incident.
The English language allows the person retelling the freedom to choose (Gentner & Goldin-Meadow 15). Looking at this scenario, it is quite obvious to assume if these individuals are subjected to the same way of doing things over and over, then the way a Turkish national will perceive the world later in life will differ substantially from how the English speaker will. This argument is in agreement with the claims of the Whorﬁan hypothesis.
According to Munger, it is practically impossible for a group of people to understand one another if the language they are using does not offer a means of putting across their ideas to one another (1). This line of thought has, however, been challenged by detractors who are strongly convinced that there are many thoughts that can be conceived even without words being used to communicate them (Munger 1).
An experiment carried out by Gary Lupyan gave results that tried to show how language undoubtedly influences the thoughts of men and women (Munger 1). The outcome of the experiment revealed that given a label for objects placed in different classes, it is very much possible for people to quickly learn how to recognize the said objects in based on the categorization. This is not so in situations where there are no labels that have been made available.
The essence of the experiment was to confirm the fact that with good training any one can overcome the challenge of categorizing the objects. In a similar way, although it is quite clear that language will certainly affect the way a person thinks, the degree of influence can be altered with proper training. Therefore, as much as it is possible to learn a new language one can also become skilled at learning to have thoughts which can easily be carried from one language to another (Munger 1).
Edward Sapir also wrote about language and tried to show that all languages are intertwined within their culture and are as such very tightly bound to anthropology as well as psychology (Marlowe 1). He also pointed out that thought is beyond any doubt, a product of the polished analysis of language.
He is absolutely opposed to claims that people can reason out without the use of some sort of language (Marlowe 1). In other works by Edward Sapir, he argued that language has a very strong influence on all the thinking of men and women regarding social issues as well as any problems they encounter. Also, as human beings, we all have to depend on the use of a language to co-exist with others and in the absence of this it will very difficult to relate with other people (Marlowe 1).
Edward Sapir further argues that it is very wrong to regard language as simply a means of dealing with communication issues. He explains that language is indeed very critical in enabling us to find acceptance in any environment. Apparently, the world as it is known is founded on languages that characterize groups of people in different pats of the globe (Marlowe 1).
Eugene Nida, also an American linguist, admits that there is a very tight link between language and culture. He argues that although people may wish to discredit Whorf’s hypothesis, it is impossible to run away from the fact that language actually does offer the basis for thinking in much the same way as the culture of a group of people plays a big role in modeling their behaviour (Marlowe 1).
Formation of Thoughts from Words
Bloom and Keil (354) has argued that it is very difficult to actually determine whether or not the language that one speaks will have any effect on how he or she will think later in life. Some examples have been used to show how ideas can easily be formed by the words that we use to communicate.
These examples try to establish how the language factor is very vital when it comes to shaping a person’s thought process. After the revolutions that took place in France and Russia, the use of certain words had to be brought to an end so as not to promote hostile thoughts that were considered to be unpatriotic (Bloom & Keil 355).
Similar concerns like these have been seen in various debates touching on the sexist language and linguists have argued that the use of words such as ‘mankind’ and ‘he’ in situations where one could refer to both sexes is to blame for the controlling the way people look at males and females in the society (Bloom & Keil 355). There is also an argument touching on how the Eskimos perceive snow and this is contrasted with how the English people will perceive it.
While the Eskimos have various words for snow, the English people only have one; they know snow as being simply snow and nothing else. The many words used by the Eskimos thus make them think of snow very differently from many other people who have only one word for snow (Bloom & Keil 354). Another example that has been cited touches on the way people perceive color.
There are some people who have used the concept of color to try and show that language has such a big influence on how people think. They have argued that whereas English speaking people will be more aware of the differences that are associated with the blue and green colors, speakers of other languages who only have one meaning for color will not experience similar problems.
This claim has however been refuted and considered a fallacy by cross-cultural researchers who believe that this can not be the case since all people are known to recognize and classify color in the same manner. These researchers are very much convinced that we all use the same color system that is totally independent of the different languages we could be using to communicate (Bloom & Keil 355).
Marlowe (1) also argues that people must use words properly so as to communicate effectively. If words are not correctly used, there is a danger of passing on ideas that one does not believe in.
This is a challenge that can easily be addressed by ensuring that one pays careful attention to how he or she communicates thoughts to other people (Marlowe 1). Marlowe also points out that even though Plato did not widely talk about the effect that language has on the thought process, this can be deduced by reading his writings. In his works, Plato tried so much to show that words are closely linked to both ideas and reality.
Plato also explained that quite often, people will fail to communicate appropriately by making use of words that are not well figured out (1). As a consequence, it is very important for people to define and understand their words well before using them to pass a message.
A further argument is presented by Munger (1) who claims that the words that are available to be used in a particular language play a major role in shaping the way that people will understand different things and situations around the world. As an example, Munger explains that a language that does not provide a way to identify numbers that go beyond ten will subject its speakers to a view about the world that is completely different from that of speakers whose languages have a complete system of numbering (Munger 1).
Based on the discussion above, it seems very difficult to isolate language and thought. The two are inseparable and clearly, language plays a very critical role in shaping the thought process of men and women. As one grows up, the language and the environment they interact with tends to control their perception of things around the world. Detractors of Whorﬁan hypothesis need to carry out more research and present much stronger views if they are to challenge what most professional linguists have for a long time, regard as true.
Bloom, Paul & Keil, Frank C. Thinking through Language. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2001. Web.
Gentner, Dedre & Goldin-Meadow, Susan. Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2003. Web.
Marlowe, Michael. The Effect of Language upon Thinking. New Philadelphia, Ohio: Bible-researcher.com. 2004. Web.
Munger, Dave. Language Doesn’t Influence our Thoughts … Except when it does. New York: Science Blogs LLC. 2008. Web.