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Language and Social Cognition

Lecture Supplement

Link to an introduction to the psychology of language in the Lecture Supplements prepared for Psychology 1, "General Psychology".

Language is part and parcel of any cognitive psychology course. 
But language is also important to social psychology -- which is why Roger Brown, included a chapter on language in his textbook of social psychology.

This course on social cognition draws on topics related to language in a number of ways. to take just a few examples:

In addition, there are at least two topics which social psychology makes an active contribution to the psychology of language. 

Finally, it should be noted that language plays a role in social identity.  Consider, for example, the debate over whether English should be given the status of the official language of the United States.  According to one version of this argument, immigrants who aspire to be "true" Americans, ought to, and ought to want to, speak English exclusively -- at least outside the home. 

The problem is especially acute in multiethnic nations.  In Algeria, for example, the official language used to be French when it was a French colony (and the teaching of Arabic was banned, at least in primary school); after Algeria gained independence, its official language switched to standard Arabic -- which some Islamist activists have proclaimed as the language of God.   But few Algerian children grow up speaking Arabic: children of Algerian elite are raised in French, while many Algerians gow up speaking one of six dialects of Berber.  In fact, most Algerians grow up speaking Darija, which is a kind of blend of French, Arabic, and Berber.  Instruction at the university level is mostly in French -- except law, politics, and religion, where the instruction is in Arabic.  All this causes a lot of tension in Algerian society -- so much that it's actually been proposed that the official language be changed to English!


Syntax and semantics together not enough to decode the meaning of an utterance, because many sentences inherently ambiguous. Consider the following examples:

Pragmatics and ContextUtterances such as these can't be disambiguated by analysis of phonology, syntax, and semantics alone. Rather, we must consider the pragmatics of language as well: the context in which utterance takes place. This context can be linguistic, the other sentences that surround the ambiguous one, and clarify its meaning. It can also be nonlinguistic, composed of the speaker's body movements, and other aspects of the physical context in which the utterance is spoken and heard.

Two "No"s Don't Make a "Yes"

One example of how pragmatics can trump semantics is a story about the late Columbia University philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004). Sometime in the 1950s, the Oxford philosopher J.L Austin gave a colloquium on the philosophy of language, in which he remarked that while a double negative has a positive meaning -- to say you're not uninterested means that you're actually interested -- there were no examples where a double positive has a negative meaning. At which Morgenbesser called out,

"Yeah, yeah".

Common Ground

Could you pass the salt?

Apparently this sentence first appeared in papers by Gordon and Lakoff (1971/1975), Searle (1975/1979), and Clark (1979; Clark & Lucy, 1975). According to Herbert Clark (personal communication, June 26, 1995), there also exists a satirical paper entitled "Can you pass the salt?" or somesuch. See also Groefsema (1992).

Children who reply to this question with a yes get dirty looks from their parents, and are immediately branded smart-alecks by their teachers, because this is not a question about the listener=s physical abilities.Rather, it is an indirect request to pass the salt.It harkens back to Bartlett's effort after meaning, as the listener tries to resolve the inherent ambiguity in the sentence.Chomskian syntax and semantics are not enough for that purpose, it turns out. We also need a set of pragmatic principles which go beyond the information given by syntax and semantics, and which govern how people communicate with each other.In the final analysis, a sentence like this reminds us that language is not just a tool for individual thought; it is also a tool for interpersonal communication -- or, as the psycholinguist Herbert Clark has put it, language does't have so much to do with words and what they mean as it does with people and what they mean. So, in addition to investigating the cognitive bases of language, we have to understand its social foundations as well; once again, social psychology addresses the use to which cognitive structures and processes are put (for reviews of the social psychology of language use(Brown, 1965, 1986).

So, for example, from analyzing how sentences like Can you pass the salt? are understood, we learn that in order for the speaker and listener to communicate they have to establish common ground -- which Clark(Clark, 1979) defines as the knowledge, beliefs, and suppositions that speaker and listener share in common.Each must have some sense of what the other person knows, believes, and supposes to be true, and each must use this knowledge in structuring his or her communication. If speaker and listener are not on common ground, they will not understand each other and their interactions cannot go very far.

Conversational Rules

Conversational RulesIn order to achieve this mutual understanding, people have to manage their conversations according to what the linguist Paul Grice has called the cooperative principle(Grice, 1975, 1979):

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

This principle, in turn, is unpacked in terms of four conversational maxims, and their submaxims:

The maxim of quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required (for current purposes), and do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

The maxim of quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true; do not say what you believe to be false, and do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

The maxim of relevance: Be relevant.

The maxim of manner: Be brief, and orderly, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity of expression.

Grice and others interested in sociolinguistics, including some psychologists(e.g., Clark, 1996; Higgins, 1981; Schwarz, 1994, have shown how listeners assume that speakers are following these maxims, and how lots of mischief can result when this assumption proves false.

Speech Acts

The function of language is not just to represent objects and events symbolically, nor just to communicate these thoughts to others. As the American philosopher John Searle (1970) has noted, speaking is also acting. When a clergyman or judge presides over a wedding and says, "I now pronounce you man and wife", he's not just expressing the thought that the couple is now married. His speech act makes them married, in a way that they weren't before. Just as with any other form of action, the the interpretation of speech acts depends on context. So, for example, saying "Have a nice day" to a salesclerk who has just treated you rudely is quite a different act from saying exactly the same words to your spouse as she goes out the door to work in the morning.

Uh... Um... Huh?

Spontaneous speech contains a number of apparent dysfluencies which, upon further analysis, actually turn out to be words that convey meaning, not just grunts or random noises.

The idea here is that huh? is a universal word, one of the few that appears in the same form, or very similar forms, in a wide variety of languages.  By contrast, even mama and papa appear in more different forms, across languages, than huh? does.


So the next time someone criticizes you for sprinkling too many uhs and ums in your speech, say huh?.  Then tell them that uh and um are really meaningful words. But they're also annoying little words, when there are too many of them, so try to plan your speech in advance!

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Language is a powerful medium for communicating our thoughts to each other -- for conveying thoughts from one mind, the speaker's, to another, the listener's.  And language is also a powerful tool for thinking.  Many of our concepts are labeled by single words, and linguistic syntax allows us to combine familiar concepts in novel ways.  Language is creative, in that it allows us to think, and express, thoughts that have never been thought before.

But some theorists have gone beyond this idea, to argue that the language we use constrains the thoughts we can think about objects and events.  The origin of this idea lies with Edward Sapir, a linguist who was a student of Franz Boas, himself generally regarded as the "father" of American anthropology; and especially Benjamin Lee Whorf, a chemical engineer who took up an interest in language and studied with Sapir.  In one of his papers, Boas had noted that the "Eskimo" language contained four quite different words for snow.  Whorf and Sapir cited this example to suggest that these words encoded quite different concepts, and that if the language were lost, these concepts would be lost as well.  In other words, the language we use constrains the kinds of thoughts we can have. 

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has a distinguished intellectual pedigree, but it's been controversial right from the start.  The example of "Eskimo words for snow" has been particularly problematic.   Over the years, the number of Eskimo snow-words has been inflated to 50 or even 100.  More important, Boas actually cited those four words to make another linguistic point entirely.  And neither Sapir nor Whorf ever showed that Eskimos actually thought about snow any differently from, say, English-speaking cross-country and downhill skiers.  Nevertheless, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has captured the attention of many social scientists.  Its strong form is known as linguistic determinism: that basic cognitive processes differ depending on the language one uses.  A weaker form says merely that there are parallels between the structure of a language and the way that speakers of that language think.    

Here's a famous example of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, studied by Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby.  There's an aboriginal group called the Pormpuraaw, who live in the Cape York region in North-Eastern Australia and speak a language called Kuuk Thaayore. These people have an unusual way of referring to direction.  In English, we would use such terms as "left" and "right" "front" and "back".  But in Kuuk Thaayorre, the Pormpuraaw refer to the cardinal directions of "north", "south", "east", and "west".  Where an English speaker would say "Put the fork to the left of the plate", the Pormpuraaw would say 'Put the fork to the west of the plate" -- but only if they were actually facing north.  This feature of language obviously affects how the Pormpuraaw locate themselves and others in space, but it also affects their conception of time.  English speakers, given a series of cartoon panels depicting a story, will typically arrange them in temporal sequence going from left to right -- which is how we write.  Hebrew is written from right to left though, and Hebrew speakers will arrange the panels from right to left as well.  But the Pormpuraaw arrange the panels from east to west: that is, from left to right, if they happen to be facing south, but from right to left if they happen to be facing north.  Apparently, how they speak about space affects how they think about time. 

Boroditsky and other proponents of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have collected many examples like this, and they conclude that Sapir and Whorf had it right.  The diversity of environments in which humans live has created the diversity of language, and this diversity of language has in turn created diversity of thought.  "Each [language] provides its own cognitive toolkit and encapsulates the knowledge and worldview developed over thousands of years within a culture.  Each contains a way of perceiving, categorizing, and making meaning in the world...".

Still, there are lots of counterexamples.  One famous set of studies focused on color terms.  Cross-cultural research by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay had revealed a consistent pattern of color terms across the diversity of languages.  If a language had only two color terms, they corresponded to black and white -- or, perhaps, light and dark, or warm and cool.  If it had three color terms, the third term was red.  If it had a fourth term, that was either green or yellow; if it had a fifth term, it was the other one, yellow or green.  Then blue was added, then brown, and so on.  Eleanor Rosch and David Olivier worked with the Dani, a tribe in New Guinea whose language has only two color terms -- mili for "dark" and "cold" colors and mola for "light" and "warm" colors.  When asked to name color patches, the Dani obviously performed differently from English-speaking college students.  But when asked match color patches from memory, the Dani performed the same way the English speakers did, yielding highly similar "color spaces".  In other words, the Dani perceived and remembered colors the same way that English speakers did.  .

Boroditsky and others continue to find examples where language seems to influence thought, but the first thing to be said is that thinking doesn't require language at all.  Language makes thinking easier, perhaps, and more powerful, but there are lots of examples of thinking in animals, who don't have anything like human language.  Rats and pigeons form expectations concerning prediction and control during classical and instrumental conditioning.  Pigeons have been found to form natural concepts.  Rhesus monkeys are curious about their world.  And Wolfgang Kohler, a German psychologist,  found that apes could show "insight" in problem-solving.  For example, in order to obtain a banana that had been suspended out of reach, they would figure out how to stack boxes on top of each other, and then use a pole to knock down the fruit.  And, for that matter, human infants engage in a great deal of learning and problem-solving before they've acquired any language at all. 

The strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, linguistic determinism, is certainly wrong.  Thought isn't a mirror of language, but language is a mirror of thought.  All human languages have certain basic principles in common, and these similarities outweigh any differences.  And the weaker form, linguistic relativity, probably isn't quite right either.  There are parallels between thought and language, but it could easily be that cultural patterns of thinking lead people to use language the way they do.  What there is evidence for, is what Daniel Slobin and others have called "thinking for speaking".  You can think any thought, and express that thought in any language, but the structure of the language you use forces you to express your thoughts in a particular way.  So you have to think about certain things before you speak; and what you say will nudge listeners toward a particular interpretation of what you mean.

One example is grammatical gender.  Many languages, though not English, classify nouns by grammatical gender -- masculine or feminine, and sometimes neuter.  If I want to talk to someone about my friend Pat, I can just refer to "my friend Pat", leaving it ambiguous whether Pat is male or female.  But if I want to express the same thought in Spanish, I have to say what Pat's gender is: Mi amigo Pat clearly communicates that Pat is a man; in German, Meine Freundin Pat clearly communicates that she is a woman.  I can't leave it ambiguous.  The syntax of Spanish and German forces me to think about gender in a way that English does not.

Here's another example: different cultures have different kinship categories.  I have two siblings, and in English I simply refer to them as "my brother" or "my sister" -- or, if I want to keep things ambiguous, I'll just refer to "my siblings".  But if I'm speaking Hopi, the language of a Native American tribe indigenous to the southwestern United States, I have to identify Jean as my older sister and Don as my older brother; but Don and Jean could use the same word to refer to me, their younger brother.!  But if I had a younger sister, they would each use different words to refer to her. 

If I want to talk about my friend Pat, I have to do so differently in Spanish than I would in English.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that I have to think about Pat any differently.  I only have to think about how I'm going to talk about Pat in Spanish.  Any thought can be expressed in any language.  Language doesn't constrain thought.  As a powerful tool for thinking, language makes thinking easier.  And it's an equally powerful tool for communication, providing us with a more powerful and flexible vehicle for communicating our ideas and experiences than any other animal has.  Across cultures, languages are more alike than they are different, and so are human patterns of thinking.    

Most famously, the American linguist Edward Sapir and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, argued on the basis of cross-cultural studies that language affects the way we think. In a famous -- actually notorious -- example, the Eskimos have 4 different words for snow. As Franz Boas, Sapir's teacher, put it in 1911:

...just as English uses derived terms for a variety of forms of water (liquid, lake, river, brook, rain, dew, wave, foam) that might be formed by derivational morphology from a single root meaning 'water' in some other language, so Eskimo uses the apparently distinct roots aput 'snow on the ground', gana 'falling snow', piqsirpoq 'drifting snow', and qimuqsuq 'a snow drift'

For Sapir and Whorf , the implication was that Eskimos have 4 different ways of thinking about snow -- more ways of thinking about snow than you'd have with another language, with fewer such words.

As Whorf put it:

We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way -- an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATORY; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees (Whorf (1940/1956), pp. 213-214).

The imporant distinction between HABITUAL and POTENTIAL behavior enters here. The potential range of perception and thought is probably pretty much the same for all men. However, we would be immobilized if we tried to notice, report, and think of all possible discriminations in experience at each moment of our lives. Most of the time we rely on the discriminations to which our language is geared, on what Sapir termed "grooves of habitual expression" (Whorf, 1956, p. 117).

Why is this example notorious?

  1. In the first place, because Eskimo is a rather imprecise, somewhat derogatory term that obscures the differences between three very different linguistic-cultural groups -- the Yupiks, the Inuits, and the Aleuts. There isn't any "Eskimo" language. It's a little like referring to all Muslims as "Arabs".
  2. In the second place, since the time of Boas, Sapir, and Whorf the number of "Eskimo" words for snow has been multiplied. have seen someone claim that they had 50 or even 100. But neither Boas, nor Sapir, nor Whorf ever said that Eskimos had all that many words for snow. Boas, who was making a different linguistic point entirely, listed a mere four. The highest that Whorf ever got in his count, made famous in a 1940 paper, was just 7 (Sapir apparently stayed out of it). Anthony Woodbury (1991), going through a Yupik dictionary, got as high as 15. A dictionary of Greenlandic "Eskimo" lists just two, representing "snow in the air" and "snow on the ground".
  3. In the third place, English also has a multitude of words for snow -- consider the most frequent snow-related words:snow, hail, sleet, ice, icicle, slush, and snowflake. That's seven right there. Ask any skier, downhill or cross-country, and you'll get a lot more (powder, crust, slush, etc.). Woodbury found as many as 22 "snow lexemes" (not exactly words, but close) in English, depending on how you count.

If Eskimos had more words for snow, this might reflect nothing more than expertise -- in which case, if you think about it, thought is determining language.

For more on Eskimo words for snow, see:

The idea of linguistic determinism led to a heated debate among linguists. For example, Noam Chomsky, who has argued that language is a tool for thought, has nonetheless emphasized the universality of language. All languages possess the same basic properties, of meaning, reference, structure, creativity, and the like, all languages are equally complex, and all languages are equally easy to learn (as a first language, in spoken form). So it would be strange if there were some thoughts that could be expressed in one language but not another. There is actually a geographical divide among language scholars: by and large, East-coast linguists, heavily influenced by Chomsky at MIT, tend to be opposed to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; Bay Area linguists, heavily influenced by Grice, and George Lakoff at UC Berkeley, tend to favor it.

Still, Whorf's 1940 paper popularized the notion that our thought processes are determined, and constrained, by language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis takes two forms: that language determines thought or that language influences thought.The former is a much stronger view because it states that one is incapable of understanding a concept for which the language has no name (it also implies that there is no thought without language).There is no empirical evidence supporting the strong version and considerable evidence that thought can proceed without benefit of language. However, the weak version plausibly suggests that different languages can 'carve up' the world into different ways -- or, put another way, that conceptual thinking can be shaped and constrained by available linguistic categories.As Whorf put it:

'We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, ascribe significance as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way ' an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language'.

There are actually two aspects to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism.

The Case of Color

Color perception permits a classic test of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, because languages differ in terms of the variety of words they have for colors. English, for example, has 11 basic color terms (not to be confused with the primary colors), while other languages have only two color terms, roughly corresponding to dark and light. Berlin and Kay (1969), two linguists at UCB, have argued that basic color terms evolve according to a definite sequence:

  1. If a language has only two color terms, they correspond to dark-light or cool-warm.
  2. If a language has a third color term, it is red.
  3. If a language has a fourth color term, it is either green or yellow.
  4. If a language has a fifth color term, it is the other one, yellow or green.
  5. If a language has a sixth color term, it is blue.
  6. If a language has a seventh color term, it is brown.
  7. If a language has additional color terms, they are purple, pink, orange, or grey.

In a classic test of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, UCB's Eleanor Rosch (1972; publishing under the name Eleanor Rosch Heider) investigated color naming by the Dani, a tribe in New Guinea whose language has only two color terms:mili (dark) and mola (light). Rosch then asked the Dani to discriminate between various colors, such as green and blue, or red and orange, that were matched for saturation and brightness. She also asked them to remember which colors they had seen. The Dani could perform both tasks well, showing clearly that the unavailability in their language of words representing blue, green, red, or orange did not prevent their abilities to discriminate and remember colors.

On the other hand, Kay and Kempton (1984) his colleagues compared English speakers with Tarahumara speakers, a Uto-Aztecan language of Mexico that does not have separate color terma for blue and green. In the first experiment, the subjects were presented with a blue color chip, a green, color chip, and another color chip that was intermediate to blue and green. English speakers sharply distinguished the intermediate color chip into either blue or green by using a naming strategy, whereas the Tarahumara speakers chose randomly.In the second experiment, English speakers were first presented with two color chips and shown that one (intermediate) was greener than the other color chip (blue) and then shown that the same intermediate chip was bluer than the other color chip (green).By making the subjects call the intermediate color chip both green and blue, the bias that was demonstrated in the first experiment went away and the English speakers performed similarly to the Tarahumara speakers. This might count as evidence in favor of the weak hypothesis of linguistic relativity.

Counterfactuals in Chinese

Another famous case of Whorffianism comes from the work of Alfred Bloom (1981), who was conducting research on political attitudes among Chinese residents of Hong Kong. His interview contained the questions of the following form, posed in Chinese:

"If the government had passed a law requiring that all citizens born outside of Hong Kong make weekly reports of their activities to the police, how would you have reacted?

Bloom reported that his subjects generally declined to answer such questions, replying "It has not done this" (again, in Chinese) instead. Bloom quickly identified what he considered to be the linguistic root of the problem. Such questions entail counterfactual conditionals, of the form If...Then... -- reasoning about states of affairs that are not actually true. Chinese can express counterfactuals of this sort, but such expressions are rarely used, it rarely does Bloom hypothesized that this linguistic convention shaped the ways that Chinese think -- put bluntly, he hypothesized that native speakers of Chinese just can't think counterfactually. He then conducted an extensive formal study that seemed to demonstrate this. Given story problems that required counterfactual thinking, most English speakers (who read them in English) came to the correct conclusion, while most Chinese speakers (who read them in Chinese) did not. Bloom's 1981 book, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West was hailed as a singular contribution to penetrating "the 'Chinese mind'".

Terry Kit-Fong Au, then an undergraduate at Harvard, heard about this claim in one of Brown's courses, and was having none of it (Au went on to take a PhD in psychology, and is now a professor at the University of Hong Kong). She tested almost 1,000 residents of Hong Kong or Taiwan (mainland China hadn't yet opened up much to Western researchers) who were bilingual in English and Chinese, and who were randomly assigned to English- or Chinese-language conditions. Au's results were completely contrary to Bloom's: the vast majority of her subjects had no trouble understanding counterfactuals, regardless of the language in which they were posed.

It turns out that, while Bloom spoken Chinese fluently, his translations from English into Chinese were rather unidiomatic, so that their responses did not accurately reflect the Chinese subjects' logical competence. In fact, when Au had her Chinese materials rendered into unidiomatic English, it was the English speakers who performed poorly. Speakers of both Chinese and English are able to reason counterfactually, so long as the counterfactuals are posed in idiomatic language. Reasoning is the same, no matter what language we speak.

Au published her research in 1983, just two years after Bloom's book came out. Bloom replied with criticisms of her method in 1984, but Au held her own in a 1984 rejoinder, The whole wonderful story of counterfactuals in Chinese is summarized by Roger Brown in Chapter 13 of Social Psychology: The Second Edition (1986), from which this account is drawn.

Verbal Overshadowing

The influence of language on how we think about the events that happen in our world can be demonstrated in other experiments other than those designed to confirm or disconfirm the Whorf hypothesis.

Classic work by Leonard Carmichael and his colleagues demonstrated that subjects had different systematic distortions in their recall of ambiguous line drawings (e.g, O--O) depending upon which verbal label they were given (e.g. dumbbells or eyeglasses).

Experiments on eyewitness testimony by Elizabeth Loftus and others, such as the post-event misinformation effect discussed in the lectures on Memory, showed that by varying the verb (e.g. crashed or hit) one can manipulate the estimated speed of the traveling car given by the subjects.

Whorf himself became interested in language when he noticed that behavior around gasoline drums changed when the drums were called "empty" though they contained dangerous vapors.Because the word empty connotes "lack of hazard," careless behavior from the workers resulted in fires from the tossing of cigarette stubs or the smoking by the workers.

A Garden of Sapir-Whorf Delights

Beyond the influence of language on categories, the linguist George Lakoff's work on metaphors offer another approach to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis without depending upon the idea that language carves the world into different pieces and, as he has put it, "cultures differ only in the way they have their meat cut up". Though some metaphors are universal (e.g. love is warmth), not all cultures share the same metaphors.

Here are some other examples, mostly culled from the research of Lera Boroditsky:

For examples of the apparent influence of language on cognition, emphasizing space, color, and gender, see through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (2010) by Guy Deutscher, which draws heavily on Boroditsky's work.

How to Think about Language and Thought

There's no question that thinking can occur in the absence of language. Nonhuman animals think when they seek to predict and control their environments in experiments on classical and instrumental conditioning. They can learn concepts. And they can learn to solve novel problems. They can even pass some of their thoughts to other animals through observational learning. But they don't have anything like human language.

And the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, of linguistic determinism, is just wrong. Rosch's experiments on color naming showed that pretty clearly. The absence of a color name in language didn't prevent the Dani from perceiving that color.

Roger Brown (1986, p. 493), reviewing the evidence bearing on the Whorffian hypothesis, concludes that "While the many languages of the world today are superficially very different from one another, in certain deep semantic ways, they are all alike".

So there might be something to the weaker form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, of linguistic relativity. Perhaps the most that can be said comes from UCB's Prof. Dan Slobin (1979): languages differ in terms of the features of the environment that they emphasize. To use one of his examples, French distinguishes between the familiar and polite forms of the second-person pronoun, tu and vous; German does the same thing, du and Sie; there's nothing like that in English. Therefore, French and German speakers must think about social hierarchies, and the relationship between a speaker and the person he or she is speaking to, while English speakers don't have to do this. But that doesn't mean that English speakers don't think about social hierarchies.

Of course, English used to make such a distinction: compare you and yours with thee, thou, and thine. Because of the use of the latter terms in places such as the King James Bible, we generally think of thee/thou/thy/thine as somehow elevated, more polite and respectful: think of the phrase, "holier than thou". But in fact, up to the 17th century, you was used in polite address, and thee in familiar address. In the KJB, God is addressed as thou out of a sense of intimacy, not of disrespect. But thereafter, thee and thou pretty much dropped out of ordinary speech, and was replaced by you. After the French Revolution of 1789, the use of vous by one person to defer to another was formally banned; all were equal Citizens, and so everyone addressed each other as tu, so as to express their liberty, equality, and fraternity. Except for the Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, and that was mostly in the confines of their religious meetings: interestingly, in Quaker discourse the connotations of you and thee are reversed: the use of thee/thou was an expression of egalitarianism.

But the basic point remains: language develops to represent the things that people think about. Language may constrain communication, but it doesn't constrain thought. Rather, thought constrains language: we use language to talk about the things we think about.

Language and National Identity

The debate over whether English should be the official language of the United States illustrates the presumed importance of language to national identity and cohesion.  In order to become a naturalized citizen of France, for example, one must demonstrate a knowledge of both spoken and written French.

The Case of Kazakhstan

Language reform in Kazakhstan provides an interesting case in point ("Kazakhstan Cheers New Alphabet, Except for All Those Apostrophes" by Andrew Higgins, New York Times, 01/16/2018).  The native language is Kazakh (of course), a Turkic language A Muslim-majority former "republic" of the Soviet Union, and it was originally written employing Arabic script.  In the 19th century, the written form switched to Latin, but after the incorporation of Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union, the written form shifted to Cyrillic as part of Stalin's effort to forge a common identity across the entire USSR (actually, there were different versions of Cyrillic for each of about 20 Turkic languages, to prevent the Turkic people of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and other Muslim-majority "republics" from developing a common, non-Soviet identity.  

The situation changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.  Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, and the country's authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, instigated a shift from Cyrillic to Latin scripts to distance the new country from Russia, and bring it closer to the West.  The problem is that spoken Kazakh has phonemes that are not easily represented in the letters of the Latin script.  One solution is to employ diacritical marks, such as umlauts and tildes, like Turkish (obviously, another Turkic language) does; but that risks substituting Turkish influence for Russian influence; and besides, diacritical marks are hard to use on computer keyboards.  Another solution is to employ digraphs and other letter combinations, like the English ch or th.  This was apparently the solution favored by a committee of linguists and philologists convened by Nazarbayev to address the problem.  But Nazarbayev objected that the use of digraphs to represent Kazakh phonemes would cause confusion when Kazakhs, learning English (which is something he favors, to forster the integration of Kazakhstan with the West), had to map the same digraphs onto different phonemes.  Not an autocrat for nothing, Nazarbayev decided, all on his own, that the specifically Kazakh phonemes will be represented by apostrophes.  So for example, the Republic of Kazakhstan will be written as Qazaqstan Respy'bli'kasy.  The linguists and philologists objected that the result was both imprecise linguistically and aesthetically ugly.  At the same time, the minority Russian community, and the Russian Orthodox Church, continues to object to the abandonment of Cyrillic.  All of which goes to show that language is critical to fostering a sense of national identity.

This page last revised 01/18/2018.