Language and Thinking~I

This election season we have heard so many harsh words and invectives used by political parties and leaders against one another that they have almost lost the power to hurt our sensibilities.

Language and Thinking~I

Representation image (Photo:SNS)

This election season we have heard so many harsh words and invectives used by political parties and leaders against one another that they have almost lost the power to hurt our sensibilities. Sages have always advised us to be extremely careful with the words we speak, because they are like arrows which once shot cannot be taken back. Words are powerful, because each spoken word creates an impact on the listener’s mind and changes it. The world therefore is never the same after a word has been spoken. There are some 7,000 languages in the world and they vastly differ from each other in many ways. Some may have 20 different vowel sounds and some only two.

In some languages like Bengali or Turkish, the subject precedes the object that precedes the verb (S-O-V order), while those like English may have S-V-O order. While these two structures cover almost 90 per cent of all languages, about 9 per cent follow the V-S-O order, but the other three possibilities also exist. Some languages like Turkish put a lot of information in one long word, and some use very short words, and hence sentences with many words, like the Vietnamese. In some languages, the adjective precedes the noun, in others, it follows. Some like English have ‘pre’positions, while others like Japanese have ‘post’positions.

But differences apart, languages are often very similar with the same ancestry, and these similarities allow them to be grouped under families. Most European languages like French, English, Italian or Spanish derived from the same parent language, Latin; just as most Indian languages derived from Sanskrit. Both these groups again belong to a common language family known as Indo-European, which includes languages spoken in most of Europe and in nations colonized by Europeans. Hence many words in these languages can be traced to a common origin. Thus, vidya meaning ‘knowledge’ in Sanskrit derived from vid, meaning ‘to perceive’, akin to Veda which is cognate with Latin videre meaning ‘to see’. The words video, vista, vision, divide and dividend are derived from this root. Sanskrit manas or ‘mind’ is cognate with Latin mentis ~ ‘to think’ ~ which gave us the word mental. Sanskrit mrityu or ‘death’ derives from mri meaning ‘to die’, which is again cognate with Latin mori, from which the words ‘mortality’ and ‘mortgage’ derive.


Sanskrit kaala, from kal, meaning ‘to count’ is cognate to Latin calculare, from which derive the words ‘calculate’ and ‘calendar’. Even the word ‘cognate’ which means ‘born together’ derives from Latin gnatus meaning ‘to be born’. It is akin to the Sanskrit root jan from where the word janma ~ ‘to take birth’, derives. Jan is also cognate with Latin genus meaning ‘origin’, from which the words genetic, generate, generation and even genocide are derived. There are many such interesting examples. Origin of the words often traces human’s migration across continents from an unremembered beginning ~ their ancient movements have left permanent footprints in the words that we unknowingly use today. There are myriad ways in which languages form new words out of existing ones, and it is virtually impossible to count the number of words in any language.

Like society, languages evolve continually and dynamically. Words have their own structure. Morphology studies how they are composed of smaller, meaningful units, while syntax studies how they form sentences. When words come together to form a sentence, it gives rise to meaning, and here we run into problems, because meanings are often layered. The literal, or ‘semantic’ meaning of what we say often differs from what we intend to express, which is the “pragmatic’ meaning. Meaning is what leads to complexity and controversies, because meaning cannot be always dissociated from the cultural context, which has led to theories about whether language influences our thinking and shapes the way we perceive our world. One common example that is used in this context is colour names in different languages. Colour is a spectrum of infinite variety.

In English we generally use seven major colour names, while there are many words or their combinations to express variations. But there are languages with just three different colour names or even less, but they all inherit common elements. All languages seem to distinguish between dark and light, between black and white. If a language has another colour term, that is invariably red. If there’s a fourth colour, that again is always either green or yellow, after them comes blue. Red, green and blue happen to the primary colours in optics, because they are fundamental to human vision.

All other colours of the visible light spectrum can be produced by properly adding different combinations of these three colours. We see red more clearly than other colours, followed by green or yellow. Their ordering in all languages thus may be more than mere coincidence. Does it imply that those whose language has a lesser number of colours cannot distinguish between colours for which they have no names? It is easy to conduct experiments to test this, and their results are ambiguous. While people who do not have different words for, say, orange and red, do see the difference, it appears that people who have these words in their language may spot the difference a bit more quickly. So, are the colours that we see influenced by our language? In other words, does language influence the way we perceive the world? The debate is unresolved. One example that is quoted in this context is the number of words the Innuits ~ people who inhabit the snowbound Arctic regions ~ have for snow ~ there are more than 50 words in their lexicon.

It would thus appear that language is more than merely a medium of expression, perhaps it also reflects some underlying reality, imparting a universal aspect to languages which may even derive from biology, though this view is often hotly debated. Biology of course plays a role in language, because there are fixed areas in our brains, known as Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area, which control our ability to understand the meaning of words, and to speak those words respectively.

Reading languages is another intriguing aspect, because not only do different languages have different scripts or symbols, but they also write differently – some write from left to right and top to bottom, and some just the opposite. But regardless of how one reads or writes, apparently all these symbols and scripts are processed in exactly the same area of the brain called the fusiform gyrus, near the respective areas where sounds and visual images are processed. Symbols which have to do with vision have to be stored as close as possible to where we process the sounds of language. Languages are basically concerned with sounds, that is speaking ~ there is no language in the world that is only written and read and not spoken.

In the 1940s, the American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf and his teacher Edward Sapir proposed their Linguistic Determinism Hypothesis, also known as ‘Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’, suggesting that language determines the content of thought. Whorf noted that the Hopi ~ a Native American language spoken in northeastern Arizona ~ did not have a past tense for verbs. Therefore, he presumed that the Hopi people could not think about the past. Based on his studies, Whorf claimed that speakers of Hopi and English see the world differently because of differences in their language. While Hopis emphasise events and processes, on how an action is performed rather than when, the English speakers emphasise on things and relations. The English apparently treat time as being broken up into chunks that can be counted in seconds, minutes and hours, and hence they may think about saving, using or wasting them, while the Hopi people think time as a continuous cycle.

But this doesn’t necessarily imply that language has forced a certain view of time on people. Perhaps language, thought and culture are inextricably intertwined with each other to form an integral, consummate whole. The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, called Linguistic Relativity, holds that our thinking is conditioned and determined by the language we speak, implying that some thoughts may be easier for speakers of one language rather than another. An even stronger view was taken earlier by the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1835, when he wrote, “Language is the formative organ of thought.” The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is difficult to put to test, for which an experiment needs to be set up to isolate and measure what is due to language from what is due to thought, which is near-impossible, and many of its conclusions have been hotly contested and proven wrong.

If linguistic determinism was true, then learning a second language would have been difficult ~ it would mean changing the way one has thought in native tongue, something that our experience does not support. Linguist Guy Deutscher (“Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages” Arrow Books, 2010) mocked it rightly, “Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune?

Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?” The hypothesis made our mother tongue a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. When no evidence came for such claims, the other extreme view was propagated that people of all cultures think fundamentally in the same way. Truth, as always, lies somewhere in between these extreme views.

(The writer is an author, commentator and academic)