THE INTERPLAY OF THOUGHT AND LANGUAGE
A very attractive feature of propositions, if defined as
the meanings of sentences, or in some such way, is that they are
language-independent. Thus the sentence water is transparent
and the sentences in all other languages with exactly the same
meaning correspond to, or 'are', one and the same proposition:
the proposition water is transparent.
While every language may have a sentence with a meaning identical to this
proposition water is transparent, it is not hard to conceive of some
sentence in this language for which there is not an exact equivalent in a
particular other language (not belonging to the same cluster of
'languages'), and vice versa.
In that case there is a proposition which can be uttered in this language
but not in some other language, and a proposition which can be uttered in
some other language but not in the language which is our present
means of communication. The next step is then to conceive of a
proposition which cannot be uttered without change of meaning
in any language. Thinking (not speaking or writing) along the
lines of such propositions (if possible) would be as language-independent
as propositions are themselves: words may be the instruments of thought,
this does not imply that thought could not do without words.
The question whether thoughts can be entirely language-independent
is closely related to the question whether the communication
of thoughts, and of other elements of propositional
attitudes, such as feelings, can be entirely independent
of language. As the transmission or exchange of thoughts and
feelings can take place outside the verbal medium of a spoken or
written language, it seems evident that propositional communication
is at least not wholly language-dependent. Yet, our present
means of communication, and also the most important or easy
means of communication (in the present context), is verbal
communication in a particular language. It is therefore of great
import to have some idea if, and to what extent, the expression
of thoughts and feelings depends on the kind of linguistic
medium used, given that such a medium is used. After all, we may
prefer to plane away the rough and defective parts of the
language employed, rather than to alter our thoughts themselves
because we could not express them properly and easily by means
of a tool still largely controlled by the invisible, dead hand
That there is a relationship between language on the one hand
and people's thought and behavior on the other, is generally
acknowledged. Thus it has been stated that 'we think the way we
speak', and it has been added to that that 'we speak the way we
think'. A special aspect of this 'speaking likeness' is the
connection between language and 'ideology' in the broadest sense
of the word, including both political and nonpolitical, religious
and nonreligious ideologies. If the interplay between
language and thought is not entirely illusory, a dissimilar
ideology must in some respect correspond to a dissimilar
linguistic usage (maybe just a different connotation for some
words), especially in a field it is primarily concerned with.
For example, it has been argued that one and the same labor
situation may be described in completely different ways dependent
on one's political or economic point of view. The active
person giving or doing something in such a situation
may be the 'worker' for the one and the 'employer', or the person said
to give work, for the other, whereas the passive person
receiving something is the 'capitalist' for the one and the
'employee', or the person said to take work, for the other.
(The difference in usage is even more clear in languages in which an
employee is referred to as a 'work-taker' and the employer is called the
Now, the truth may be that in a particular labor situation the same person
gives one thing (for example, work) and takes another thing (for example,
labor power) but the exclusive emphasis on one party's giving and the other
party's taking is ideological.
The difference in terminology, that is, language, therefore bespeaks a
difference in perception, and with it a difference in thought, even
tho the conditions are
It is sometimes said that language is not only a means of
communication to tell other people something about reality, but
also a means to create reality, or rather one's perception of
Words can make and break such a perception.
Altho language is itself a product of society, it has been pointed out that
it can alter the relations between people themselves as long as the right
linguistic tools are used.
As the prime instrument of communication language is also the vehicle for
the spread of ideologies (and as a general means this applies to both good
and bad ideologies).
But as a product of society language is itself already infused with the
spirit of past and present thought which may be compatible or incompatible
with a new or future doctrine.
And altho language may not create ideology since ideology only
manifests itself in language —as has been argued— this does not
refute the argument that language perpetuates a particular ideology
or way of thinking.
When a present-day language still draws traditional distinctions which
are the remnants of exploded ideas, or when it draws no relevant
distinction because it never did so before, it goes on creating
an impression of normality and abnormality which is counternormative.
The sanctioning of such an impression is, then,
political, religious or otherwise ideological. Language is just
too often lagging behind new developments: the social relations
(as between the sexes) may have changed while linguistic usage
has not yet been adapted. That is why some characteristics of a
particular language may be relics which do not so much reflect a
present, but a former world-view of the community of
speakers of that language.
Research has shown that words determine to a certain extent
the organization of what is perceived, that they 'stabilize and
confirm such an organization'. And conversely, when certain
differentiations have become or are deemed important, these
differentiations make their way into the verbal categories of
The most obvious reason for a difference in such categories is, of course,
a difference in the conditions different language or speech communities
are living under.
Yet, some people do not have 'sibs' (only sisters and or or brothers), and
other people do not have 'parents' (only a mother and a father);
nevertheless one would say that (at least in this respect) the conditions
are the same in the language communities concerned.
It has been argued, however, that it is not inherent in a particular
language to provide us with a simple and short verbalization.
Having to say "one or more sisters and or or brothers" would, then, only
be a question of having to describe one's conditions in a more or less
cumbersome way, and the (needed) length of verbalization would depend in
principle on the context.
For example, we may describe a figure just as "a
rectangle" (without mentioning its position, size, and so on),
and we may describe a color just as "green" (and not as "a
little bit yellowish green"). But these two examples differ
essentially from each other, and context-dependency is
therefore too vague a concept to explain or justify the length of
Being-a-parallelogram, having-a-certain-position and being-a-certain-color
all represent a factor which —let us say— admits of degrees.
(For the sake of convenience we assume that the factors are
Now, one can determine an angle of a parallelogram as accurately as one
wishes, and one can locate a color in a spectrum more or less accurately
(albeit with color terms whose meanings will remain arbitrary to some
extent), but in each case one has supposed that the factor being
a parallelogram and the factor color are relevant.
The accuracy of the description of this one quality is then further
dependent on the same contextual features which make the factor itself
However, the question whether the introduction of position, size, and other
factors (not just degrees of accuracy) into the description is
required, may depend on entirely different contextual features.
If they are, one adds an affix, an adjective or adverb, or an adjectival or
adverbial, subordinate clause (in the present language and in languages
with a similar structure).
Changing a description from sib to sister or brother,
or from parent to mother or father, introduces
the factor gender.
Granted that everyday language is not obliged to produce short
verbalizations everywhere, and that it can only have a limited number of
morphemes, a systematic procedure would be to denote a sister with
female sib and a brother with male sib in those contexts
in which gender matters.
Nonetheless, there are but too many languages in which it is the other way
around: they have words for brothers and sisters but not for sibs.
Or, there is a word for sibs, but it is rarely employed in comparison to
the words brother and sister.
While it is a truism that language is cumbersome at one place and efficient
at another, it may be quite interesting to find out where it is
cumbersome and where it is short and clear.
If it is not short and clear until a new factor has been introduced, then
it carries the inherent presupposition that that factor is relevant in
This implies that language can have the tendency to make appear
relevant, and to make people believe that something is relevant
that is actually irrelevant (except under specific circumstances).
And this is much more serious than the converse,
because it underlies stereotypical thinking and the disbelief in
equality (as we will see later). (Altho in this regard the
sister/brother dichotomy may be innocent compared with the
asymmetrical girl/boy, spinster/bachelor, queen/king and similar
People's acting and thinking is responsible for the emergence
of language, but once it is there, it is this very language
which, in turn, can have a great impact upon people's thinking
Obviously, it depends on which language, or on which variety of a
language, what that impact is, and how strong or far-reaching it is.
Like (almost?) all instruments also language can be used for praiseworthy
and for blameworthy causes.
The point is to nail its implicit ideological prejudices and
presuppositions, and to counterbalance it where it is askew.
It has already been said before that change of language, or rather an
improvement of language, is certainly not unimportant for anyone who has to
transmit new knowledge in the field of training, education, cultivation,
and the like.
The right use of language will promote that people
actually discern what is there, and that they will act accordingly.
This may either involve a difference where no distinction
was drawn before, or no difference where an irrelevant or false
distinction was drawn before.
As has been argued correctly, people are not always and not
solely objects of their language.
Those who create language themselves may not change the
ground-facts, yet they do somehow
'participate in the formation of the world', even if only in the creation
of new facts of thought and correspondence.
But seldom or never does creation come without any destruction in real
life: fettered by the wrong sort of tradition in thought, these language
users must employ the weapons of thought to destroy the fetters of that
sort of tradition.