Does The Language We Speak Affect our Ability to Think?

Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (linguistic relativity) has been the subject of much discussion, the notion that the lack of a word in one’s language limits the ability to think about ideas represented by the absent word(s).   Nevertheless, some elements of the hypothesis have evolved over time.  The common man’s Whorf…

One’s education and religion certainly color one’s ability to think.  “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards.”  These words are attributed to St. Francis Xavier and in my observation tend to be true.  Catholics tend to be Catholic forever as do Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc.  But why?  The notions imprinted on our minds early in life may stay with us for a long time.

When I was younger I took a course in critical thinking that touched on Korzybiski’s General Semantics.  “Korzybski’s work maintained that human beings are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems, and (2) the structure of their languages. Human beings cannot experience the world directly, but only through their “abstractions” (nonverbal impressions or “gleanings” derived from the nervous system, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language). Sometimes our perceptions and our languages actually mislead us as to the “facts” with which we must deal. Our understanding of what is happening sometimes lacks similarity of structure with what is actually happening. He stressed training in awareness of abstracting, using techniques that he had derived from his study of mathematics and science. He called this awareness, this goal of his system, “consciousness of abstracting”.  His system included modifying the way we consider the world, e.g., with an attitude of “I don’t know; let’s see,” to better discover or reflect its realities as revealed by modern science. “

The common man’s Korzybski…


The language of today’s rhetoric shows that, within a convinced group, power words like “socialist,” “Muslim,” and “Obamacare” are filled with such negative symbolic content that adherents to a particular point of view are unable to critically separate the charged words from the meaning of the word.  They mistake the word for the thing.  For example, socialism covers a wide range of meanings from pure socialism to the benign socialism and social democracy practiced in Europe.  “Muslim” evokes a rage not seen since the Japanese were interned in WWII.  So it may be that the prison of one’s beliefs and language limits one’s ability to think critically.  People mass like moths to a light motivated by words that stand for complex issues.

For more on how things are are expressed in other languages and this interesting topic, past the link below into your browser.  My maiden aunt’s second cousin…


About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
This entry was posted in Language and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.