Jump to content
Science Forums

Language and its influence on thought


Recommended Posts

I have no experimental data to support this theory, just personal observations.


I was trained as a Korean linguist at the Defense Language Institute in the Unites States. This is unimportant, except that it exposed me to a culture that I would likely never had encountered on my own.


I have noticed that besides the obvious differences in vocabulary and grammar between different languages, there is often a fundamental difference between how concepts are expressed. For instance, if I where to say that "I am going to the store" in Korean, it would be assumed that I was not coming back, where in English, it is obvious. in Korean, I would have to say that "I am going and returning from the store".


I have a hypothesis that language is necessarily abstract, and its learning of expression of abstract thoughts influences not only the expression of those thoughts, but how those thoughts themselves are created and expressed. The often quoted yet incorrect reference to thirty some odd names for snow by "eskimos" comes to mind.


I no longer consider myself a "linguist", as I never cared much for rote memorization, but I think the observations I have made in regards to a culture and its language have some merit. So, how does one's language affect not only one's ability to describe the world around them, but also how one perceives the world around them?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hello JMJ :teeth:


I think you have raised an excellent question here.

If I may be allowed to paraphrase you, it seems to me that you are asking:

"How does the structure of a specific language affect our ability to conceptualize, understand, or even to model Reality?"


I've been involved in a similar discussion at What is Reality?. You might want to take a peek at that to see if anything there corresponds to your inquiry.


I would tend to agree with your premise. Language comprises the "building blocks" with which we construct our internal model of Reality. Make a big enough change in the Language, and you may find that some concepts are no longer easily expressed. And if you can't express them, what makes you think you can understand them?


I'm reminded of a book by Daniel C. Dennett, called "Freedom Evolves". His point was that there's this word, "freedom", and we have analogs for that English word in all languages, even those dating back thousands of years. And yet those ancient people had a completely different meaning or understanding. For example, in ancient Hebrew, "freedom" meant the state of not being a slave. Period. Their ancient language, at that time, evolved to reflect their cultural history (as all languages are), simply did not have enough words, associations, events, experiences or sub-concepts required to construct OUR concept of "freedom".


If you went to an extreme, and chose a 1000-word language consisting of only 200 common verbs (each with only three tenses) , 390 common nouns, and 10 prepositions, it would be pretty obvious that sophisticated concept-building was out of the question. In fact, you might not even be able to construct the meaning: "out of the question"!!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think you would very much enjoy the work of Stephen Pinker. His book "The Stuff of Thought" was about how through understanding language we can understand how the the mind works(which is the title of another book of his).


Here's a couple videos of him discussing his ideas:

YouTube - [email protected]: Steven Pinker http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBpetDxIEMU

Steven Pinker on language and thought | Video on TED.com


Amazon.com: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature: Steven Pinker: Books http://www.amazon.com/Stuff-Thought-Language-Window-Nature/dp/0670063274


You may also want to check out his "The Language Instinct" for more on the mind, evolution, and language.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 month later...

I think that language, like law, results from experience. I believe that it facilitates thought, but not on the level of food-gathering. I was thinking and remembering before I learned language. The relationships of objects and beings and the changes in those relationships cause cognitive questions and thought. Movies would lose much of their ability to make us think if we could only think by means of language, but don't tell linguists that.


I wish I had known that about the Korean language when I had a lot of Korean friends. I've lost contact with them. But, if my premise that language follows experience is correct, I wonder what there is in the Korean experience that would lead to the necessity of adding what seems to us like a joke. If I told someone, "I'm going to the store and also I'm coming back," I'd get a laugh.


Also, how many words do we have for snow? Slush? Snowpack? Powder?


Any other suggestions?



Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think that language, like law, results from experience. I believe that it facilitates thought, but not on the level of food-gathering. I was thinking and remembering before I learned language. ...
I am very curious to know just what do you mean by "thinking" before you had language. What were you thinking? How did you remember it without creating a "story" of what happened?


We know that much of our memory is composed of linear sequences of sensory "images". (I include smell and pain, etc, in this broad use of "images".) We all have multitudes of these "image-clips" in our brains. But merely recalling them (remembering) is not what I would call "thinking".


"Thinking" involves, at even the most primitive level, the assignment of "meaning" to a memory. And meaning is constructed entirely out of the elements of language -- what I have called elsewhere, "syntactic structures".

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Before I had language, I understood that things involving pain or pleasure were going to happen to me, that I was experiencing pain that other humans thought was amusing, that I was leaving or losing things I loved, that there was indescribable beauty in the world, and that adults could be loving and cruel, sometimes in very close proximity.


When my cat was very young, she watched a PBS nature show about lions attacking gazelles. In the show, one lion would push the gazelle over and a second lion would grab its throat. The next day, my cat went outside, ran up to a squirrel, and pushed it over. The squirrel jumped up and ran away. My cat looked around briefly, became puzzled, and then came to the house where she spent some time looking at the squirrels with a puzzled expression. I didn't need language to see what was happening, and she didn't need language to create her own version of the nature show.


We do not need symbols to understand complex relationships, develop predictive capabilities, and create effective responses, all of which, when taken together, are a pretty good definition of cognitive thought.


Having said that, for those of you who watch American television, I did not do stock trading when I was a baby. If I had, I might have got us into the mess we're in now, but probably not.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

...she didn't need language to create her own version of the nature show.

We do not need symbols to understand complex relationships, develop predictive capabilities, and create effective responses, all of which, when taken together, are a pretty good definition of cognitive thought.


Thanks for the kitty cat story.


As for your definition of cognitive thought, I would have to disagree.

Kitty cats can play with squirrels without having to have any 'language'.

But 'cognitive thought' is light-years beyond playing with squirrels.


Do you have any other source for your statement? A book, perhaps, that explains how 'cognitive thought' could occur without languaging?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Okay, we have a very smart chimpanzee there. And a very angry one.

Are you familiar with "operant conditioning"?

Basically, an entity can initiate "rewards" or "punishments" upon an animal in consequence of some behavior the animal exhibits in response to some stimulus. If the animal is rewarded after doing X in response to Y, then the animal is more likely to do X in response to Y in the future.


Now, let's define the entity as the animal itself -- to the extent that the animal becomes the source of reward and punishment.


Furthermore, lets' collapse the response X to be the source of reward. This results in the situation where: when Y happens, the animal responds with X, and the response X itself supplies the "reward", say in terms of endorphins.


Specifically, the animal is stimulated with the presence of human zoo visitors. The animal responds randomly for a time, then one day, responds by throwing a stone. This "rewards" the animal. After a time (and numerous rewards), the animal gravitates to sources of stones, and then moves the stones closer to the visitors, in a series of steps which incrementally increase the likelihood of "reward".


We often joke about how cats "teach" humans to be good cat-servants. This may be more true than we first assume. The cat's behavior may be a product of operant conditioning, with the cat playing a larger role of entity than we play. The cat may care nothing for the toy mouse. But it may "learn" that playing with the mouse on the living room rug when humans are present is associated with getting attention ("reward").


That is why the phrase "cognitive thinking" does not refer to just any kind of thinking, or just any mundane sort of brain activity. Almost by definition, it refers to the kind of rigorous thinking that can only be done by a mind capable of categorization, symbolic labeling, abstraction, attribute determination, evaluation, comparison, enumeration, conceptualization and logic.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Oops! I think I must have wandered into a science forum.


Let's just say that some people seem to have cognitive thoughts that do not involve language. If I could verbally explain those thoughts to you, I would. If I could nonverbally explain those thoughts to you, I would. I am at a real disadvantage here.


If there are other people who have experienced what I have experienced, which can also be the essence of the ineffable mystical experience, but doesn't have to be, I hope they will just log in. No attempt to explain is needed. It will fail anyway.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Oops! I think I must have wandered into a science forum.

:lol: :lol: :evil: :lol: ;) :lol: ;) :lol: :hihi:

[Karlov] I'm sorry, my dear boy, but now that you're here, I'm afraid we can't allow you to leave. Relax. Let Igor here strap you to this electrical chair. We wouldn't want to have to hurt you, now would we? [/Karlov]

Let's just say that some people seem to have cognitive thoughts that do not involve language. ...which can also be the essence of the ineffable mystical experience...


Ineffable Mystical Experience. (IMX)

I can work with that.

But first, "some people seem to have... thoughts... [without] language".


Are you speaking of an observation or a personal experience?

If observation, then how do you know that language was not involved?


[Karlov] Yes, dear lemit, this IS a science forum. You might as well stop struggling. I need your brain for an experiment, and dear boy, I WILL have it. [/Karlov]


I have experienced what you may call an IMX. Maybe several. They were transient, perhaps only a few seconds long. It wasn't what I would call thought. It was definately an experience of a sensory/emotional event. On one occassion, the emotion was quite joyful, though I did not know why. It was more like finding oneself on just going "over the top" of a huge roller coaster than it was "thinking". Was it the same for you?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have been away from this thread for too long, but I have little to contribute other than my own experiences...


Pyrotex, I found your differentiation between operant conditioning and cognitive thinking interesting. Here is an article from Edge by Irene Pepperberg concerning the training of parrots to communicate in a similar fashion to the training of great apes to communicate with sign language. The difference being that parrots are capable of speech, but their "language processing centers" are significantly smaller. I find the progress she made with the parrot remarkable.

Thus we are trying to get him to sound out refrigerator letters, the same way one would train children on phonics. We were doing demos at the Media Lab for our corporate sponsors; we had a very small amount of time scheduled and the visitors wanted to see Alex work. So we put a number of differently colored letters on the tray that we use, put the tray in front of Alex, and asked, "Alex, what sound is blue?" He answers, "Ssss." It was an "s", so we say "Good birdie" and he replies, "Want a nut."


Well, I don't want him sitting there using our limited amount of time to eat a nut, so I tell him to wait, and I ask, "What sound is green?" Alex answers, "Ssshh." He's right, it's "sh," and we go through the routine again: "Good parrot." "Want a nut." "Alex, wait. What sound is orange?" "ch." "Good bird!" "Want a nut." We're going on and on and Alex is clearly getting more and more frustrated. He finally gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, "Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh."


Not only could you imagine him thinking, "Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it for you?" but the point was that he had leaped over where we were and had begun sounding out the letters of the words for us. This was in a sense his way of saying to us, "I know where you're headed! Let's get on with it," which gave us the feeling that we were on the right track with what we were doing.


I think that article demonstrates that cognitive thought and language may be intimately tied together, and the same mental development that allows one therefor allows the other, as if they were opposite sides of the same coin. In order to think of something, one must be able to label it (verbally or non-verbally). It is this artificial labeling that is the basis of language, and I believe that the way cultures label concepts and use those labels indirectly affects the way they view those concepts.


Then again, is it just an example of very good operant conditioning? It may have started out that way, but I think the quoted text shows that the parrot's thinking has definitely progressed beyond that. He was never prompted to sound out the letters for nut. He may not have even been able to spell nut. But he knew he wanted a nut, and he knew they were playing the phonics game. He was getting frustrated that the usual response of "want a nut" wasn't working, so instead he played their phonics game to try and get what he wanted. If this is still operant conditioning, at what point does operant conditioning end and cognitive thought begin?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Speaking of parrots and nuts, it is at risk of being considered the latter that I tell this story about the former:


A friend of mine, whom I supervised in a college library, had many parrots in her apartment, the remnants of a Chicago pet store. The first time I took her home, I noticed (who wouldn't) the cacophony of bird voices. I waited in the living room while my friend went to the parrots' room. I heard her calm, reassuring voice and the gradual subsidance of the cacophony. It sounded like good interaction with outraged library patrons if you can't hear any of the words.


The next time I took my friend home from work, I went into the parrots' room with her. The cacophony, I could sort out close up, was some parrots reporting what they had seen outside the window that day, others complaining that their fellow parrots had been somehow abusive or had stolen something, and still others complaining that the first parrots had kept them from having a chance to tell what they had seen outside the window that day.


I still don't know what to make of that. I just have a feeling that our understanding of the relationship of language to thought, as well as that of animals to humans, is inadequate.




p.s. I no longer use the word "parroting."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

i have a very important question regarding language in the age of digital communication


the dynamic is code written in the language of computers (c++, java, html, etc.)

that pulses onscreen in patterns that are recognizable by the subconcious

but bareley percievable by the concious


what i intend is this


say there is a subscript of code that flashes an idea

we have all head of subliminal messages

but in the digital age we cannot assume that this concept is rare

we have to assume that it is part of our language


2 examples (@ non-AI influenced levels)


a code that is disruptive

a code that is moral based


now the code that is disruptive would be similar to a prank

where the subliminal message displayed caused a grimace whenever

the observer sees a condom (for example)

like a prank, the code integrates the two ideas, grimace condom

using symbol methods (i don't want to say to much otherwise a non-phd could do it)

so when the observer now is socializing, he/she is unaware that the grimace is showing

thus the "prank" is active ;)


now on the other moral based code, the line relates what we deem as "sin" to have cause

when the observer is observed by others

the example is if the user is looking at porn (say man/women stripping)

the example would not neccisarily be a sin, but in the ethics of the programmer defining

sin on his/her own moral judgment, the effective condition would be the example of a grimace on a face :)


now since the digital era is here, it insinuates that this is already going on

this type of programming would be looked over by standard models of code protection

yet it is a form of language :)


now on the positive side of this idea

when someone is looking at a math problem


now if the code then subliminaly trasferred the next mathematical concept/s


1-1=0 :singer:



then this language could be used to accelerate the learning potential of humanity

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...