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Does Language Determine How We Think?

Updated on May 25, 2015
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1984: George Orwell and Linguistic Relativity

1984, by George Orwell, is the story of Winston Smith’s struggle against the all-seeing, seemingly all-knowing dystopian regime of Oceania known as The Party. The novel is highly political in nature, and Orwell uses Smith’s story as a springboard to examine a wide swathe of issues, including language manipulation. In 1984, the totalitarian government of Oceania tries to control its citizens’ thoughts by using principles of linguistic relativity. However, to demonstrate this, it is first necessary to examine the historical and scientific significance of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis & Linguistic Determinism

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

While it is not known who coined the phrase linguistic relativity, the term became common in academic circles during the late 18th and 19th century through the works of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Johann Georg Hamann and others. In the early 20th century, Edward Sapir proposed that language is the lense through which human beings process and adjust to reality. Thought and words are inextricably bound together:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. (Goodman 162)

Sapir went further, contending that an individual’s sense of reality is shaped, molded and defined by words. Language, Sapir alleges, is the way we sense our surroundings.

The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached. (Goodman 162)

Doubtless, the relationship between words and thought is intriguing. Yet, is there an empirical basis for Sapir’s claims?

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Does Language Determine Thought?

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Linguistic Relativity: The Evidence

The claims of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are not without its naysayers. Charles Landesman in Does Language Embody a Philosophical Point of View? raises several common objections.

Landesman’s first objection relates to language translation. Since it is possible to transpose a sentence or idea from one language into another, he argues that it demonstrates a fatal flaw in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He writes:

Competing and mutually contradictory philosophies may be formulated in the same language, and the same or similar philosophies may be formulated in different languages. Thus the generalization that the speaking of a given language by a given philosopher is either necessary or a sufficient condition for the formulation of his explicit philosophy would seem to be false. (Landesman 618)

Landesman’s rather anecdotal evidence appears to make sense. After all, why are there hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of translated books. How have so many religions and political ideologies become global phenomena and why has international business not ground to a screeching halt?

While it’s true that most ideas can easily be transcribed from one language to another, there is no denying that some basic ideas are difficult to communicate. Numerous studies have demonstrated this, including the famous research done in the late 1960s by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay.

In Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, researchers Berlin and Kay found that they could predict which basic colors a culture had by how many different words there were in its language for colors. Studying ninety-eight unrelated languages, a distinct pattern emerged: once a language had three or more words for color (there were always at least two - dark and light colors), the next word would always be red. After that, green or yellow, then blue, then brown, etc. Berlin and Kay concluded:

…sufficient evidence has already accumulated to show that such connections must exist for the linguistic realms of syntax and phonology. The findings reported here concerning the universality and the evolution of basic color lexicon suggest that such connections are also to be found in the realm of semantics. (Berlin, Kay 110)

While Berlin and Kay’s work does not explicitly contradict Landesman, it does muddle the waters. If ideas are truly universal regardless of language, why do some cultures have more colors than others? Why can this be shown so reliably across ninety-eight different languages and cultures?

Berlin and Kay’s study is far from the only evidence for a certain exclusivity of ideas to some languages. Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist studying the Arapesh of New Guinea, found that they had no complex number system, only one, two, and “dog” (representing four, presumably because of its four legs). Thus, the number six would be “two dog”. She remarked, “It is easy to see that in this small society one would quickly become tired of attempting to count much beyond twenty-four and would simply say, ‘many’”. (Sociology in a Changing World 60).

Evidently, many concepts often taken for granted, such as colors and basic arithmetic, are not universal in nature. While this cross-cultural lack of basic ideas might not necessarily be rooted solely in linguistic differences, it is clear that some ideas - such as the color purple or large numbers - would be difficult for peoples of another language. This directly contradicts Landesman and the idea that all ideas are understandable in all languages, while supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

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The Word or the Idea?

Landesman’s next objection to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis explores the origin of thought. Which comes first, the word or the idea? Landesman argues the latter, contending that language does not precede thought; it only conveys it:

Suppose I see a tree and then say ‘I see a tree’. The linguistic act succeeds the perception. How could it have influenced it? Perhaps this question reflects a superficial view of the role of language in perception. After all, the perceiver can speak about what he perceives only because he possesses a group of linguistic habits, a cluster of dispositions to use certain words and linguistic forms under certain conditions. And these habits or tendencies are present throughout all perception...We might think of language as a perceptual screen which permits us to respond to some items and inhibits our responses to others (Landesman 620)

On a superficial level, Landesman’s conclusion appears logical. After all, stroke victims and others suffering from aphasia can still think, despite direct damage to their cerebral language centers and an inability to communicate with language. Landesman goes on to disagree that, “...…there is no formed world until linguistic skills are attained.” (627) Just as one often cannot describe one’s emotions and experiences when telling a story to others, so too could language be merely a “perpetual screen” which “permits us to respond”. Words do not determine or enable thought, they’re merely the way those thoughts are communicated.

Yet, does the occasional inability to describe experiences and emotions actually contradict the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Are not emotions and experiences inherently subjective and experiential, in contrast to the concrete definitions of words? Indeed, an examination of real world experiences, not theoretical musings, does little to support Landesman. In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Helen Keller writes of her experience as a blind, deaf and dumb child who experienced no interaction with the world beyond touch and smell. Crippled by scarlet fever as an infant, she describes her life after being taught morse code:

Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout...Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. (Keller Chapt 5, emphasis added)

Helen Keller contradicts Landesman. She states in so many words, “each name gave birth to a new thought” - words directly affected the way in which she saw the world. While her experience is unverifiable and anecdotal, it is a firsthand account and a primary source, outweighing Landesman’s hypotheticals. The very nature of linguistic relativity, one could argue, makes it nearly impossible to objectively confirm. One might also argue that most of the objections to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are theoretical in nature and not based upon concrete evidence. While language isn’t the only vehicle in which thoughts are formulated, it is the primary one. To limit language, as it is clearly seen in Keller’s case, is to limit thought.

Reasoning Skills and Linguistic Cognition

The remaining school of thought against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis worth examining concerns animals and human infants. It states simply that languageless creatures such as these demonstrate the ability to reason about space, time, objects, causality, etc; if language does precede thought, how is this possible? Basic reasoning skills (such as those Keller possessed pre-lingual) can are certainly analogous to a thought process, and without a language, how does this occur?

While studies confirm that babies and monkeys possess primitive reasoning and math skills, it ends there. Caleb Everett writes in Linguistic Relativity: Evidence Across Languages and Cognitive Domains:

So, for example, when given a choice between three and two crackers, they [infants] choose the former amount. Perhaps surprisingly, though, when given a choice between four and two crackers, or six and three crackers, they choose randomly. In other words, their ability to exactly discriminate quantities is limited to sets smaller than four items. Given that the infants in such studies are pre-linguistic, the results imply that such basic arithmetical ability does not rely on language. (144)

Other studies have shown nearly identical behavior in rhesus monkeys. Everett concludes, “Given that non-speaking babies and other species are capable of exactly recognizing smaller quantities, we can be confident that this ability is language independent.” (144). In other words, while language stimulates the development of a complex number system, it is independent of basic numerical understanding. As Everett states:

Most of us can, for example, differentiate eight items from nine items with ease. Other species cannot do this, though, and neither can pre-linguistic humans. This has led to the suggestion that language may play a fundamental role in fostering this sort of more advanced numerical cognition. (145)

In a similar fashion, language can be presumed to cultivate other advanced reasoning skills that are possessed innately. This is supported by both the above numbers study and in Berlin and Kay’s analysis of color across cultures. The evidence clearly shows that as language expands, so too does the mind. While some intrinsic thought processes are language independent, most forms of complex thinking require language.


Linguistic Relativity in 1984

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its implications are deeply embedded throughout Orwell’s novel in the guise of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania. The goal of Newspeak is to eliminate the peoples’ capacity to think negatively about The Party by slowly phasing out and eliminating offending words and ideas. Freedom, justice, pleasure, self-rule – how can one miss what one doesn’t know exists? Syme, a low ranking Party intellectual, explains the purpose of Newspeak:

Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten… Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now? (Orwell, 1984)

The Party aims to make even the mental insinuation of rebellion an impossibility. This technique of mind control mirrors the core tenant of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, recognizing that language and perception are inextricably linked; that words are not a means to convey reality, they are reality. Syme continues, “How could you have a slogan like "freedom is slavery" when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now.” (Orwell, 1984) Clearly, Newspeak is a dystopian manifestation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Interestingly, Orwell writes of Newspeak two years prior to the publication of 1984 in his seminal essay entitled Politics and the English Language. Bemoaning the then-current state of the English language with its imprecise metaphors and flowery, superfluous writing, Orwell cites political propaganda as a prime example of this.

Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers...Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. (Orwell, Politics and the English Language)

While one would be well excused to pass this off as yet another rant against euphemisms in political discourse, Orwell continues, describing linguistic relativity (in a political context) exactly:

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought...Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. (Orwell, Politics and the English Language, emphasis added)

Two years hence, Orwell published 1984, which featured the exact political language he described in Politics and the English Language. Evidently, the theory of linguistic relativity was in Orwell’s mind and writings while he penned 1984.


Clearly, while the mind’s relationship with language is a multifaceted and intricate, both scientific and anecdotal evidence exists to support a deep relationship between the two. Orwell explores that relationship in 1984 via a dystopian manifestation of linguistic relativity named Newspeak.

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Works Cited

Berlin, Brent, and Paul Kay. Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: U

of California, 1991. 110. Print.

Everett, Caleb. "Quantities." Linguistic Relativity: Evidence Across Languages and Cognitive

Domains. Mouton De Gruyter, 2013. 144-145. Print.

Keller, Helen. "Chapter 5." The Story of My Life. Garden City,: Doubleday, 1954. Print.

Kornblum, William, and Carolyn D. Smith. "Social Foundations." Sociology in a Changing

World. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011. 60. Print.

Landesman, Charles. "Does Language Embody a Philosophical Point of View?" The Review

of Metaphysics 14.4 (1961): 617-36. JSTOR. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20123846>.

Orwell, George. "Chapter 5." 1984. Gutenberg, 1984. Print.

Orwell, George, "Politics in the English Language." Orwell.ru. 1 Jan. 1946. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

<http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/>.

Sapir, Edward, and David Goodman Mandelbaum. "The Status of

Linguistics as a Science." Selected Writings in Language, Culture and Personality;. Berkeley: U of California, 1949. 162. Print.

© 2015 JB

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    • JBRUU profile image
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      JB 22 months ago from Chicago

      Haha @Aladdin's Cave, I'm basically just asking if our spoken language affects the way we think and I go through a few examples of this happening. This was a term paper I wrote last semester.

    • Aladdins Cave profile image

      Aladdins Cave 22 months ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Way over my head, sorry. Could not finish reading.

      Still gave you thumbs up, not your fault I don't have enough grey cells

      to comprehend what's going on

      Cheers from DOWNUNDER

    • Hazel Abee profile image

      Hazel Abee 22 months ago from Malaysia

      Personally for me it does .. My mother tongue is different while my national language is different and English is only my 3rd language. But yet I think more in English then the other 2 languages probably because I read and write and even memorize in English.

      If you check on the word 'Vulgar Latin' you can notice the definition which means opposed to the classical or opposition to the higher class

      My mother tongue is a beautiful flowery and rhythmic language and it has words for every 'thing' ... 'wife' has more then 3 words with different meaning for different situation, 'hair' has more then 3 words .. .. So my language also faces this 'opposition to the higher class' .. which means certain words are not appropriate to be used by proper 'good family' people especially ladies.

      Thinking in this language can actually make one to adopt the improper 'way of life' if they are not watchful and it is happening.

      English in the other hand has a very proper approach in the language as in whole and 'wife' is a 'wife', not a 'whore' but in my mother tongue there are words as similar as 'whore' or the act of 'wifely duties' to name a wife.

      So yes, thinking in English makes a 'proper' thought for me personally.

      My national language is not bad but the word power is too limited that they actually 'nationalist' English words with change of spelling to sound localized .. Example ... Physics is Fizik, Biology is Biologi , Doctor is Doktor , camera is kamera ....

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