Language and thought

My own work takes the point of view that thought does not exist independent of the semiotic system which encodes it – art, maths, music and, of greatest interest to me, language.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the argument that thought is conditioned by the structure of language, is an old one. Whorf had described the language of the Hopi Indians and showed that their language encoded obligatorily certain concepts which we do not have in the Indo-European languages. For example, nouns are inflected to include the difference between long straight things and round things. Concepts of time are encoded differently in the verbs.

A later article (1981) by A.H. Bloom compares Chinese and English at the level of the clause. There is, it seems, no specific grammatical structure available in Chinese for what applied linguists call the third or hypothetical conditional: If you had called me, I would have come at once. Bloom calls this “counterfactual”. I looked up my (elementary)Chinese grammar and it gives examples of only the first and second conditionals: If you really want to buy a car, then buy one. If I were you, I would marry him. It gives no example of the hypothetical conditional.

Apparently, the author’s Chinese students found the idea of a hypothetical condition not merely difficult: they found it offensive and “unChinese” to imagine the consequences of an imagined untrue situation. This meant that they could not understand an important academic concept.

A.H. Bloom (1981):The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study of the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West, LEA New Jersey

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