Is thought possible without the ordering structure of language? Or does thought more or less develop with language, becoming more complete and complex as the individual’s grasp of the language does so? This essay looks at and considers evidence for either possibility, and comes to the conclusion that no, language is not required. While language does not seem necessary for thought, it does profoundly affect how we think and perceive. To determine the relationship between thought and language, one might look to the originof both.
Which developed in the evolution ofhumans first, thought or language? Theories of the origin of consciousness yield some interesting ideason the relationship between thought andlanguage. After all, what is consciousness withoutthought? Specifically, the work of Austrianphilosopher Karl Popper is relevant. He theorizes human consciousness “emerged with the faculty of language,and, ontogenetically speaking, it emerges during growth with the faculty oflanguage [more]. Michael Arbib furthered this hypothesis, saying that before consciousness,language developed as a tool for communication in a group of people, and that this toolevolved “beyond the individual-to-individual sphere into the self sphere [more]. ” As language developed and became a central part of life, the social process of language wasinternalized and became consciousness and, therefore, thought.
So if language preceded conscious thought in the evolution of humans, does that necessarily mean the two are still so tightly intertwined that thought would be impossible without anguage? One theory about the relationship between thought and language, part of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, is called Linguistic Determinism. Linguistic Determinism is generally the idea that the language we use, at least to some extent, creates our methods of seeing and understanding the world and how we think. The concepts we can understand and think about, the ideas we can have and convey, are directly related to what our language is capable of describing. There are two more specific forms of Linguistic Determinism, called “strong” and “weak”.
Strong Determinism is of the belief that language and thought are actually inseparable, identical things. A form of extreme Strong Determinism is known as the Weltanschauung Hypothesis. Weak determinism, on the other hand, states that language merely affects thought in an individual. The other important element of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is Linguistic Relativity. This theory, briefly, is the idea that we use language to break up reality into arbitrary pieces for understanding [more]. So it would seem that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis supports the idea that one needs language for thought to occur, or at least the stronger form of it does.
George Orwell, the author of 1984, wrote an essay called “Politics and the English Language. ” In this essay, Orwell discusses how thought corrupts our use of language, leading to the degradation of the English language. He continues to say that, conversely, language corrupts thought. This, like the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, emphasizes the connection between thought and language. If language has the power to shape, change, even corrupt thought, does this mean that an absence of language would be an absence of thought?
The answer, it seems, is no. Cognitive scientists today generally accept the idea of mentalese, “an innate inner propositional representation language analogous to machine language in computers” [more] This started in 1975 with Fodor’s “Language of Thought”, later to be known as “mentalese”. Mentalese works independent of language, and functions on a more basic, intuitive level than “natural language”, which is the element of thought that does depend on a learned language (what an individual’s internal monologue is “spoken” in).
The idea that one thinks only in one’s native language, or “natural language”, is generally rejected today by most cognitive specialists. This theory is sometimes known as “classicism”. A popular, complicated alternative to classicism today is “connectionism”. Connectionism holds that cognition and thought “are the computational operations of a multitude of connectionist networks implemented in the neural hardware in our heads” [Language and Communication]. Connectionism theorizes that the mind doesn’t work by manipulating symbols, and looks at the role of language in two different ways.
The first, “ecumenical connectionism”, suggests that natural language helped create in humans a unique form of cognition, and that we do, in part, think in natural language. In fact, ecumenical connectionism states that natural language is what allows us to think and understand abstract concepts. The other form of connectionism, on the other hand, goes even farther. Radical connectionism, like classicism, rejects the idea that thought is natural language. However, unlike classicism, and ecumenical connectionism, it also rejects the notion that we think in natural language, or any language, at all.
Research done with young infants and children who have not yet learned any external language supports the potential possibility of thought without language. Tests suggest that, in fact, infants really can think, and indeed grasp rather abstract, important concepts. For instance, three to four month old babies can understand that an object occupies its own space and so one solid object cannot pass through another solid object. Experiments show that five month old babies can do simple arithmetic.
Other evidence for thought without language comes from completely deaf children who have not been exposed to any kinda of language (including sign language). One psychologist, Susan Goldin-Meadow, found several such children who had invented their own signs and gestures to communicate their thoughts and needs. This means that, without any external language, they created a language of their own to communicate with the world, something they could not have accomplished if they could not think. So thought, at least some thought, does not require language to exist. How much, then, does it affect how we think?
Probably a great deal. For example, studies show that young children all over the world interpret their environment in similar ways, but as they grow older, learning external language, differences in how they perceive emerge. This suggests that as they learned a language, and as it became a more prominent part of their life, their interpretation of the world around them changed to fit into that languages particular, unique ability to describe and express. It is undeniable that our thought structure is intimately tied to our ability to understandand produce natural language.
The idea that thought requires language is compelling andseems almost intuitive. However, this external structure, this language, is not necessary forthought to exist, and this is almost universally considered true by cognitive scientists,psychologists, and philosophers. Language is a powerful tool for transporting our thoughts to others and for giving us handles on abstracts, but thought is more than language, and components of it exist outside the rigid forms and constraints that a language imposes.