Language and thought

From Academic Kids

A variety of different authors, theories and fields purport influences between language and thought.

Many point out the seemingly common-sense realization that upon introspection we seem to think thoughts in the language we speak. A number of writers and theorists have extrapolated upon this idea.


Scientific theories

  • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics states that the structure of one's mother-tongue influences the way one's mind perceives the world. It has found at best very limited experimental support, at least in its strong form. For instance, a study showing that speakers of languages lacking a subjunctive mood such as Chinese experience difficulty with hypothetical problems has been discredited. However, another study has shown that subjects in memory tests are more likely to remember a given color if their mother language includes a word for that color.
  • In behavioral economics, according to experiments said to support to the theoretical availability heuristic, people believe more probable events that are more vividly described than those which were not. Simple experiments asking people to imagine something led them to believe it to be more likely. The mere exposure effect may also be relevant to propagandistic repetition like the Big Lie. According to prospect theory, people make different economic choices based on how the matter is framed.

Other schools of thought

  • General Semantics is a school of thought founded by engineer Alfred Korzybski and later popularized by S. I. Hayakawa and others, which attempted to make language more precise and objective. It makes many basic observations of the English language, particularly pointing out problems of abstraction and definition.
  • Neuro-linguistic programming, founded by Richard Bandler, claims that language "patterns" and other things can affect thought and behavior. It takes ideas from General Semantics and hypnosis, especially that of the famous therapist Milton Erickson. Many do not consider it a credible study, and it has no empirical scientific support.
  • Advocates of non-sexist language including some feminists say that the English language perpetuates biases against women, such as using male-gendered terms such as "he" and "man" as generic. Many authors including those who write textbooks now conspicuously avoid that practice, in the case of the previous examples using words like "he or she" or "they" and "human race". Political correctness is similar, but it is a loose cultural meme and has never been formally codified. Both are considered widely controversial.


  • George Orwell, the famous political writer, certainly believed in the interplay between language and thought. One of the most fundamental and enduring ideas of his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was the control of "thoughtcrime" through omnipresent spying and propaganda, and the created language Newspeak. The purpose of this fictional language was to make thoughts unapproved by the state "literally unthinkable" by making language unable to express them. In a 1946 essay in which Orwell explores this topic further, Politics and the English Language, he wrote "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."
  • Robert Clark Young's novel One of the Guys describes how the U.S. Navy as an institution employs a secretive acronymic language, accessible to outsiders only through a DICNAVAB (Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations), in order to dehumanize the thought patterns and behavior of military personnel. In the book, actual acronyms are exposed which are so secret, due to their purportedly racist and sexist functions, that they do not appear in the official DICNAVABs. These acronyms include LBFM (Little Brown F***ing Machines), which is used to dehumanize Asian prostitutes; and GUAM (Gooks Under American Management), which is used to dehumanize the non-white population outside the Navy's installations on Guam.



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