The Relationship between Language and Thinking
It is estimated that an average native English speaker has a vocabulary of twelve thousand words by the time they are 12. In the next few years – when there is emphasis on education, a person can learn up to twenty thousand words, even 35 thousand in case of someone well educated. It is hard to grasp how large the amount is and yet we still find ourselves in situations for which we have no words to describe. The language we use is often very limited despite the fact that we can choose from such a huge number of options. We struggle again and again in the effort to find the perfect word to describe our thoughts. As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lighting and a lighting bug.” Does the fact that the vocabulary is restricted affect our ability to think? How does the language affect our thoughts?
A good example of contemplating about this topic is George Orwell in his book 1984. The setting of the book is in future dystopian England, where the totalitarian government censors not only criticism of political situation, government and the ruler (Big Brother) but also some words which, according to the leaders, could disrupt the whole system. The idea is, that the simpler the language the simpler the thoughts and thus after some time the people of Orwell’s England would be able to think only in basic structures which would reduce their imagination, creativity and most importantly their intelligence and ability to revolt. It is clear that George Orwell saw the link between advancement of vocabulary and thinking. With this in mind he invented a language for the book 1984 – Newspeak. Mostly it consists of the ordinary English words, however he made some changes to grammar and syntax and even invented new words to get rid of ambiguity, which, according to him, is challenges our mind and makes us smarter. Firstly, he changed and added prefixes and suffixes. To limit the vocabulary of adjectives, for comparatives such as prettier and better he made up a prefix plus- with the base word pretty and good (pluspretty, plusgood). For superlatives there was prefix doubleplus- to replace words like prettiest, best (doublepluspretty, doubleplussgood). The suffix –ed was to be used with all verbs in past tense so the talking would require as little thinking as possible. Secondly, to reduce even more expressions, he abolished all synonyms and antonyms. For everything there was only one expression and the opposite of it consisted of the original word with a prefix or a suffix (e.g. there wasn’t the word “bad”, to indicate something is bad, the word to use would consist of base word “good” with an prefix or suffix). And finally, George Orwell invented a few words to protect the government and Big Brother from people’s dangerous thoughts. For example the word “duckspeak” refers to the action of speaking without thinking, of obeying the rulers no matter what and repeating their ideas as if they were one’s own. The term “crimethink” signifies a thought that is not in accordance with Big Brother’s ideology or is prohibited. Orwell thought of many more words and abbreviations (Ingsoc – English socialism; minitrue, minilove, minipax – ministry of truth, of love and of peace; etc.) all in accordance to limit the language as much as possible to cripple the people’s critical thinking. With such a limited vocabulary, George Orwell said, there would be no place for great ideas.
There have been quite a few researches on correlation of language and thoughts, one of which was made by Elizabeth S. Spelke (Cornell University, USA) and Susan J. Hespos (Northwestern University, USA). Their research consisted of two parts. Firstly they conducted the experiment on 5 months old children. The idea was that such young children observe something until they are not interested anymore and don’t focus on a situation until it changes. It ought to determine the differences in Korean and English language. In Korean, there is a difference when talking about an object in a container or box. Koreans have a word that distinguishes whether an object fits in tightly or loosely in oppose to English, which has only the word “in”. To test the theory that the language determines the way we think, the children were observing object being placed in containers in which they fit either tightly or loosely. In the first part they were putting objects into hats which fit tightly. They continued doing this until the children were bored and didn’t focus anymore. After that, they took objects which fit loosely and observed that the children focused again – and thus they perceived it as a different action. Later they tested adults – both Korean and English and they noticed that people from England had lost the sense of difference between object fitting tightly or loosely to a container simply because for both cases they would use the word “in”. On the other hand, people from Korea saw the difference and they were able to distinguish the difference. The conclusion of this experiment is that when we are young and don’t have a language to think in, we are able to categorize things into better extension in comparison with our adult age, when our mind is restricted to a specific vocabulary and thus has more boundaries. It also explained another phenomenon. A lot of people wonder how those who were born deaf think, mostly in their early years when they have not learned to read yet. There were doubts whether these children can grasp the idea of abstract thoughts since they have no words to describe them. Deaf children learn by perceiving the world visually and so it is hard to explain some expressions that are impossible to show in the real world. However, this study confirmed that deaf children are able to think abstractly even without words.
In another study researches focused on feminine and masculine articles. Although English doesn’t determine whether a word is masculine and feminine, a lot of other languages do. In this experiment there were German and Spanish respondents who were asked to describe specific objects that have different grammatical gender in these two languages, for example the word “key”. In German the word is masculine while in Spanish it is feminine and the different perceiving was obvious. Germans described key as something hard and heavy, jagged, metal or rough – adjectives that are mostly perceived as manly. Spanish people, on the other hand described key with words like little, tiny, elegant and golden – words that are considered more womanly. Another studied word was bridge, feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. In this case, German speakers used words such as beautiful, fragile and pretty, which was not the case with Spanish speakers, who described bridge as big, strong and towering. When the respondents were asked why they chose these adjective for their description, they were not able to give an answer. The experiment proved that without knowing, the grammar of our language can changes our perspective on objects.
To conclude, people’s minds are so complex and so complicated that it is hard to understand how it works and what factors influence it. However it is clear that the language we use can change a lot. It can influence us, change our perspective on the world and even limit us. Though we cannot change the fact that every language has its flaws and limits, we can learn other languages and gain more extended vocabulary to be limited as little as possible, because the ability to think is connected to the vocabulary we use. After all, “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” – George Orwell
http://orwell.ru/library/novels/1984/english/en_app http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/09/george-orwell-newspeak/ https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/07/040722090334.htm https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/culture-conscious/201209/masculine-or-feminine-and-why-it-matters