Language and Thought: How Interconnected Are They?


“The problem with words is you don’t know whose mouths they’ve been in.” (Dennis Potter)

Ever since Aristotle, and probably way before that, our world has been both aware of and fascinated by the hypnotic power of words. Our word choices and how we put them together to create context and meaning, social representations and myths are a huge influence on our thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.

Just how much our thought processes are in thrall to vocabulary and word choices has been a matter of debate in the linguistic community since Sapir and Whorf first came up with their hypotheses. While there is little evidence that language completely determines thinking (we are, after all, physical creatures and get a variety of non-verbal inputs from our environments as well), research has shown that language indeed influences thought to a certain extent. (A fun and useful read on this topic is John McWhorther’s book, The Language Hoax.)


When exposed to the euphemistic register of defense circles, which includes talk of “neutralizing” instead of killing opponents and “surgical strikes” that seem laudably therapeutic and precise, researcher Carol Cohn found her own perceptions were being gradually distorted. Employing the same language made her perspective change as it became more difficult to stay connected to previous concerns. To learn to speak a language, as she put it, is not just adding new vocabulary, but “entering a new mode of thinking”. “We must give careful attention to language,” she warned, “and what it allows us to think as well as say.” Isn’t it funny how, in the words of another researcher, “we”  always have “an army, reporting restrictions and press briefings” while “they” have “a war machine, censorship and propaganda”? (Richardson, 2007). To learn and use a language, is the transformative process of learning to think in it, “to accept its constraints, assumptions and axioms”.

In the words of Dell Hymes, “producing the right talk at the right time requires sociocultural knowledge.” Only when aware of and capable of handling the “cultural baggage” does one attain true “communicative competence”.

Shaping Perceptions

So are words ever neutral? Or are they fraught with persuasive intent and subtle connotation? And can they ever “mean what they’re trying to say at”? (Addie Bundren in Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”). As it turns out, language is also a social practice, an instrument we use to forge identities and allegiances. Communicating is never purely informative. Schulz von Thun’s 4-ear model identifies at least three other functions of human communication that you should be aware of.

Have you ever considered how texts are put together, how images and linguistic messages complete, “anchor” and reinforce each other, or how things are framed to give a certain impression? It’s fascinating business. Our minds are extremely suggestible. And while within a certain culture meanings are shared, the power to create and disseminate those meanings is not!

Have you ever stopped to ponder, upon reading the news, why certain metaphors are chosen, what register is being used, what myths and preconceptions they draw upon and who is trying to propagate which worldview? Or would you like to know how your own communication is perceived in certain circles and what the way you speak conveys about your deeply held beliefs and attitudes? And what do social psychology and the confirmation bias have to do with it all?

For these questions and more, you can always enlist the help of a good media analyst and communication consultant, right here. Until then, live well and keep reflecting!

#linguistics #discourseanalysis #rhetoric #communication #content #translation