Does language precede thought or does thought precede language?

In the 2016 film “Arrival”, linguist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is tasked with deciphering an alien language. (Spoilers ahead!) The circular, shapely language ends up being a gift from the “heptapods”, as the aliens are called, which allows humankind to perceive time differently, going so far as to even allow its speakers to see into the future. The film raises controversy within the linguistic community and explores an interesting question: can the language we speak really affect the way we see the world? Do Spanish speakers have different perceptions of reality than a speaker of Greek or Swedish? While predicting the future through the gift of language is a far-fetched, science-fiction notion at this point, studies have shown that perceptions vary greatly among speakers of different languages. Exploring elements such as color, numbers, direction, time and space, and bilingualism will prove that these perceptual experiences can change between humans of different linguistic backgrounds. 

However, there are linguists who adamantly refute the idea of linguistic relativity because they believe everyone is innately equipped with the same ability for language acquisition. This theory is known as “Universal Grammar” which was proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky in the 20th century. Universal Grammar suggests that syntax (structure) across all languages is set upon the same grammatical building blocks and is independent of sensory experience. Linguists who follow the idea of Universal Grammar believe there is a problem with saying that perceptions differ across languages. They believe this insinuates that a speaker of one language is more biologically equipped than another. It is true that people do have the same biological capacity for learning language regardless of the culture or country, but it is not true that varying perceptions hint towards the idea that speakers of certain languages are biologically lacking. For example, if a child who was born to a Pirahã family in the Amazon of Brazil was immediately brought to China and raised by speakers of Mandarin, the child would not be at a disadvantage to acquire the language. The same idea applies the other way around. However, the culture and society in which someone is raised still play a significant role in constructing thoughts, and therefore the way a language is formed. 

This opposition to linguistic relativity can be set aside, however, to say that language remains a true window into the thoughts of a person, regardless of what comes first: the language or the thought. Humans are all capable of any linguistic variations. While some linguists believe that reality is perceived in the same way across all languages and others that language is the creation of perception, there is no denying that language and thought are closely related. This means that the language in question is not an indication that someone is biologically superior or deficient. Rather, it is an indication of the thought process behind a culture. A language will constrain and filter thoughts based upon the culture. Language then, remains influential in that it sets the parameters for a particular worldview. 

Thanks to cognitive scientists such as Jonathan Winawer, Professor of Psychology at New York University and Lera Boroditsky, Professor of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego, it is now known that visual perception differs among speakers of different linguistic backgrounds. In 2007, Winawer, Boroditsky, and other colleagues published an article in Proceeding of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America. The article explores if the obligatory linguistic distinction for shades of the color blue in Russian would make it cognitively easier for them to discriminate between colors. While English speakers and Russian speakers can both see different shades of blue, in English all shades of blue can be encompassed by the word “blue”, whereas in Russian, different shades are distinctly named as if they were completely separate colors. For example, dark blue in Russian is “siniy” while light blue is “goluboy”. The study recruited 26 native Russian speakers and 24 native English speakers to note any perceptual difference between colors based upon the spoken language. They found that Russian speakers were able to distinguish colors in different categories ten times faster than English speakers.  Because of this linguistic “constraint”, Russian speakers are obliged to see blue distinctly. They are distinguished as separate colors within their linguistic parameters and as stated in the report, “the critical difference in this case is not that English speakers cannot distinguish between light and dark blues, but rather that Russian speakers cannot avoid distinguishing them: they must do so to speak Russian in a conventional manner,” said Jonathan Winawer.

Bilinguals have also claimed to notice slight personality shifts between speaking different languages. This was affirmed on April 15th, 2019 in an interview with Eric Russell, Professor of French linguistics at UC Davis. I asked if he could notice any personality differences across the five languages that he speaks. He laughed and said, “I feel like I’m funnier in French.” He also made an interesting statement concerning his relationship with numbers across languages. He said that math became trickier as he acquired more languages. In order to combat this confusion, for example in a situation where he needed to quickly add, subtract, or multiply, he would code-switch back to Dutch. Code-switching is defined in the dictionary as “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.” He also added that his mental relation to objects changes between languages. The example he gave to explain this was that in English, one would say, “I like the hat,” whereas in Spanish one would say, “Me gusta el sombrero.” In the first example, the hat is the direct object of the phrase while in the second it is the subject. While this is not a drastic difference, he stated that this is an indication of our “mental processing” and it shows how we see our relationship with the objects and concepts we experience and talk about. This “personality shift” may simply be an indication of the different thought processes between cultures -not necessarily the language itself, according to François Grosjean, Professor of psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University. However, language is still acting as the window through which we can better see the thoughts of someone who is part of a different culture.

Recent discoveries have also shown that time is perceived differently across languages. Normally, time is organized linguistically with the use of spatial dimensions because we can not touch, feel, smell or taste it. Therefore, words to describe time are based upon how a certain culture may perceive time. The article “Does Language Shape the Production and Perception of Gestures: A Study on late Chinese-English Bilinguals Conceptions about Time” by Yan Gu shows how time is a relative perception. In English, one would use words that indicate the organization of time horizontally. For example, when looking at a timeline, the past is usually to the left, while the future will be further to the right of this horizontal line. Does this mean time is also thought of as being horizontal? “What about Chinese who use vertical metaphors to organize time?” Gu asks in her study. It is eventually concluded, by noting the participant’s use of gestures, that English-Chinese bilinguals perceive time in two separate ways. When speaking in Mandarin, they would motion up and down when talking about events in the past or future. However, when speaking in English, they would motion from left to right, insinuating the idea that time rests on a horizontal landscape. In the same study, to further prove this, Mandarin and English speakers were given images in temporal sequences. The Chinese participants put these images in chronological order vertically and, as suspected, English speakers did this task from left to right. Lera Boroditsky is in agreement with these findings and says that “Mandarin speakers show an implicit vertical pattern of space and time association consistent with vertical space and time metaphors in Mandarin with earlier events above and later events below.” 

In other cultures, such as that of the Kuuk Thaayorre, an aboriginal group from Southern Australia, directions are more inherent due to the cultural expectations which can be seen through the tool of language. In a TED Talk given by Boroditsky, she states that “the Kuuk Thaayorre do not employ relative spatial terms such as left or right, as many languages do.” Rather, they use set cardinal directions : north, south, east and west. For example, instead of saying “My brother is sitting to the left of that girl” The Kuuk Thaayorre would say “My brother is sitting to the west of that girl”, or “Could you pass me the hat to your southwest?” In Boroditsky’s lecture, she says, “While it used to be thought that humans could not orient themselves like other animals due to some biological excuse, it is known that if the language you speak requires you to be properly oriented, you will be able to achieve it.” In order to go through their day to day lives, the Kuuk Thaayorre must be constantly oriented because it is the requirement of their language.

However, certain cultures can be linguistically challenged with their perception of reality because of lexical (the accumulation of words) constraints. This is not to say that the challenge comes from a biological factor, but rather that the lexicon (vocabulary, in a sense) is constrained because of a culture’s practices or habits. Daniel Everett, a professor at UC Berkeley has studied the Pirahã who live in the Amazon and who, as he says, “maintain a ‘living in the present’ ethos so powerfully that it has worked itself into every facet of their life and their language.” They are only able to relate to language according to what exists in the bounds of their direct experiences. Cultural constraints make it nearly impossible for Pirahã to relate to ideas such as numbers, colors or certain time perceptions. The Pirahã do not use numbers, but “measure” with words that come close to meaning “a small quantity” or “a large quantity”. This is because they only hunt and forage for what they are going to use immediately. Therefore, knowing the exact number is unnecessary. Everett says that, “A people without terms for numbers does not develop the ability to determine exact numbers.” They also do not have any creation myths or collective memories or traditions. This is because, to them, such a thing is not necessary in order to continue in their day to day lives. Everett quickly combats the idea that biologically they are “incapable” of performing such linguistic tasks with the following quote, “Here my argument is exactly that their grammatical differences derive from cultural values. I am not, however, making a claim about Pirahã conceptual abilities but about their expression of certain concepts linguistically, and this is a crucial difference.”

Ultimately, “Does language precede thought or does thought precede language” is not the most important question to analyze within the field of linguistics because any person has the ability to, biologically, have the same thought. It is more important to note that language influences habits, associations, and perception of reality. If language is the window into a culture’s thoughts, then it is crucial that languages around the world are preserved. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct. In an article published in 2018, National Geographic said, “Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker. 50 to 90 percent of them are predicted to disappear by the next century.” Losing a language would actually be like losing an entire species and if this happened, humanity would lose out on rich cultural stories and potential. If the general consensus is that language is not an important discipline then there will eventually be, as Professor Eric Russell so perfectly states, “an impoverished ecosystem.” 

Works Cited

Boroditsky, Lera. How Languages Construct Time. lera.ucsd.edu/papers/language-time.pdf.

Boroditsky, Lera. “How Language Shapes the Way We Think.” TED. TED Talks, 2 May 2018.

Dąbrowska, Ewa. “What Exactly Is Universal Grammar, and Has Anyone Seen It?” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers Media S.A., 23 June 2015, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4477053/.

Everett, Daniel. Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha˜. www1.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/Everett.CA.Piraha.pdf.

Grosjean, François. “Change of Language, Change of Personality?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-bilingual/201111/change-language-change-personality.

Gu, Yan, et al. “Does Language Shape the Production and Perception of Gestures? A Study on Late Chinese-English Bilinguals’ Conceptions about Time.” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/18677982/Does_Language_Shape_the_Production_and_Perception_of_Gestures_A_Study_on_late_Chinese-English_Bilinguals_Conceptions_about_Time.

Richardson, Summer, and Eric Russell. “Does The Language We Speak Change Our Perception?” 15 Apr. 2019.

“The Race to Save the World’s Disappearing Languages.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 16 Apr. 2018, news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/04/saving-dying-disappearing-languages-wikitongues-culture/.

UNESCO Project: Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger; 2011. repositorio.minedu.gob.pe/bitstream/handle/123456789/1756/Atlas of the World´s Languages in Danger.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

Villeneuve, Denis, et al. Arrival.

Winawer, Jonathan, et al. “Russian Blues Reveal Effects of Language on Color Discrimination.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 8 May 2007, www.pnas.org/content/104/19/7780.short.

One thought on “Does language precede thought or does thought precede language?

  1. This is a very “scholarly” post. Somewhat divergent from previous blog posts. I like to ponder why some languages developed to require more specificity For example, Eskimo people have many more words for “snow” than others. It’s not hard to imagine the reasons for that. But why does Russian have more choice words for colors. What in the culture made that more important than in others?

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