Eric Wasiolek

Life Story



   Personal History
   Family and Friends
   World Travels
   Books and Articles
   Philosophical Papers
   Contact Me
"You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
- Mahatma Gandhi































Language and Thought

Philosophical Papers - May 9 2007


It seems to me that the question of whether there is a universal language or whether particular languages structure our thought particularly is not properly posed as an either or question. It seems to me that there are aspects of language that are universal and aspects that are specific to a language. Clearly the objects of which we speak regardless of the name that we give them are the same perceptual objects and in this regard language is universal. However, the way that we concatenate those names into sentences varies significantly among languages. For example some languages are word position dependent, like English, whereas other languages are inflected, like russian, word position being unimportant, but word ending being important as indicating the function of the word (as subject, object, instrument etc...). Still, these are more superficial aspects of the thought, i.e., the subject is still the subject or purveyor of action and the object is still the recipient of the action, and the instrument is still the method by which the action comes about, whether this is indicated by word position or inflected ending. So, here I am arguing for a Chompskean type position, where there is a universal grammar of subject, object, dependent clause, etc... which is then translated into a particular language by the application of the grammar rules of a particular language. Certainly objects of perception are universal, as are deeper categories such as the actor and recipient of action, as are notions such as quantity, or logical connectives. Take the notion of enumeration, all languages have some way to number objects, although I am told in some primitive cultures the notion of quantity is fairly undeveloped, having notions of merely, one, two, and many. Logical notions such as conjunction too appear universal, as in conjunctive clauses. Now, I also think to some extent particular languages structure our thinking and influence our cultures in certain ways that are particular and not universal. German, for example, is a very verb oriented language, where the active verb oriented form of a sentence is used in preference to one centered around nouns, as in french. As an example, the germans may say "ich spaziere" to indicate they take a walk, using the verb, but the french prefer "faire une promenade," a form which centers around the noun 'promenade,' for walk. Even german nouns are built out of verbs, such as the word for 'intervention' which is 'das Dazwischentreten,' which literally means 'the there-between-walking.' I think that the verb-oriented german language has influence their culture to be more action oriented than the french who, like their language, are more passive and artistic. I think these general difference in cultures are based upon the differences in thought as a result of the differences in the structure of these two languages. Here, I am arguing that particular features of a grammar may influence thinking. Again, with german, abstract concepts are built out of indigenous roots, as in the 'Dazwischentreten' example were 'da' there, 'zwischen' between, and 'treten' to tread are all common words in the german language. This gives the language a sort of 'logische Aufbau' or 'logical build-up' that is missing in languages in which abstract concepts are not built out of indigenous roots, like english, where you have to know latin to know that 'inter-vention' means 'between-coming' in latin, i.e., 'inter' and 'vention' don't have meanings in the english language. It is no surprise to me then that germans excelled in logical aufbau disciplines like philosophy and science, and engineering, I think partly do to the logical buildup feature of their language.

Anyway, this is just some conjecture based upon some observations about languages and the way they may influence how a people thinks, versus aspects of language which are part of the deep structure and are invariant, such as notions of subject,

I agree with you that one thing that distinguishes the thought associated with different languages is unique vocabularies. Most of the vocabulary of most languages in the modern world is highly similar, as the objects and concerns in different cultures are similar. But there are differences. Language like Tlingit have many different words for different types of snow, as snow is prevalent in their Alaskan environment. But besides vocabulary differences, differences in deeper aspects of language like word formation and grammar may affect our thinking. In Tlingit most nouns are formed out of verbs. And the point I was making about German is a point not so much about vocabulary as about WORD FORMATION, and therefore CONCEPT FORMATION. English, french, german and many other language have a word and concept for 'intervention,' but it is the way in which german forms this concept that is unique and different from english or french. They form it out of words that are indigenous to the language, whereas english and french form it out of latin roots, latin words not being part of the common vocabulary of english or french. This propery, that I think some linguist call 'calc,' exist in some languages but is absent in many others. It is a property whereby abstract concepts are built out of indigenous roots rather than being borrowed from a foreign and perhaps dead language like ancient greek or latin. Another example is 'television.' English and french use the latin and greek, 'tele' for 'far' from greek and 'vision' from 'videre' to see, in latin. The concept of 'television,' therefore is 'far-see,' something that allows you to see events from afar. But in german, they use indigenous roots for the word 'television,' which is 'FernSehen,' built out of the word for 'far' in german, 'Fern' and the word to see in German 'Sehen.' This gives germans a glimpse into the analysis of the concept of 'FernSehen,' that is not available to English and French speakers unless they have studied latin and ancient greek. Again, consistently, the german word for 'telephone,' from the greek tele, far, and greek phone, sound, is 'FernSprecher,' or 'far-speaker.' This feature that is absent in english or french gives germans a clarity into the analysis of their concepts which we are missing. It also allows germans to build up their concepts in a logical fashion from basic word particals. This clarity of conceptual analysis is used strongly in german philosophy where philosophical concepts are built in a logische aufbau fashion by 'zusammersetzuung,' or 'together-putting' of smaller concepts into grander concepts. A simple example is 'ZeitGeist,' which is literally 'TimeSpirit,' which we would translate as 'spirit of the times.' An example in philosophical discourse might be Husserl's distinction between Auffassungssinn 'interpretive meaning' and Anschauungssinn 'intuitive meaning or intentional content of the intuitive act.' But the use of zusammensetzuung is far more prevalent than this in german philosophical works. Russian has this property of calc to a lesser degree. I think the nature of word-formation and not just the resulting vocabulary is one way in which languages affect the thinking in that language, but also features of grammar, how words are put together in a sentence, which tenses and inflections exist in the language. The french have the subjunctive tense which expresses doubt that exists in a less strong form in english. The russians have the instrumental case that draws attention to HOW an action is performed, and other languages have inflections like locative and ablative that we don't have. Note that I lived and worked in France and Germany and am familiar with the stark differences between these two languages and juxtaposed cultures. The only language I studied in college was russian, which has this property of calc to to some extent. Also Chinese, which lacks plural, gender, conjugation or inflection of almost any kind becomes a very contextual and word position dependent language. Plural is formed with number or classifier, like 'I see many person,' or 'I see three person,' and also, many abstract concepts are concatenations of common words, like the word for 'scholarly' in chinese is literally 'love-read-book-of person (ai kan shu de ren).' In chinese the characters are the particals, and abstract concepts are formed by concatenating these ideographic particals as I indicated with the example of 'scholarly.' Therefore Chinese has calc.

So, in summary, I am positing a relation between thought and language, particularly between a feature of some languages, namely calc, and concept formation and analysis. My arguement is that languages with the feature of calc have an additional level of clarity with respect to concept formation and analysis over languages that lack this feature. I am defining calc as "abstract words and concepts are formed out of indigenous roots as a prevalent feature of the language."


My major point is this. I am positing a relation between language and thought, particularly that concept formation is affected by a property exhibited by some languages, namely 'calc.' 'Calc' simply is the feature of a language where most of its abstract concepts are formed out of indigenous roots. By 'indigenous root' I mean a common word in the language. Some languages have this property some don't. English and the romance languages, which are latin derived (English partly so) don't have it; languages like german and chinese do, and russian to some extent. I gave the example of 'television' where in english and romance languages you need to know latin to know this means 'far-see,' whereas in german the indigenous words 'far' and 'see' compose the word television, as FernSehen. Likewise in chinese, the word for scholar is ai-kan-shu-de ren, which literally means 'love-read-book-of person,' i.e., the abstract concept of 'scholarly' is composed of indigenous words, 'read,' book, love. Positing a relation between particular languages and thought, my argument is that languages with calc allow the native speaker to have immediate comprehension of abstract concepts as composed out of simpler words in the language, and this offers a clarity in analysis of concepts and also concept formation. Languages with calc are also particularly good at inventing words for specific contexts out of indigenous roots, as german does for philosophical concepts, like ZeitGeist (spirit of the times).

This argument is one side of the coin, that particular languages have an affect on thinking, here concept formation. However, the other side of the coin seems true as well, that there are many aspects of language which are truly universal (as indicated by Chompsky's analysis) and common features such as enumeration, logical connectives, subject, object, etc...

Copyright Eric Wasiolek May 9, 2007


 Designed and Managed by:
 Eric Wasiolek
   Copyright 2021 Home | Contact Us | Login