The thesis that language plays a role in shaping and molding our thoughts, essentially meaning that in one fundamental sense language does in fact determine what we think, is a compelling claim, to the extent that it is also highly intuitive when one reflects on the issue. If we take a moment to listen to our stream of consciousness, at least in my case, I will notice that I am not merely observing things that are surrounding me, but that words also appear in this narrative: if I think about the day that has happened, I tend to shape it into a story, I isolate key moments and shape this memory through language. If we would close our eyes when doing this exercise, it seems even more powerful, the words remaining running through our heads in place of any additional visual stimulants.
Now if one takes this thought experiment with the way in which words and languages shape our inner thoughts, it becomes clear that language can shape our thoughts, in so far as the content of my recollections do require some language and some grammar to take on, for example, a narrative form. Thus, in the case of words, I tend to think about things that already have a name, I draw what I am thinking from the reservoir of the language I am reflecting in. Perhaps, therefore, when reflecting on my day, I would tend to emphasize things that occurred which I do have a name for, and would completely ignore things that do not have a clear name, such as a certain feeling. This effect of language is also present in Lera Broditsky’s article “How Languages Shape Thought: The Languages.” The example at the outset of the article describes how a very young Aboriginal girl has no problem indicating, when asked, in which direction is north, whereas academics from various universities are not able to do so. This example demonstrates that our perception of the world is influenced by language: in the case of the Aboriginal girl, to the extent that location is a key feature of her native Aboriginal language, then she will perceive and pay attention to direction, such as which direction is north. In other languages, where this is not the case, there will not be such an ease with which the direction is identified, these other languages emphasizing other features of the world, conferring them an import because of their importance in the language that we speak or thing in. In this case, the language is the precondition which allows me to think these thoughts, as in my example, but it is also making me perceive the world in a certain way, the key words of this language delineating my way of looking at the world. Not only this, however, is relevant with regards to language, as clearly the grammar of a given language also influences how I order my thoughts when they take this linguistic form: and if I reflect, it seems that my thoughts by and large are linguistic in their nature.
Now, here is crucial to underscore the point that, obvious as it may be, this language and this grammar are not my own. Therefore, if I think in the English language I clearly did not invent this language. I did not invent its grammar. These are tools that I have inherited. But they are not only tools. They form something to the effect of building blocks for the very possibility of my having more sophisticated thoughts. This seems to undercut some common sense notions about our interior monologues, for example, being entirely our own thoughts: in as much as these interior monologues are not taking place in some language we have ourselves have made up in our own heads, these interior monologues are not just our own, but part of a heritage which results in the language in which I think.
Language is thus a tool of cognition and it seems to be most apparent as such a cognitive tool precisely when I have more sophisticated thoughts, when I try to explain something to myself, for example, about what happened during the course of my day. Here, I am not entirely autonomous, although it appears that I am autonomous. And as Broditsky argues, this does not only affect our most sophisticated thoughts: it affects how we perceive the world around us as well.
This is therefore a type of linguistic determinism, such as the hypothesis advanced by Worf, where a given language will lead and inform a given world-view. When I perform these thought experiments, I would conclude that there is a certain sense in which this linguistic determinism is accurate, precisely because of the close bind between language and cognitive processes. Another proof of this could be taken from another direction: clearly, when scientists write proofs for some objective phenomena, they do not rely on human language. They use objective formulas and equations, and the language of mathematics. This itself implies that language is simply too subjective a phenomenon: but this subjectivity is not itself a subjectivity, it is a particular group language, a tradition of language that we have been introduced into. If linguistic determinism is such a powerful thesis, this is because it is so difficult to separate our everyday cognitive operations which involve more sophisticated thoughts, such as reflection and description, from language.
- Boroditsky, Lera. “How Languages Shape Thought.” Scientific American. February, 2011. Retrieved at https://www.scientificamerican.com