Does language shape the way we think? – by Juan M.S.

The answer is a definite no, although there are a few people that contest this posture. There are many proponents of the idea of the importance of language for cognitive abilities, so no wonder it gained inertia. Charlomange had already said as early as the year 800 AD: “To have a second language is to have a second soul.” (The Long Now Foundation 08-01-2016). Also, a philosopher called Wittgenstein pronounced the famous phrase: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Oregon State University 08-01-2016). But the problem arose when linguists started paying attention to nuances of different languages, like for instance that moon is female in Spanish while it is male in German and it has no gender in English. This is the case with Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, who created the principle of linguistic relativity, which sustains that linguistic categories influence thought (The guardian 08-01-2016). They basically argued that the Hopi people did not understand the concept of time because they had no word for naming it (The guardian 08-01-2016). Other examples given by proponents of this theory are that Russian has two distinct words for light blue and dark blue (which is also true for Polish: niebieski/granatowy, and Spanish: celeste/azul, just to name two languages), and that the Kuuk Thaayorre language does not use spatial terms but cardinal directions to refer to nearby objects; thus they would say: “the boy standing to the south of Mary is my brother” (Boroditsky 2011:4). Thus they argue that Russians, Poles and Spanish speakers are better at recognizing shades of blue and that Kuuk Thaayorre speakers have a better orientation. But this holds true also in the case of an engineer that knows how to build a bridge because he is better acquainted with engineering vocabulary than a layman. In both cases we are talking simply of habits and actually the opposite argument could be given: that because Russians, Poles and Spaniards had the habit to distinguish between shades of blue, they created two distinct words. The same applies to the Kuuk Thaayorre speakers: they economized in words and concepts by amalgamating spatial concepts with cardinal ones. And in the first example, the Hopi people: they may just not care enough about time as to give it a name. A similar example can be given about indigenous American languages like Guarani, or even Chinese. These languages lack tenses, so in order to say “I’ve eaten the cake” we just say “I already eat up cake” (literal translation of syntactic particles). Here we see simpler syntax, which by no means affected the evolution of thought in the peoples who spoke those languages.

In conclusion we can say that we all possess the potential for communication and language just provides us with the means. This idea can be compared with Saussure-s signifying system, which also consists of a duality: “langue”and “parole”. While all of us possess “langue” and the capacity is the same one in all of us, “parole” depends on our linguistic skills and in particular circumstances. In the same way, we all posses the capacity for communication, but the different versions of it depend on social, cultural and personal factors. This leads us to the idea of universality of the language, which may recall Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. This theory is basically correct except for a detail: what is universal is not grammar but language itself. Therefore the problem arisen by trying to find a universal linguistic pattern may be simply solved by understanding that what is universal is the capacity for communication and not the means of communication.

Because when we talk of grammar we are already talking about a system, which actually conditions language rather than making it possible. Although many linguists would deny the possibility of language without grammar, we need to see that language was there before grammar was imposed by convention. We can see this in the evolution of pidgins-languages with highly variable grammatical structure- into creoles- languages with a more stable grammatical structure-. We see this tendency towards precision in every language; if we take for example Latin, we will see that a word may have around twenty meanings, depending on the context, while a word in Romance languages like Spanish and French has only around two or three meanings. Thus languages gain in precision but lose in expression. The same happens with pidgins, which give the speaker the opportunity to reinvent language every time he speaks, while a creole demands for fixed phrases and correct word order.

Here we see the great influence society exerts on language. Although everyone understands the phrase “He go to school” or even “to school he go”, we are so used to grammar that we think it is indispensable to language. We also tend to pay more attention to the conventional meaning of words rather than to their real meaning, thus we end up with a plethora of vocabulary that overlaps each other. Although “nice” comes from “nescius”, which means “ignorant,” we would rather say a girl is nice than say she is “silly”, although this word comes from Old English “gesælig”, which means “blessed” (Thefreedictionary last access 08-01-2016). A clear example of this specialization of the meaning of words may be English, whose relatively strict grammatical structure allows for specialization of vocabulary; for instance in English there are three distinct meanings: to like, to want, to love, which are seldom interchangeable. But in Romance languages, which are more flexible grammatically, the distinction between these meanings is more blurry. Thus in Spanish we just have two verbs: gustar, querer (the verb amar is used only in poetry and songs); in Italian we have: piacere, volere, volere bene and amare (where volere bene and amare have overlapping meanings); in French we have: aimer bien, vouloir and aimer (where the only difference between to love and to like is the adverb bien). Therefore, if we considered English as a more modern or evolved language, we can say that languages move from expression to precision in the course of their evolution. Thus languages like French, Polish or Arabic are more expressive, because we can add shades in meaning by altering word order or we can use a word in different contexts, while languages like English do not have this advantage but have the advantage of precision, with one word having seldom more than two meanings (in actual use, not merely in the dictionary).

So this movement from expression to precision indicates that there was full expression from the very beginning, but the means were not there yet. This is clearly exemplified by poetry, where there are feelings and thoughts that need to find a way of expression that has not yet been conventionalized. And this is not merely for the sake of wordplay, nor poetry is about reinventing the language, but it is simply about finding a way to express those feelings which have not still been comprised in any words. Therefore when we see kids trying to communicate themselves, we see the same as when we see poets writings: mere eagerness for expression. Kids do not care about grammar nor have a wired system that allows them to decode language, and even if they had it, they would not use it because the purpose of language is communication. We also know from language learning experience that the more we study the language, that is, the more we learn about its grammar, the more difficult it is for us to speak it fluently, because grammar works as the police that arrests us in mid speech to check if everything is in order. Thus, if we distinguish between learning and acquiring a language, we must also distinguish between the purpose of language: communication, and mere social pressure and conventional rules to avoid misunderstandings: grammar.

So hopefully it has been proven that language does not shape the way we think but rather thought and feelings develop language, as we see in the case of writers and poets, which can speak much expressively and eloquently than regular people, or even in the example of technicians and scholars, who can make use of vocabulary that other people find incomprehensible.


Boroditsky, Lera

  2001   How Language Shapes Thought. In Scientific American, February 2011, pages 62-67. Available in (last access 08-01-2016)

Long now University. (last access 08-01-2016)

Oregon State University. Ludwig Wittgenstein (last access 08-01-2016)

The guardian Relatively speaking: do our words influence how we think (last access 08-01-2016)

Thefreedictionary (last access 08-01-2016)


I'm a writer born in Argentina, but currently living in Poland. I work as an English and French teacher, translator and copywriter.

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