Posted by: Brad | June 24, 2008

Are thoughts dependent on words?

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words”

In the fictional world of Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak was a language made to serve as a political and social controller. It was a way of thinking that was narrow and deliberately separate from all other paths of imagination. This, of course, is an especially pointed and hyperbolic version of a real feature of our world. We are all accustomed to our own culture’s language and normally perceive the world in its light. For example, “time” is seen in one way as an object that can be spent, wasted, or invested, or free. This sort of language programing of society inspired the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language limits thought. “All our work, our whole life is a matter of semantics, because words are the tools with which we work, the material out of which laws are made, out of which the Constitution was written. Everything depends on our understanding of them.”

In other words, language is the stuff of thought. It is foundational to all mental activity and determines the form of every possible thought. I think this is untrue. I think that language is a program for communication that has been given enough power to shape some thoughts, but is distinct from the “assembly code” of our minds and even as a container it can be stretched. There are many reasons to believe that language is not at the most fundamental level of our thinking, and that we can supervene our semantics.

Uncritical semantics is the myth of a museum in which the exhibits are meanings and the words are labels. To switch languages is to change the labels.” This is wrong. Even under the acceptance of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this is wrong. In SW, different languages would correspond to slightly different museums, that might have mostly the same exhibits but with varying organizations of them. But SW still doesn’t capture the full reality here.

Suppose we were to look at language from a reductionistic standpoint. In a child’s development, how does the child learn a language? How does a child associate words with meanings if the meanings aren’t already in their minds? The child must put a label with a purely nameless concept that works on an even more fundamental level. Also, a child does not take on a language all at once. The child will continuously construct a partial build of a language. That couldn’t always be possible under SW, because the later parts of language that are being learned defy expression in the earlier parts of the language. Since language is accommodated into our minds in development, our minds must initially operate on differently without the modes of thinking provided by a particular language.

Now suppose we look at languages from a holistic standpoint. How did language get started in the first place? How do they change and diverge? These issues cannot be resolved with SW, because language is viewed too much as a rigid machine rather than an evolving organism. When Shakespeare set a shining example that effectively redefined the English language, he was inventing words and expressions that had never been seen before. He made metaphors that language could not alone hint at, and that makes it so comparably easy to understand today 400 years later even when other works only 200 years ago are alien to us now.

The idea that language at least influences thought is overwhelmingly accepted by linguists. For instance, the precise meanings behind “life” and “marriage” taken by someone can direct their opinions on abortion or gay marriage. Most linguists accept that there is a reciprocal relationship between language of society and thought of the individual. The nature of this relationship is not precisely spelled out and still has a haze of confusion surrounding it. With a thought experiment I intend to make this relationship a bit clearer.

Suppose we have many artificial intelligence programs that can observe and process information from the real world as well as interact with it. These AI’s will learn to use patterns to communicate with each other (call these patterns L, for language), but there is little reason to believe these patterns will correspond exactly to the patterns they use to process information internally (call these patterns M, for mind).

Furthermore, suppose the AI’s are hard-pressed for energy to sustain their computer hosts, and so the AIs, by their programming, naturally attempt to internally use efficient ways of “thinking” that will better suit them for dealing with the world and getting energy, however that may be. To this end, once the AIs have developed complex methods of communicating with each other, they will start automatically translating their internal “thoughts” of M into communicable ideas of L, so that they are ready on-demand for discourse about these ideas. Eventually, it will start adopting L itself as the main way of processing the world to further optimize their thinking because they are highly sociable pieces of software.

This scenario, I hope, at least roughly mirrors the real case for us humans. We adopt languages because they are highly useful ways of thinking, and use it as a primary mode for expressing thoughts. However, we can change, add to or subtract from, and otherwise manipulate language as a tool or aid to living.



  1. No! Thoughts are not dependent on words! Otherwise, how would animals think? Besides, my psychology textbook indicated that thoughts do not require language.

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