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Linguistic Determinism

  1. May 20, 2008 #1
    Watching our black lab dreaming last night made me wonder was he "thinking".Made me question is there any real thought (or consciencious) without language ?
    We think "outloud" ???
    Had "thought ???" that brain is a complex yet essentially efficient piece of machinary.Any thought processes would need a language and if so why would we use two languages ?Creating a layer of unneccessary processing?(ie think in "natural/given language convert to mother tongue language and back again to process! not efficient???)
    Had a quick search on Google and low and behold my "thought" has a name ??
    (Sort of) Linguistic Determinism has been with us since 50`s .(If it real its always been with us)
    Without language no thought;without thought no consciencious.?
    Action without thought instinct and conditioning.
    Yes we see in our minds eye but we "colour in" (even join the dots ?) with language.
    Or do we ???
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 13, 2008 #2
    There is consciousness without language (as is the case with newborn babies), but there is no society without language. Language is a key tool in the construction of society because language gives meaning to the people,objects, events, and ideas of our lives. In fact, language reflects and often determines our reality.

    Consider, for instance, the difference between "spit" and "saliva". They are identical in substance and chemical properties, but "saliva" is socially acceptable while "spit" is considered very distasteful. Likewise, "swallowing saliva" is completely different socially than "drinking spit".

    Within a culture, words evolve to reflect the phenomena that have practical significance. For instance, the Aleuts of Alaska have 33 distinct words for "snow" that allow them to distinguish differences in weight, load-carrying capacity, temperature, and texture, for instance.

    Language also reinforces prevailing ideas and suppresses conflicting ideas about the world. For instance there is a difference between "real" work and "volunteer" work.

    Language can pack an enormous emotional wallop or can even be used to purposely deceive (as is the case with euphemisms).

    As for your dog, it can definitely think, though the association area of its cerebral cortex is much smaller than that of a human, so it cannot really make "higher thoughts". It is more of a action-->reaction situation. However, body language is very significant to the communication between animals.
  4. Aug 8, 2008 #3


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    I think that's a little bold to suppose that language is a sine qua non for the formation of societies. It may be true that it is a hallmark of human societies as we know them. And of course we should agree that in a more general sense communication is an important coordinating aspect to creating organization, but lest we forget communication can happen in other ways absent language or even aural stimuli.

    Ants leave scents and bees do dances and organize themselves quite nicely. And yes bees also buzz as part of their efforts and ants pick up vibrations in streamlining their work product, but I see these things as more secondary.

    But as to dogs, you may be selling them a bit short at the other end. Simply because their ideation is not understandable in our terms or our language doesn't necessarily mean that they do not entertain higher thoughts than yelping when kicked or drooling when offered dog chow.

    And of course lest you forget dogs also organize themselves into foraging packs that hunt together rather cannily and socialize hierarchically.
  5. Aug 8, 2008 #4


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    Well, I would protest:
    Eupemisms are NOT used to deceive, rather, they are used for the appearance of deception under full knowledge that the recipient will see through it, and work out the last steps for himself or herself, if he or she so desires.

    It is to shove those last steps onto the other person that is considered rude, since it involves pushing unpleasantnesses upon others.

    In cases where information needs to be transmitted that DO contain unpleasantnesses, we resort to euphemisms in order to signal that we are sensitive individuals who didn't really want to cause unpleasantness in the receiver..

    Of course, there might lie a second-order deception here, namely that you need not at all be a sensitive person at all, but since that is considered to be a good, admirable trait in a person, we cloak ourselves with the air of sensitivity anyway...:smile:
  6. Aug 18, 2008 #5


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    Language includes sniffing certain spots, barking, wagging a tail, marking territory, certain eye contact and avoidance, playing and fighting. Language is determined as such, across the board.
  7. Aug 19, 2008 #6
    The technical definition of 'language' requires syntax. Essentially it must be capable of creating a complex string of information as opposed to something as simple as growling to let someone know you are mad. Other than that it is true that a language does not have to be only aural or written.

    As for linguistic determinism, I can't accept it. Perhaps there are certain nueral mechanisms involved in linguistics that are connected to cognition but that doesn't mean language is necessary for thought. Mathematicians sometimes think in math, artists sometimes think in colours and shapes, and musicians often think in music.
  8. Aug 19, 2008 #7


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    A complex string of information is disseminated by a bee doing the dance bees do when they're communicating the positioning of flowers, the weather and the directions to the food source.

    If bees are doing this it doesn't mean they have thoughts, it just means they have a language... by our definition of one.
  9. Aug 31, 2008 #8


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    Linguistic Determinism is a good topic for a thread. Too bad Floyd didn't stick around. He apparently just contributed this one post to PF, and then moved on.

    Here's the Wikiword on Linguistic Determinism:

    The lead sentence says it is the idea that language shapes thought.

    An experiment the Wikipedia article offers is where you show people a rainbow and ask them how many bands of color. They tell you different numbers of bands depending on what language they speak. IOW they SEE different, depending on how their language has trained their eye-brain connection. OK.

    To me it seems obvious that language shapes thought---I don't need an experiment to prove it to me. All my experience. Observing not only myself but also other people. People who think in standard English, instead of differential geometry and equations, have a really serious difficulty understanding cosmology. People who don't share a common language have difficulty achieving a nuanced complex political consensus. Sometimes it is a cause of frustration and despair. Language shapes thought a hell of a lot!

    One reason we are motivated to interact by Forums is probably an urge to get a common language with other people. Share concepts. So we can mingle thoughts.

    OK so language shapes thought. Right. But both terms are essentially undefined :biggrin:

    We cant say exactly what language is. We can't say exactly what thought is.

    The image of Floyd's black labrador looms over us. Was the dog thinking and if so in what language? Do chimps and magpies think and if so in what language? Probably these questions will never be settled by thinkers using language because the questions are so goshawful selfreferential. Like trying to move a rug while standing on it.

    Even though our situation is hopeless, I would welcome more comment on Floyd's thread.

    BTW did anyone hear about the magpies and the mirror?
  10. Sep 1, 2008 #9
    This is essentially true, we experience the world; we describe it, manipulate it, to great extents, but this is all limited to our language. If we don't have words for it, we can make it up (as we do for inventions) but if it is a totally new concept that we, as a society, have never really had to use or encountered, our language falters and so does our understanding.

    Such as the experiment that listed on Wiki where a Brazilian tribe had a hard time describing and comparing groups of things that had quantities three and higher because all they ever used was one, two, and many to specify quantities.

    This can also be related to how people have a really hard time understanding advanced mathematics, sciences, or even philosophy because a lot of concepts used in those areas are not used by the average person, and therefore can be really hard to communicate to people. I'm sure even people who do well in those fields probably had trouble with some concepts, and really had to bog down into the subject to understand it.

    But a simpler explanation would be this: slang. If I were to use the term "bollocks," and no one knew what I meant, it'd represent a difference in our describing the world. How we speak changes how we think.

    But compared to a dog? or any other animal that doesn't have a "language" as we think of it? No se. Because they don't have the same language and associated concepts as we humans, their ability to describe the world and understand it as we do is entirely different.

    This might really all be a matter of semantics.

    -- Sol.
  11. Sep 1, 2008 #10


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    Animal semantics, in this case-----e.g. canine semantics.
    My attitude is that discussing this kind of thing at a philosophical level is not so interesting----what is mind, what is a language, what is thought.....:yuck:
    What is very interesting, though, is to explore how animals think. what concepts do they behave as if they possessed. defining things in operational terms.

    do you know the mirror-dot experiment? For 30 or more years they have been testing various animal species to see if when you stick a white dot on an animal's forehead where she can't see it, and then put a mirror in front of her, will she rub the spot off?

    That is, does she recognize her image in a mirror as having to do with HER and not just another bird or chimpanzee, or elephant.

    Interesting test about the mind of the animal. Asian elephants pass the test. Four species of great ape pass the test. Until recently no birds had passed but I just read that magpies pass.

    The magpie with a white spot on her forehead is presented with a mirror and sees herself. I don't know how she rubs it (with her wing? with one foot while balancing?) but she rubs it and keeps on until she sees the spot is gone. And some magpies walked around and looked behind the mirror, just to be sure, I guess. I would say it is a smart bird.


    there is also that thing of "How high can a crow count?" You probably heard of that. A crow likes to roost in a tower but is wary of people. I he sees 6 people go in the tower and later 5 come out, he will still not go there (he feels it is not safe). But if he sees 6 come out then he will. I am not sure, I have this second hand. Maybe you know of it.
  12. Sep 1, 2008 #11
    Well, in respect to dogs, I know from personal experience that they do not recognize themselves. My Bandito, as much as I try to, does not recognize himself in a mirror or picture. Either that, or he really doesn't mind too much.

    I think the white-dot test is a good measure of self-awareness in animals. It's simple enough to test whether or not an animal knows and recognizes its existence, with no harm to the animal done.

    I found this from a site about Ayn Rand, if it helps any:

    The experiment was conducted to ascertain the extent of the ability of birds to deal with numbers. A hidden observer watched the behavior of a flock of crows gathered in a clearing in the woods. When a man came into the clearing and went on into the woods, the crows hid in the tree tops and would not come out until he returned and left the way he had come. When three men went into the woods and only two returned, the crows would not come out: they waited until the third one had left. But when five men went into the woods and only four returned, the crows came out of hiding. Apparently, their power of discrimination did not extend beyond three units--and their perceptual-mathematical ability consisted of a sequence such as: one-two-three-many (Rand 1967, 57).

    Source: http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/randcogrev.html [Broken]

    It is quoted that Ayn Rand herself heard this story/experiment second hand, so there is a small question to its validity, but I can believe it. I mean, have you ever seen a flock of crows? After only one or two... they all become one giant behemoth of a black mass!

    -- Sol
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  13. Sep 2, 2008 #12


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    Linguistic Determinism:

    Is this perhaps an oxymoron?

    Language can't be the determiner in any case. Language is a descriptor. Language is strewn throughout the animal kingdom. It is used to warn, disguise and attract in every species.

    The human species uses body language, sign language, oral/aural language, written language, neurolinguistics, pheromones and others... such as hormonally induced electromagnetic frequency modulation.

    But these languages all describe experiences (such as wanting something or not wanting something). So, this would lead me to conclude that language is not deterministic. "Experiential determinism" describes a less contradictory set of circumstances. This is because we are nothing but a product of our experiences and how we experience our experiences.
  14. Sep 3, 2008 #13


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    Not an oxymoron, perhaps just a bad piece of academic terminology. Wikipedia is certainly not entirely reliable, but I think we can trust it here---where it says that L.D. refers to the idea that people's language shapes their thought.

    Nobody is pretending that one's language is the only thing shaping one's thought. People who share the same language can have very different thoughts! But the L.D. idea is that one's language constrains one's thought in at least some respects.

    Like many scholarly or scientific terms, L.D. is misleading. It sounds like it means something different from what it apparently does mean (to the scholars who use the term, in the books and articles.)

    In physics you can have a deterministic process as opposed to a quantum or random one. In philosophy you can talk about determinism versus free will. What I mean is that the term "linguistic determinism" apparently does not have anything to do with what the word deterministic means in physics or philosophy.

    I which they had some other term for the idea that language is one of the factors shaping thought---but I can't think of any alternate term to propose!
  15. Sep 3, 2008 #14


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    I see and I understand the implications of the concept of "Linguistic Determination". Its like when you see the Terror Attack Barometer reading "Orange" for "Immanent Attack" or what ever.... someone is betting that the Linguistics on that barometer will stir a number of pre-determined responses... such as buying Duct Tape and plastic rolls... both of which they temporarily bought stock in before the "Code Orange" linguistics went out.

    Linguistic Determination is secondary to experiential determinism. Language would not be what it is today if it weren't for the primary experiences most of us are subjected to. But, as a secondary determiner, it is extremely influential... and something that Marketing Gurus and even Neurolinguistic programmers should recognize as starting points for any theories or campaigns.
  16. Sep 4, 2008 #15


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    I guess I'm missing the point of Linguistic Determinism and how it describes the determining effect of language on the development of the brain and/or how the brain is able to grasp certain concepts.

    How does a brain grasp a concept if it doesn't have the vocabulary to do this with?

    It makes up its own vocabulary to describe the concept...

    Is the brain unaware of the concept because it lacks the linguistic ability to describe the concept?

    I doubt it. But, I only have one brain, I can't speak for other's experiences and how they interpret them.

    Is there an unbiased way to determine if other cultures are bound by linguistic determinism?

    No. This is because a person from the US entering a village in Mongolia will be hard pressed to recognize the linguistics of that village and whether or not these languages pertain to the concepts presented in their research.

    For instance:

    An Inuit person could conduct a linguistic determinism survey in Miami. When the Inuit person said "snow" in the 23 different ways their language has to describe it.... the person from Miami would only hear some very strange noises coming out of the Inuit's mouth.

    Is this because the person from Miami has never seen snow? Is it because the Inuit person is speaking Inuit? Is it because the person from Miami only speaks english?
  17. Sep 4, 2008 #16


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    I would ask the question differently. Is there a reasonably convincing way to determine if and how the thoughts of people in other cultures are shaped to some extent by their language?

    I'd ask it this way so as to avoid somebody thinking it was about a perfectly unbiased way, because nothing is perfectly unbiased IMO.
    And I don't think anybody imagines that one's thinking is wholly shaped by language and only by language. Everybody knows that lots of things contribute to shaping how one thinks (physical experience, sports, food, sex, family life, pictures, mathematics, private made-up language that one uses to fill the chinks, social relations, chess, or poker if you play it, etc etc).

    So I wouldnt say "bound by linguistic determinism" because that runs the risk of the listener getting an exaggerated idea, a kind of ridiculous straw-man idea of what one is trying to describe. I'd just say "shaped to some extent by language".

    I think the interesting thing is to find cases where it is, and to judge to what extent the thinking in various cultures is affected by their language. How important is the effect of language? That's just my take on it though.

    Antropologists and linguists seem to be able to investigate this kind of thing. AFAIK their methods can be sufficiently careful so that some of this kind of research gets published in the journals. but I don't know. Maybe someone else with a better familiarity with the literature can say.
  18. Sep 16, 2008 #17
    Marcus, the alternative term you are looking for is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Most linguists don't believe it (in the strong sense at least), although there are some interesting studies. My favorite is an MIT study that collected words that were feminine in German but masculine in Spanish (and the opposite of course). They asked native speakers of each language to describe the words in English, a gender neutral language. They got very different results from the two groups.

    As for what is language, that's actually a rather complex explanation. Generally, as I've learned it, a language is a collective agreement within a society to apply certain auditory markers to a particular concept. An idea in an individual's head isn't actually part of a language until it can be conveyed to another speaker. I would suggest then that linguistic determinism does not actually inhibit the learning of difficult concepts (via limited vocabulary), but rather it is the limitations of a societal language to produce an instant understanding of a concept through a few short syllables. Ideas require fundamentals and explanation to learn not a few consonants and vowels strung together.

    It would be interesting to note that human language differs greatly from animal communication in its generative capacity. In other words, a bee cannot dance to another bee the idea of a unicorn. You dog, when sleeping, cannot... I would wager... bark at a leprechaun. However, I can convey to you, almost immediately, the idea of a winged, fire-breathing lizard that you have never seen in your life. In my opinion it's the most amazing thing a human being has learned to do.

    I'll leave you with a quick note: the Inuit snow thing was disproved years ago. There's likely not even 10, and even English has plenty of its own (frost, sleet, etc.).
  19. Sep 17, 2008 #18


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    Although I was only referring to this phenomenon of "21 words for snow" as an example of linguistic diversity... and did not cut and paste anything to back up the idea, here is a list of English and Inuit words that describe snow conditions and things you can do with snow.

    Please note for yourself that there are 21 Inuit terms listed here.

    Otherwise, the words you have cut and pasted in your post make sense.
  20. Sep 17, 2008 #19


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    If there were a study comparing the brain activity of people with an abundant vocabulary to people with a limited one, would the results be an indication of linguistic determinism or an indication of each subject's environment and up-bringing? How would the difference be determined?

    If a person from one of the tribes in the centre of the Brazilian rainforest, who had never seen an airplane or people from outside the rainforest, had a word for "gravity" would it connote the same concept as the "outside" construct of "gravity"? For instance their word for gravity might mean "fall down".

    Did I mention the Inuit word for Ice is "Palin"?
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2008
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