Lost For Words
by Kenneth Lyen
Can a concept exist without the words to describe it?
Would we have thought about gravity if Isaac Newton didnt help identify it? Or how about the concept of "space-time" before Einstein defined it?
Without words, could we have been able to conceive of the following abstract ideas: "soul", "reason", "energy", "subconscious", "conscience", "remorse", "quark", "pi", "square root", "calculus", "absurd", "meaning", "endurance", etc?
Does language shape our views and influence our thoughts? This question was first posed by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. The Whorfian Hypothesis, as it is sometimes referred to, claims that the particular language a person speaks, independent of the culture in which he resides, affects the way that he thinks, by determining the framework for his perceptions and thoughts. Whorf and his teacher Sapir argued further that a person's world view is largely determined by the vocabulary and syntax available in his language.
The extreme version of this hypothesis is that all thought is constrained by language. If the word does not exist, then that thought cannot be thought. Of course this is patently untrue. For example, we all experience difficulties in expressing ourselves. We know what we are thinking of, but we are stumped to find the word to express it. Hence we do not need words to think.
At the opposite extreme, to say that language has absolutely no influence on thought, is also false. For example, if a language organized colour names differently, it has been shown that a persons discrimination of similar shades of colors can be influenced.
To explore this question further, Peter Gordon of Columbia University studied the Pirahn Indians. This tribe of hunter gatherers living on the banks of the Maici River in Brazil do not possess a vocabulary for numbers other than two words, one which stands for one or two, and the other meaning "many. Members of this tribe are intelligent, but they have difficulty counting beyond 8 objects. Peter Gordon wrote, "They do not have the word for number, pronouns do not encode number (e.g., he and they are the same word), and most of the standard quantifiers like more, several, all, each do not exist." Peter Gordon concluded that without having numbers, the Pirahn Indians were handicapped in their ability to conceive of mathematical calculations. This tribe could survive without this concept because their commerce was a form of barter, in which there was no exchange of money. Numbers did not exist as there was no need for them.
Numbers, symbols and words, act as convenient labels for concepts. They help clarify ones thinking. For example, the 19th century physician Langdon Down discovered a subset of intellectually disabled who were later labelled as Down Syndrome individuals. This enabled better delineation of this group and allowed for further studies, such as their the genetic origins.
Words are like building blocks or stepping stones that allow us to advance concepts one step at a time. Armed with the concept of gravity, Isaac Newton took the next step and formulated the inverse square theory of gravity. Similarly, with Einsteins concept of mass and energy, he could formulate the equation linking the two, which led to further discoveries.
One additional point of interest. Not only do the Pirahn Indians not count, but they also do not draw. Gordon wrote. "Producing simple straight lines was accomplished only with great effort and concentration, accompanied by heavy sighs and groans."
This leads us to the next issue, namely the written representation of words. Benjamin Lee Whorf was acutely aware of the role culture and society played on the development of concepts. Take two cultures, Western and Far Eastern. In the west, words are represented by an alphabet script, whereas in the Far East, words are represented mostly by pictograms. Does the representation of words in alphabet form versus pictograms lead to qualitatively different modes of thinking? Can it explain the differences between, say, Far Eastern philosophy from Western philosophy?
Trying to display abstract ideas in pictograph form is particularly challenging, because it is very tough converting pictures into abstract concepts. The Chinese do it quite cleverly. For example the word for endurance shows a knife directly above the heart, and the word for peace is a woman under the roof of a house.
Whether this pictographic representation of concepts can subconsciously lead to a different way of thinking and a different world view remains largely unexplored. Cross-cultural studies are therefore of immense interest, not only in understanding differences in thought processes, but also in unravelling other mysteries, such as dyslexia.