Many decades ago, two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, formulated a radical new idea for its time: the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a controversial idea arguing that language can shape the way humans think. It had been an appealing proposal, especially during the mid-20th Century, when psychologists, philosophers, and the literati alike became obsessed with the implications of language on the construction of social reality.
The idea goes something like this: Peoples who live in the far northern latitudes, for instance, may have more words for “snow” and “ice” than do peoples who live further south. Therefore, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis concludes, these northern dwellers may have more ways to think about “snow.” This example was famously cited Whorf, but does it successfully demonstrate language actually shapes thought?
Unfortunately, in subsequent decades the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has not withstood empirical tests despite its appeal, as the idea has been shunned by many in the social and behavioral science community. In his book, “The Language Hoax,” linguist John McWhorter, for example, made a strong case against the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, arguing—seemingly along Chomskyan lines—that although languages may differ in superficial ways, language learning remains more homogenous than how it appears.
Developmental psychologists—such as Laura E. Berk in her text, “Development through the Lifespan”—note language development in children. According to Berk and her colleagues, “[b]etween the ages of 2 and 6, children make momentous advances in language. Their remarkable achievements, as well as their mistakes along the way, reveal their active, rule-oriented approach to mastering language.” In short, throughout the early developmental years, children rapidly acquire language—a remarkable ability that only appears to only be present in humans. (Some have argued that some animals such as dolphins, crows, and even bees have forms of communication, but language—the ability to manipulate abstract symbols—appears to be distinct from communication. Language, for example, contains “displacement,” or the ability to conjugate verbs, to talk and describe events in different times. A crow may sound a warning call, but that same crow does not seem to have the ability to describe that call at a later time.)
In the 1950s, linguist Noam Chomsky first proposed, in contrast to his behaviorist contemporaries, that language is not learned through mere “stimulus-response” mimicking, but rather, humans possess a “Universal Grammar” (UG) on a genetic level. Although Chomsky did not identify the biological mechanism that drives UG, his ideas have been widely accepted in the linguistic community and beyond. Chomsky argued, in part, that with only a brief encounter with a new word, children are able to incorporate that words in complete new, creative ways. This process is called “fast-mapping.” According to Berk, children “. . . connect new words with their underlying concepts after only a brief encounter.” Again, this process—acquired very early in life—appears to only be present in humans.
The Future of Language and Thought
Although Sapir-Whorf doesn’t hold has much sway as it once did (much to the delight of John McWhorter), research in to cognitive linguistics has exploded in recent decades. MRIs and other brain-scan technology has given scientists the tools to probe deeper in to the human brain. In addition, although it may not remain accurate to say that “language shapes thinking,” it can arguably be said that language does play a role, however limited, in how individuals think. This side of language, dubbed “pragmatics,” concerns the social side of language.
Whether it’s realized or not, language remains a social as well as a psychological activity. Savvy marketers, for instance, know this all-too-well when crafting a public relations message. Politicians, too, are not exempt. Is Candidate X’s opponent greedy because he or she may want too much, or are they simply ambitious? Words are not neutral, as they contain emotional biases that can be manipulated in creative ways. Finally, this doesn’t mean that the words we use controls our thoughts per se, but it may suggest that the language we use can come loaded with biases, and those biases can have an emotional impact that can impact our thoughts.
Berk, L. (2007). Development through the lifespan (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.