Linguistic Anthropology: The Relationship Between Language and Thoughts

Language is all around us. It allows me to write this article, and you to read it. Our ability to communicate using language is what makes us human; our words harness so much more power than we often realise. As I tap on my keyboard, I connect letter to letter, then word to word, sentence to sentence. Your eyes will see this article through a screen, and your brain will take these observations and transform them into thoughts. This process is what gives language a meaning.

With this ability, we humans are able to transmit our ideas across vast reaches of space and time. We can transmit knowledge between minds. I can put a bizarre new idea in your mind right now. Imagine… a kangaroo tap dancing in a bakery. That’s a thought you probably haven’t had before. But now, using language, I’ve made you think it.

Of course, there isn’t just one language in the world. In fact, there are about 7000 and they all differ in many ways. They may have different sounds, vocabularies and, most importantly, different structures. This raises the age-long question: does the language we speak shape the way we think? The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami said ‘Learning another language is like becoming another person’. This suggests language forms our reality by influencing the way we interpret things. However, some would disagree, claiming that it’s the way we think that forms our language, not vice versa. This confusion introduces us to the dilemma of reflectionism versus determinism; two linguistic approaches to understanding how language and thoughts are connected.

If language controls thought…

Photos of Edward Sapir (left) and Benjamin Lee Whorf.
Edward Sapir (left) and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Credit:

The idea that the language we learn to speak and hear controls the way we think is called linguistic determinism. It’s most commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf theory, named after the American linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf. In 1929, Sapir argued that humans are ‘at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society’. Essentially, the words we’re surrounded by become our own thoughts by influencing our interpretations without choice.

Meanwhile, Whorf had not set out to make himself a big name in the field of linguistics. Originally, he had been an inspector for a fire insurance company. However, he noticed a surprising safety hazard in his line of work – and it all came down to language. When people read the word ’empty’ on the gasoline drums, Whorf noticed they were much less careful about handling them, even though the vapor inside was just as dangerous as the full drums. This demonstrated to Whorf how language directly affected what people thought, and inspired him to further study this topic.

Linguistic relativity is something we will discuss in line with determinism. It follows the same principle that language controls thought, but it’s not quite as extreme. Relativity is the idea that people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world quite differently. This is different to determinism as it doesn’t commit to the harsh claim that our language must constrain our thoughts.

Lost in translation

‘Lost in translation’ is an idiom you may be familiar with and it’s an excellent way to summarize relativity. A work loses its meaning from the interpretation of its original language when translated into another.

The importance of the ‘loss’ varies, of course. Many consider literary writing to be the most significant issue. We can note how one poet felt about the translation of his poems from the original Spanish into other languages. Pablo Neruda said that translations of his poems into English and French can’t correspond to Spanish in the placement, color or weight of the words. He continues to explain that although all the correct meaning can be translated, his “poetry escapes”. He protests “it says the same thing one has written. But it is obvious that if I had been a French poet, I would not have said what I did in that poem, because the value of words is so different”.

Another good example of linguistic relativity is how grammatical gender affects interpretation. For decades, researchers have been contemplating whether gendered language (i.e. masculine and feminine) influences the way we think about things. Whorf believed that distinctions unique to a language morph a certain way of acting and perceiving the world. According to his theory, speaking a different language inherently changes one’s perceptions and behaviors. Whilst modern cognitive science has dismissed this as a rather extreme view, the question is still asked as to how much influence a language really has over a speaker’s thought process. Included below are some of the studies surrounding this:

Is the difference linguistic, or cultural?

In a 2002 study, native Spanish and German speakers with an understanding of English were asked to describe random objects using English adjectives. The researchers chose objects with one assigned grammatical gender in Spanish and with the opposite gender in German. The participants clearly chose adjectives more stereotypically associated with the assigned grammatical gender. For example, the Spanish word for “bridge” is masculine: el puente, but the German word is feminine: die Brücke. The Spanish speakers described bridges with commonly masculine words such as “big” and “strong”. Meanwhile, the German speakers chose to describe bridges with typically feminine words like “beautiful” and “elegant”. Surely this suggests the nature of their spoken language affects how they perceive things?

However, can this difference truly be down to the grammatical gender in the participants’ native tongue? Perhaps it could actually be a cultural difference? Is it possible German bridges are built differently than Spanish bridges, resulting in these description differences? Opposers to determinism could say that maybe the gendered prefix is the result of a difference in cultural perception, and not its cause. It seems this could potentially undermine Sapir and Whorf’s entire theory…

In an attempt to rule out the cultural influence, the same researchers carried out a second study. This time, they taught native English speakers about a fictitious language called Gumbuzi, replete with its own list of feminine and masculine nouns. The researchers then showed participants objects like bridges and tables and chairs. They were looking to see whether participants began to characterize these things with their newly devised genders. And it turns out, they did. The lack of cultural influence proves this experiment is useful in showing how gendered language can influence our thoughts.

If language reflects thought…

Pablo Neruda's 'Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada'.
Pablo Neruda’s ‘Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada’. Credit:

Linguistic reflectionism is the opposing view in this debate. It supposes that language simply reflects the opinions of its users, so the thoughts of a society will shape its language. From this perspective, we can describe language as simply the ‘dress of thought’. This theory often links with Universalism; the idea that we all share common ways of thinking, and the same thought can be expressed in a number of different ways.

Remember our ‘lost in translation’ argument from earlier? Well, whilst Pablo Neruda does believe creative meaning is lost between languages, he also willingly admits that literal meaning is all still there. “it says the same thing one has written”. This may seem too obvious, you might initially come to regard it as inconsequential. However, from a linguistic point of view, these two forms of meaning are indeed significant, especially when arguing from a reflectionist standpoint. Universalists believe any thoughts we have are expressible in any language, and are translatable to others too. Therefore, according to reflectionism, any individuals who think their writing is untranslatable simply have too much attachment to their words. 

Pinker’s Instinct

Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Language Instinct’ is one of the most infamous modern linguistic texts, and a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about the subject. In his book, Pinker attempts to divide the world of language into the right and the wrong, and has his fair share to say on our determinism debate. He writes about determinism: “It is wrong. It is all wrong.” and that those believing in the wackier versions of this idea apparently have minds so open, their brains fall out.

So Pinker is clearly against determinism, but what are his reasons for this? He begins by pointing out that many of Sapir and Whorf’s earlier studies were flawed. For example, Whorf conducted various analyses of the languages used by tribes, but never did he actually visit these tribes himself. Therefore, Pinker believes Wharf’s knowledge of the languages and communication in question is extremely limited.

Eskimos in the Snow

Next, Pinker draws on some of the specific research Wharf conducted. One study which many determinism supporters found particularly gripping was on the language of Eskimos. Findings tell us that whilst English has only one word for ‘snow’, Eskimos have numerous. According to Wharf, this difference in language reflects the Eskimos’ acute experience with the wintry landscape. It is said that because these native peoples have a greater number of words for snow than exist in the English language, they must think more sophisticatedly about it.

However, Pinker points out the flaw in Whorf’s logic; Whorf may explain the Eskimos’ sophisticated mental concepts of snow with the number of words they have for it, but he fails to provide any evidence for any sophisticated mental phenomena proving language correlates to thought. So it seems Whorf simply expects us to take his word for it, with no cognitive proof to back him up.

Can language affect the timeline?

Another of Whorf’s well-known studies is on the Hopi people of Arizona. He observed that they had no grammatical distinctions for future and past and no way to count periods of time. Therefore, he concluded that the Hopi people could not conceive of time as a linear flow of the past, present and future in the same way we would in English. For example, ‘Tomorrow is another day’ would have no meaning for them. However, not only was Pinker correct in his claims that Whorf’s lack of communication with the tribe affects his judgement, he also questioned how Whorf could be so sure they didn’t mentally conceive of time. Again, there was no cognitive evidence. Whorf’s claims seemed to be somewhat… empty.

That was up until 1983, when a researcher named Ekkehart Malotki published Hopi Time, a volume detailing his research on the Hopi and their language. Throughout his works, Malotki proceeds to incinerate Whorf’s ideas of the Hopi’s lack of timeline, proving they were actually able to measure time. Therefore, Whorf’s ideas of language constraining thought were, in this case at least, merely false speculation.

Rethinking Relativity

People working at a desk.

After Malotki had completely disproved Whorf’s evidence for determinism, people began to mistrust linguistic relativity too. However, we haven’t yet looked into the arguments for relativity, some of which are much more recent and therefore have stronger evidence to support them.

Rewinding back to Whorf’s earlier realization of how people treated gasoline drums less cautiously when they were labeled ’empty’, it’s fair to admit his idea wasn’t completely wrong. Describing words can definitely have an effect on how people perceive things. Marketing and sales are an excellent example of this. Let’s imagine you want to sell some old clothes. You now have a choice. You could either market it as either ‘used’, or ‘vintage’. Certainly, people will be willing to pay more for ‘vintage clothes’ than just ‘used clothes’, despite them being the same thing. This shows how language affects the way we think and interpret. The same ritual can be applied to any product, whether it’s describing groceries, cars, or holidays, hence why an essential part of any business is its marketing team, who carefully select the correct language to appeal to their target audience. 

Language and sense of direction

Could you accurately point to the north from where you’re sitting right now? Could any human reliably point to the north? As it turns out, some can. Whilst English speakers only talk about directions using left and right, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers use a very different method: the cardinal compass directions. They speak of north, south, east and west when giving directions. This seems quite disorientating to you and me, but not to the Kuuk Thaayorre. In fact, their language for direction means they must be aware of their orientation at all times, just to hold a conversation. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics have proved that speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre are extremely good at keeping track of where they are in foreign places – even better than the locals.

And, unlike Whorf, these researchers have legitimate empirical data for both the psychological half of the claim and the linguistic half. This may seem like incredibly strong evidence for linguistic relativity; surely such a difference, which seemingly boils down to language, proves that their words are affecting their way of thinking. However, disputes remain: how can we be absolutely sure that it’s their language that causes the psychological phenomena? Perhaps there’s a third factor determining both language and thought: culture – but how can we measure where one ends and the other begins?

Political Correctness

Crumpled paper in the silouhette of person with X tape over the mouth.

It was actually Sapir-Whorf’s determinism theory which spurred the introduction of Political Correctness (PC) into the USA in the 1970s. PC refers to the belief that we shouldn’t use language that discriminates against any minority group, such as sexist, racist or ableist terms. It was based on the idea that if language controls thought, removing the discriminatory language would remove people’s discriminatory thoughts. There’s no denying the movement has been somewhat influential; of course, the language changes which have occurred reflect changes in attitudes to more than just the language. Words which were once acceptable to hear on TV in the 70s, such as ‘coon’ or ‘nigger’, probably now horrify you to read even in this context, showing that your thoughts on racism as a topic have changed, rather than only your language. 

On the other hand, supporters of reflectionism dismiss this PC process. They believe that even if we change the language we use, discriminatory thoughts will always prevail. Instead, we must focus on changing society’s attitudes first, and then language change will follow. Applying this to the example above, Reflectionists would claim that although these terms are no longer used on TV, that’s not to say racist attitudes have gone away. Racist language reflects racist thoughts, so it will re-emerge through other terms in the future, unless we address people’s way of thinking. 

A Euphemism Treadmill 

This idea of re-emerging thoughts and language is supported by the Euphemism Treadmill; a theory posed by Stephen Pinker to support linguistic reflectionism. The concept explains how words that are used to replace offensive terms over time become offensive themselves.

When running on a treadmill, you reenact the movement of running forwards, when in reality you’re staying in one spot. Similarly, replacing discriminatory words with new ones may feel like society is moving forward, when actually our attitudes aren’t progressing at all. We end up stuck in a cycle, like the track of a treadmill going round and round.

One good example of a euphemism treadmill in action is the changes of ableist language. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, ‘idiot’ and ‘imbecile’ were both medical terms to describe patients with intellectual disabilities. However, once these became labeled as derogatory, the word ‘retarded’ was introduced as a ‘kinder’ alternative. But ‘retard’ has since become just as offensive, and was once again replaced with words like ‘special needs’. As you can see, the cycle has continued, and will continue; supposedly, until we change our attitudes towards the subject. 

Language is not enough!

Reflectionism arguments against political correctness have often been criticized for dismissing the value of trying to shape or change language. Surely it’s better to attempt to prevent racist, ableist, or sexist language than to do nothing about it at all?

Some more modern examples where the PC language seems to be making a difference is in the area of sexism. Policemen are now police officers, the chairman is now a chairperson, and when we’re unsure of someone’s gender, we refer to ‘them’ rather than ‘him’. However, Norman Fairclough, who supports reflectionism, argued that changing language isn’t enough, we must also change society. For example, he says, there’s no point arguing about the word chairman being sexist, if you’re missing the point that women are underrepresented on the committee. Linguist Deborah Cameron agrees with this and calls non-sexist language policies “lip service” & “cosmetic change” because they fail to alone reduce women’s oppression. So maybe a change in language is simply disguising society’s discriminatory thoughts, not changing them. 

Cultural Significance in Linguistic Anthropology

Two people looking at each other and communicating with thoughts in the shape of gears floating outside their head into each other's.

I’ve given you a few examples of how language can shape the way we think, and it does so in a variety of ways. Language can have big effects, like the Kuuk Thaayorre people’s ability to know their cardinal directions because of the language they use for direction.

Language can also have really deep effects – that’s what we saw with the euphemism treadmill. It shows us how we can attempt to control discrimination in society using language. Of course, it’s not only down to language, but also society’s ways of thinking which contribute to this issue. This one argument has acted as a stepping stone to the whole debate about how we can reduce inequality in society.

Language can also have behavioral effects. What we saw in the case of the empty gasoline drums was that describing words can influence how people act. The same goes for the language chosen for advertising. All the time, we are targeted through different forms of media, and each advert is crafted with language to tempt us into buying. These may seem like tiny, insignificant uses of language, but they can really impact how we behave and make decisions on a daily basis.

Language can have really broad effects. The case of grammatical gender might seem a little silly, but at the same time, grammatical gender applies to all nouns. That means language can shape how you’re thinking about anything that can be named by a noun. And that’s a lot of stuff. 

Lastly, I’ve given you an example of how languages can shape things that have personal weight for those who write. Works like poetry, which are written with the cultural meaning of the words in their original language, can seem untranslatable according to the poet. 

Final thoughts

The relationship between language and thoughts is unbelievably complex. With culture weighing in as another factor, it’s not always simple to draw the line where one ends and the next begins. The beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and flexible the human mind is. Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000 – each with their own relationships to language and thoughts.

But where does this leave us with the Reflectionism/Determinism debate? As of now, the jury is still out. As new research comes in, so do objections to existing findings. That said, scientists are finding cleverer ways of looking for a clear link between language and thought. So, for this curious little pocket of human nature, one day we’ll hopefully get the answers we’re looking for.

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