Language and thought: Lecture 9/16
Linguistic determinism: Language determines thought
Linguistic relativism: Language AFFECTS thought
Language is the mold into which the mind is poured (Heinrich 1837)
Determinism is the strongest version. People’s thoughts are determined by the catergories and
structures provide by the language. The categories and structures of your language allow you to think.
If you have no language you have no categories, no structures. There is no thought without language.
Linguistic relativism is a much weaker claim. Diff languages are different and differences among
languages will have implications for the way ppl think. The strongest version is that language affects
your thoughts and your categories. Sort of medium version is that language affects memory; linguistic
terms for something might help you remember something. Weakest version is categories in language
you use affects or directs your language.
Evidence against linguistic determinism:
Animals can think, e.g. Raven’s theory of mind (TOM): can “trick” other ravens. Animals can have rich
thoughts. Experiment by psychologists to see if ravens could distinguish colors; the ravens who knew
what they were doing could open the correct canisters and get the food out. Small subordinate raven
“tricked” the dominant raven from swooping in and eating his food. There is some kind of Theory of
Mind, the ability to model what the other raven is thinking.
Preverbal children can think:
Adults who have lost language (aphasics) can still think
Deaf isolate: pass complex TOM task. Person who is deaf, grew up in environment where there was no
sign language. Doesn’t have much shot of learning a spoken language. Grow up as adults, no fluent in
ASL or other sign language, not able to use spoken language. Lip reading is not able to help them much.
Come to adulthood and don’t have a language, according to linguistic determinism they should not be
able to think, however this is not true. They can perform normally on written IQ tests, sequencing tasks,
matrices, etc. Sally-Anne TOM task. Deaf isolates perform very well with this experiment. In English the
xDeaf isolates perform very well with this experiment. In English the syntax used to pose the questions
is quite complex: “where will sally look for the chalk she originally placed in X location.”
See book “A man without words by Schaller” for more interesting information of deaf isolates.
LINGUISTIC RELATIVISM (SAPIR, 1929)
Language affects thought. Human beings are very much at the mercy of the particular language which
has become the medium of communication around them. ..We see and hear and otherwise experience
very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predisposes our interpretations.
Sapir had a student by the name of Whorf (1940). Whorf said we dissect nature along the lines laid
down by our native languages, we cut nature up and organize it into concepts…largely because we are
parties to an agreement to organize it this way. “The great Eskimo hoax” book is a fun study of language
for extracurricular reading. “Empty” Gasoline Drums (Whorf, 1956). Whorf: The worker was tricked by the English word “empty.” The empty gasoline drum had vapors which were highly flammable. Behavior
will tend to be different, physically the situation is hazardous but the linguistic analysis, the word empty
is virtual synonym for inert, the workers assumed it was harmless to flick the cigarette butt. According to
Pinker, it wasn’t the worker’s language, but it was his eyes that tricked him. The worker looked at the
drum, thought there was nothing in it, and thought it was really empty. Whorf & Apache: syntax very
different from English (it is an aglutanive language?). If you wanted to speak of a stream, the Apache
would say "As water or springs, whiteness moving downward.” Whorf concluded that Apache people
think very differently. The language doesn’t break things up as we do, doesn’t have words for objects
and events and they don’t think the way we do