CAN WE THINK WITHOUT LANGUAGE Many anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, biologists and other academics have attempted to tackle this question in recent decades. It is sort of “chicken or egg” conundrum: Did human beings first develop the physical capabilities for language (larger brains, vocal tract, etc) with the actual development of language following it, or had the capabilities for speech already arisen and only with the development of physical production of language itself follow? Obviously, it is difficult for us to think about things without using “language” in our minds while we reason.
Yet if you’ve ever had a smart pet and watched them perform a task, you know that they operate on a largely trial-and-error basis. Semantics is the study of the meaning of language. This is a sub-discipline of linguistics that breaks down the meanings of words into logical notation, similar to the language of math. It may be that in a few centuries we can accurately break down the brain functions, how they operate together at thousandths of a second to combine the various logical meanings in our head and eventually produce well-formed sentences and sounds that have value and meaning to other speakers of language.
The question “Can we think without language” is a difficult one – one that requires even more questions from philosophers – how do we “know” anything (epistemology). At a basic level – yes we can think without language insofar as animals clearly can do it. However, language allows us to organize information in a particularly expressive and powerful way which has allowed human civilization to flower and technology to proceed in the manner it has. The current worldviews that human beings possess are obviously products of the long cultural, educational, and biological tradition we have inherited.
For example, we may not see in infrared vision, or many of the various wavelengths of the whole spectrum, nor do we hear certain Hz of the waves travelling all around us in the air, nor feel tiny atoms crashing into us all the time, but that does not mean they are not there. However, we infer their existence thanks to abstract reasoning and the scientific method. There are atleast 5000 living languages in the world; about 140 of them are spoken by a million or more people. Is a particular language merely a convenient set of symbols for the communication of our thoughts?
According to the linguist Benjamin L. Whorf, the answer is no. Whorf argued that higher levels of thinking require language and that the characteristics of a particular actually shape the ways that the users of the language think about things. There are two ideas here. One is that thinking requires language, the other has come to be called the “linguistic relativity” hypothesis. Most of the interest has focused on this hypothesis. In its strongest form, it says that the particular language people use determines how they see the world.
Whorf based this hypothesis on studies of North American Indian languages, but his hypothesis is said to hold for all languages. He found many differences between these languages and European ones and argued that such differences predispose their users to think in different ways. For example, the grammar of a language dictates how people describe changes in the environment. Since the basic unit of English grammar are nouns and verbs; English speaking people commonly think in terms of ‘things’ and actions.
Whorf found that people using other languages do not necessarily divide situations up in this way. Furthermore all languages have some words for which no equivalents can be found in any other language. The German word “Weltanschauung” for instance meant something like “a general world view, or a general philosophy of the world. ” There is no word with the precise meaning in English. In addition, language categorise events in various ways. Eskimos are said to use some four different words for snow, while English has only one.
According to linguistic relativity hypothesis, Eskimos can think about snow with greater precision than can English speaking people and have a different conception of what snow is. The Hopi language has a single word for all flying objects other than birds. The hypothesis states that hopi speakers think differently about flying objects than do speakers of languages that do not categorize the world in the way. The Hanunoo people of the Phillipine Islands are said to have names for 92 species of rice but all 92 varieties of rice are, for the English speaker, simply rice.
A more recent study, however, comparing English children and Himba children from Africa suggests that colour categorises in a given language have a greater influence on colour perception. The English language contains 11 basic colour terms whereas the Himba language has only 5. Himba children made fewer distinctions among coloured titles than did English children. For example, Himba children categorised under the colour term “zoozu” a variety of dark colours such as dark shades of blue, green, purple red, and the colour black.
English children distinguished among these colours and remembered the different hues better when retested on which ones they had seen earlier. Language not only influences how we think but also may influence how well we think in certain domains. For example, English speaking children consistently score lower than children form Asian countries in mathematical skills such as counting, accounting, and subtraction. Asian languages make it easier to learn the base-10 number system, particularly the numbers between 10 and 100.
For example, in Chinese, the number 11 is ‘one-ten’, 12 is ‘ten-two’, and 13 is ‘ten-three’. In contrast, English speakers struggle with such words as eleven, twelve, and thirteen, which bear little conceptual relation to a base 10 mode of thinking. Regardless of their counting proficiency, American and british children fail to grasp the base-10 system by age 5; in contrast, by age 5 many Chinese children understand this concept, enabling them to do addition and subtraction with greater ease (Miller & Stigler,1987).
In this manner, the English language appears to hamper the development of skills in using numbers, whereas Asian languages seem to facilitate the development of mathematical skills. In sum, language provides the foundation of many human behaviours and capabilities. In order to fully hold it in our mind, give it a certain persistence, we usually need some sort of language or code. Not necessarily a natural language, could be mathematical or musical notation, or a number of other codes.
For many things, words are a wonderful tool when it comes to taking hold of our thoughts. Language is useful in the formulation of thought, to give it a more stable form. In a way, to transmit it to ourselves. Deep thought is probably not possible without a prior language which sets the foundations on which is built the intellectual faculties, elevates us above what could be called more “instinctive” thought. Language opens up the needed horizons; once they are open to us, we don’t need language in our reflections, it helps to give them form.
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