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Languages of thought

  1. Oct 11, 2003 #1


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    Random Revelation #2357:

    What language do you think in? Do you think in a language at all?

    Well I do. (This may be a good time to recommend a good therapist.) Currently, it's english, but once it was chinese.

    Now, what does that actually mean? I can see two possibilities - one that I am actually thinking in the language - language itself represents the way my thoughts are encoded in my mind, and the formal grammar, vocabulary of my language give structure to my mind. This is the sort of thing referred to in Orwell's "newspeak". Control the language, and control the man.

    Alternatively, language can represent some sort of mental division between self awareness, and normal thought. Thought itself would be just a mass of electrical signals, going without labels, in a complex structure, while the aware thought is the mirror that looks upon it, framing it in the learned language. If you knew no language, you still think of things - you just can't comprehend that you are thinking. In some ways, this grants computers thought - they do think in the electrical impulses that constitute their "life", but they lack the language to describe their thought, and so real awareness.

    Any thoughts?
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  3. Oct 11, 2003 #2


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    I don't see why it can't be both. I would definitely agree that language structures thought. There is the saying that a language is an implicit philosophy. There is also the saying that language is a tool of thought. We think about things using the 'tools and tokens' of a certain language, and the syntax and semantics of that language in turn condition how we think about these things to begin with. For instance, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the Chinese word for "fist" a verb instead of a noun? I would think that a subtle difference like this would partly condition how the speakers of the respective languages think about fists-- to one it is a process, to the other more of a reified object. (I have also heard that there is no singular possessive pronoun in Russian-- if this is so, could this subtle nuance of the language have contributed, however obscurely, to the rise of communism in Russia?)

    I also agree that language can play as much of a reflective role in thought as it plays an active role. Certainly not all thought springs from language, particularly thought that occurs primarily in non-linguistic modalities such as visualization or intuition. For such modalities of thought, linguistic thinking would seem to play more of an interpretive role, and less of an active, structuring role.

    I think the most accurate view would be to recognize that language serves both active and reflective functions in the brain, the one interacting with, conditioning, and directly influencing the other, and vice versa, in a complex dynamic interplay.
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2003
  4. Oct 13, 2003 #3
    I think in thoughts, FZ+.

    I don't think a person can think in language, since I don't believe there is such a thing as an individual "thought". I am (currently) taking the completely Materialistic stance, which doesn't allow for "thoughts" to exist at all (that doesn't mean that there are thoughts, but they just don't exist; it means there are no thoughts). Instead of "thoughts", we have the question/answer processes of the neurons, which may produce coherent meaning to other conscious beings, but which do not have a "final (or 'complete') draft" in the brain.

    As to language's role in thought, I'd say it's rather a strong one. Daniel Dennett (who's theory I'm using to describe consciousness, currently, on many other threads) posits that the language meme - having propogated itself in the human species and having been extremely successful in this - is the basic meme, from which all others can be propogated, since, without language, there would be no cultural evolution at all. This, of course, implies that some rudimentary form of "language" ("communication" being a better word in these contexts) exists at the level of even the bacterium, since the Bowman Effect (at least, I think it was "Bowman") probably occurs even at that level.
  5. Oct 13, 2003 #4


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    If I remember Dennett, he's talking about "mentalistic", the supposed internal languange of the mind, for which he finds no evidence. OK. But a lot of consciousness, as he says himself, is us talking to ourselves. I agree that his picture is a good replacement for the idea of thoughts as things. It's a little like talking to molecular biologists and finding that they don't see genes, they see codons and haplotypes.
  6. Oct 13, 2003 #5
    You are correct, of course, selfAdjoint. Dennett was trying to rid us of the idea that our brain's speak "mentalese" or some brain language; but, as I did mention (I think) in my previous post, he places a lot of stock on the use of language with relation to evolving consciousness. As you said, it has to do with "talking to ourselves" (thus finding "backdoors" to otherwise unlockable places in the brain), and this is the medium that the memes have propogated themselves on (according to Dennett). Thus, while memes are out for their own advantage (like genes are in organic evolution), we do benefit from them. :smile:
  7. Oct 14, 2003 #6
    Languages are tools, plain and simple. Just as I can learn to pound nails with a hammer and not have to think about what I am doing, I notice many people can run their mouths just out of habit without pausing to think about what they saying for even an instant. Tools come from what exists, but use from what does not. Language is a useful tool for focusing on various problems and good habits in general can take you far in this world, but where language and habits end the real journey begins.

    We are the belief makers, we make it all matter. Even the youngest infant without knowledge of a single word can impart meaning, action, and thoughtfulness to everything they do. Sometimes more so than the person mindlessly running their mouth....
  8. Oct 15, 2003 #7
    Language was invented by the human mind and reflects the property and process of how that mind works and thinks. The other possiblity is that our rudmentar use of language cause our brains to develope along the lines that it did. I don't think that we can really seperate them nor say which came first. It is the chicken and egg puzzle. Do we think the way we do because of the language we use or is the language the way it is because that's the way we think?
  9. Oct 16, 2003 #8


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    I guess what I am nudging towards in the idea of consciousness as a product, or requirement of advanced communication. That language and awareness are concepts closely entangled.

    Sort of.
  10. Oct 16, 2003 #9
    Again it depends on your definition of consciousness. Animals are self aware and those that are can at least understand a bit of our language. If you fell that only humans are truly conscious then I would agree that language and consciousness, humanness, are very much entangled, to the point that it become a chicken and egg contest.
  11. Oct 19, 2003 #10
    i like the question, and that's all i feel like adressing right now.

    Yes, we think in languages. I don't think people who only know one language really notice it. I know that when i learn new languages i definetly begin to think and read in the new language. When people learn a new language they begin to translate the new language into the old one in their minds. They still are thinking in their old language. But i know that once i had begun using the new language more and more i'd find myself translating the old into the new. So i was thinking in the new language. When you're fluent in more than one language you sort of get a switch in your mind. You can switch your thinking from one language to the other.

    Another way of knowing that we think in a language is like when you go to bed. Sometimes right before bed, you dream in pictures. Sometimes though, you can hear words in your mind, and they have a definite language.

    Also, Orwell's newspeak is important. People couldn't think things that they couldn't put into words. Think about it. When you're a child you can't understand complex things, because you don't understand the words used to describe it. If something can't be explained in understandable words, its very hard to understand the concept. Language is limiting. We think in language. Our thoughts are limited.
  12. Oct 20, 2003 #11
    Language is the means to communicate what we see without words. So conscious thought is not necessarily dependent upon words, although I tend to think more with words myself. Hmm ... :smile:

    While I understand the Chinese think more in terms of pictures, as reflected by their pictograph style of writing, and evidenced by their manner of speach, which is much more dependent upon "inflection" than the word itself.
  13. Oct 20, 2003 #12


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    I definately think in English. Most of my reasoning is done in argumentative form. I've actually been experimenting with abstract pictorial reasoning lately. I imagine the motions of rope tying knots, working on more and more complicated ones.

    An interesting note - hearing language does actually affect the brain. The languages that you hear when you are about 2 years old do cause some hardwiring of your brain. The same thing probably happens later in life, but to a much smaller degree.

    One instance can be seen in Japanese children. A study was done showing that they can distinguish between the "l" and "r" sound at 18 months, but by age three, they can not.
  14. Nov 7, 2003 #13
    In my life i have aquired quite a few "languages" of different types: native language (Romanian), adopted language (English), school-learned language (French), musical language (staff), computer languages (too many to mention), visual (drawing, painting), physical (dancing, facial expressions), subconscious (dreaming), mathematical (geometry, algebra, etc..)....
    What i find common between all of these is that they are comprised of human-created or "found"(borowed from nature) symbols which are mapped to abstract "meanings". The meanings existed before the languages were created to describe them. Humans are born with some of the meanings "hard-coded" into their bodies and minds, out of which meanings, some come with their own "hard-coded" symbols in ancient common languages, for use in extreme situations such as infancy, for survival purposes. But, humans are not aware by default of ALL of the meanings which exist already in the universe. The rest of the languages we learn during our lives give us access to a subset of these meanings (we can never know EVERYTHING). These meanings are singular in their composition, in so that different languages and symbols can point to the same meaning, therefore allowing for effective communication. Humans do not need languages or symbols to understand these meanings, for example: have you ever had a word on the tip of your tongue but not be able to find it while being completelly aware of the meaning it is supposed to help you communicate?

    So, my conclusion is that the mind does not "think" in a language at all. Rather, it comunicates its thoughts (thoughts in this context would be the incessant sailing of the "will" through a vast sea of "meanings") through the set of symbols (language) it finds most effective at the time.:smile:
  15. Nov 9, 2003 #14
    Good topic, FZ+ !

    Walac in tuklic ti tuj ca uchuc a tukul indio. Also I think often in English, although a tukul ix inglese, ma' tu' ke'tic a tukul ix maya teni. le'ec in ta'n menti'c.

    It is possible to observe the movement of objects, perhaps a bird moving toward a tree, and while no language might I be using the brain recognizes the movements, plots trajectories, arrival times, etc.
  16. Nov 12, 2003 #15
    hmmm...if it were legal and I had enough time/money to do so. it would be interesting to see how a child would develop if never exposed to any sort of verbal or visual language. (I don't mean that to sound sadistic)
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