For linguists, the question is which came first–thought or language? Can a person think, use logic, and make complex decisions without a language to do it in? Do we use language to communicate pure reason, or does language color and shape the very nature of our thought processes? Is it possible that our language can influence our attitudes, world-views, self-esteem, and overall well-being? These are interesting questions, but may be about as answerable as the whole chicken vs. egg dilemma.
Of course, people attempt the impossible all the time. In fact, that’s exactly what linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf did nearly a century ago when they constructed their hypothesis that would come to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (aka the linguistic relativity hypothesis). The hypothesis argues that the structure, lexicon, and limitations of a speaker’s native language can have a powerful effect on the way that they think, feel, and interpret the world around them. This goes far beyond just the vocabulary available to them. As Prins and Ulijin (1998) point out, “issues like syntax and organization of discourse play an important role in the logical development of an argument.”1
To illustrate this, think about the numerous ways the English language enables us to compare things. Comparative words such as “although,” however,” “but,” “like,” conversely,” and “similar” exist in abundance. That’s not to mention other phrases and semantic constructions we also have available to us. For example, English is particularly fond of the “____is to ____ as ____ is to _____” analogy format that comes up so often in standardized assessments and the extensive list of analogies, metaphors, personification, and figurative language.
Is it possible that English became filled with so many ways to compare things not because we wish to pit one thing against another, but because the grammar of English simply lends itself to comparisons? Might we then turn these comparisons inward and view ourselves in a negative light when we compare ourselves to someone that has strengths we do not possess? According to Sappir-Whorf, the comparative nature of our language might, directly or indirectly, influence our self-images and thus, the limitations we place on ourselves.
The debate brings up another question as well–one that has direct implications on the way we view our world. If we had more positive words in our language than negative ones, would we then perceive things in a more positive light? Is it possible to change our own individual perspectives simply by intentionally choosing more positive words and incorporating them to our everyday speech?
There are many more questions than answers, and they may never be resolved definitively. It’s likely that the solution falls, as it so often does, somewhere in between. Perhaps the best theory is the one that Sapir and Whorf ultimately arrived at–that language and thought move together fluidly in a cycle of words and synapses that are constantly influencing, succumbing, alternating, and existing so seamlessly that they become barely discernable from one another. Thus, it is joining of the chicken and egg–with no clear leader in sight.
1. Prins, E. D., & Ulijn, J. M. (1998). Linguistic and cultural factors in the readability of mathematics texts: the Whorfian hypothesis revisited with evidence from the South African context. Journal of Research in Reading , 21(2), 139. Retrieved from EBSCOhost .