Does Our Language Restrict What and How We Think?


photo of Pirahã tribeswoman from the New Yorker by Martin Schoeller

My recent meditations have focused on my frustrations with the limitations of language, and specifically:

  • How competently and easily wild creatures seem to be able to communicate, and understand, with minimal use of vocalization.
  • The cultural presumptions of what is true and what is important and how to think, be and do that seem to be embedded in our European languages, both the etymological origin of words and especially their modern connotations and Lakoffian framings, and even their syntax — they seem to be: about conveying facts rather than feelings, lacking in nuance, abstract rather than representative, conceptual rather than perceptual, constricting rather than expressive, prescriptive rather than descriptive, and analytical rather than narrative.
  • The debate among linguists and others about the link between language, conception and cognition — can we conceive of things we cannot put into language, and does our language therefore restrict what and how we think and feel?
  • Evidence that the neural patterns in our brains (that affect what and how we think) co-evolve with our learning and language development as young children (so “wild children” who are not taught language before adolescence become incapable of learning it, apparently because the way their brains have formed evolved to suit their non-verbal learning, so they are amazingly intuitive and perceptive, but ‘impaired’ at abstract conceptualization).
  • The knowledge that art and music have been part of human culture at least twice as long as language, and speculation that vocalization/language first emerged not as a means of communication but as a means of creative self-expression, and was then adapted/coopted for communication and information transfer.
  • The discovery of an Amazon tribe, the Pirahã, whose language is totally unrelated to other human languages, and which appears to be related to birdsong in its structure, and which lacks any ‘words’ for time, quantity, or the subjective and objective.
  • The nonsense that some indigenous peoples were unable to ‘see’ the ships of European invaders because their language had no words for such massive and destructive vessels.

I’ve been discussing this with Tree Bressen, Melanie Williams and Chris Corrigan, and doing a bit of online research on the subject. There is some compelling evidence that indigenous languages are significantly different in the worldview they represent from European languages, and that the language that we first learn affects and reinforces our worldview in a way that reflects the culture behind the language and which permeates and perhaps constrains the way which we henceforth think about everything. D’Arcy Rheault, in his book about Anishinaabe philosophy, writes:

Anishinaabe Mino-Bimaadiziwin [philosophy or way of living] does not objectify the world creating artificial divisions of subject and object.  It is difficult to understand this since we are constantly inundated with this subject/object dichotomy in the English language, but Anishinaabe [language] is not noun-based but verb-based with the subject and object already encoded in the verb; meaning it is action- and relationship-oriented rather than subject/object oriented….

[in explaining how a baby learns] We must be cognizant that [the baby’s] apprehension of the outside world happens concurrently with the development of language for the baby.  A child that is raised in an environment with a language that differentiates between subjects and objects will thus develop these categories in her/his lived-apprehension of the world.  A child raised in an Anishinaabe environment will not develop these subject/object categories in the same way as western people perceive them since they do not exist in the same manner in Anishinaabe worldview.

This idea that language affects (and limits) what we can think and imagine is attributed to linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. In John Colapinto’s article on the Pirahã in the New Yorker, he explains:

Whorf argued that the words in our vocabulary determine how we think. Since the Pirahã do not have words for numbers above two, [linguist Peter] Gordon wrote, they have a limited ability to work with quantities greater than that. “It’s language affecting thought,” Gordon told me. His paper, “Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia,” was enthusiastically taken up by a coterie of “neo-Whorfian” linguists around the world.

[Linguist Dan] Everett did not share this enthusiasm; in the ten years since he had introduced Gordon to the tribe, he had determined that the Pirahã have no fixed numbers. The word that he had long taken to mean “one” (hoi, on a falling tone) is used by the Pirahã to refer, more generally, to “a small size or amount,” and the word for “two” (hoi, on a rising tone) is often used to mean “a somewhat larger size or amount.” Everett says that his earlier confusion arose over what’s known as the translation fallacy: the conviction that a word in one language is identical to a word in another, simply because, in some instances, they overlap in meaning…

Everett concluded that the Pirahã’s lack of numerals was part of a larger constellation of “gaps.” Over the course of three weeks, Everett wrote what would become his Current Anthropology article, twenty-five thousand words in which he advanced a novel explanation for the many mysteries that had bedevilled him. Inspired by [linguist Edward] Sapir’s cultural approach to language, he hypothesized that the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word xibipío as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience—which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío—‘gone out of experience,’ ” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’ ”

The late Dan Moonhawk Alford, a colleague of David Bohm and David Peat and a linguist who made a lifelong study of indigenous languages, explained the fundamental difference between indigenous and European languages (I can sense my friend Andrew Campbell smiling as he reads this):

Indigenous languages are the key to indigenous thought and worldview — and…they are as different from our European view of reality as quantum is from the classical view of reality. Recently Leroy Little Bear told the participants in the seventh Bohmian/Indigenous Science Dialogue that there is no Blackfoot language, or Navajo language, in the European sense of vocabularies and wordlists — instead, there are about 80 roots in Blackfoot [each of which stands for a kinesthetic prime of animate motion, as far as I can tell], which are combined and recombined on the fly to describe what-is as accurately as possible.

To help you understand this, take the word /Se?Se/ in Cheyenne, which by itself can mean ‘duck’ in English. But when you add /-novote/ to the end of it, meaning ‘goes down into a hole,’ you don’t have a logical connection of “duck goes down in hole” but rattlesnake! That’s because /Se?Se/ doesn’t really mean ‘duck’ at all — it means the combined dry scraping sound and zigzag motion both the duck and the rattlesnake make as they’re going away from you. It’s an event of animate motion which uniquely characterizes both the duck and the one that goes down in the hole that makes that same noise/movement.

This is a unique way of using human language — a kinesthetic base closer to Sign Language than to our more visual/verbal base. Amethyst First Rider has said on numerous occasions that when she says the simplest thing in English, like “The man is riding a horse,” she gets pictures coming up in her head. But when she says the equivalent thing in Blackfoot, no pictures come up in her head — only body feelings of movement!

I’m sure this is connected somehow to her other oft-made claim that no matter what it sounds like when it’s translated into English, when they’re speaking their own language they’re NOT using metaphor. Actually, this is true because the Indians are using categorization itself (like George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things as a lexical category in Dyrbal), while metaphor is a different kind of categorizing used extensively — some might say nearly exclusively — in Western European and other languages, and which they like to fancy is universal.

While all of us have been subtly conditioned/brainwashed/socialized by our European language/culture complex to believe in the “things” of reality as being more real than the invisible connections between them, valuing the dancers over the dancing, it’s a highly important antidote and counterbalance to know that Native American and other indigenous peoples value the dancing over the dancers, believe that processes and interrelationships are more real than the ‘things’ that grow out of them — that the physical is an epiphenomenon of the non-physical, and that cyclical timing is more real than linear time.

Moonhawk wades into the Whorf/Chomsky debate and the whole issue of the connection between language, culture and cognition in a set of pages online that Chris pointed me to. He moves beyond Whorf’s linguistic relativity to define what he calls “quantum linguistics” — analogous to (and Moonhawk says, Einstein’s inspiration for) the jump from Euclidean/Newtonian to relativistic quantum theory of matter. Citing Cheyenne teacher Sakej Youngblood Henderson he says:

Long ago, people and spirits and animals and plants all communicated the same way. Then something happened. Afterwards, we had to talk to each other in human speech. But we retained the Old Language for dreams, and for communicating with spirits and animals and plants.

Glenn Aparicio Parry, in his book based on the Bohmian Dialogues on meaning that involved several indigenous thinkers and linguists, wrote:

In the Blackfoot language, there are not nouns or verbs at all as we normally describe them in relation to each other. Instead, linguistic meaning is something similar to events emerging out of a fluid, constantly moving interconnected flux, rather than discrete interactions between subject and object. The Blackfoot worldview of synergistic, interconnected relationship is beyond the imagination of a Newtonian worldview, but much closer to a worldview of quantum entanglement or non-locality.

So where does all this get us? Some thoughts:

  1. When we teach young children our European languages, are we doing them the terrible and irreversible disservice of imprisoning them in time, by neurologically encoding in their brains a concept of scarce, death-fearful linear “clock” time that will forever lock them out of the present, out of Now Time?
  2. As intrigued as we might be by the idea (concept) of a language based on flow and relationship and not on “things”, are we adults, with our brains already fixed by the language/worldview we were brought up with, deluding ourselves to believe we can really imagine what that other language/worldview might be like? Is this like trying to understand a world with 13 dimensions (none of them temporal) made of strings that have no mass and only the probability of existence?
  3. What can we learn of the commonality of indigenous and European language from the eight agreements of the multi-cultural Bohm Dialogues?:
    1. Everything that exists vibrates.
    2. Everything is in flux.
    3. The part enfolds the whole.
    4. There is an implicate (“folded-in, entangled with itself”) order to the universe.
    5. The ecosphere is basically friendly.
    6. Nature can be taught new tricks. “Reminds me of Alan Watts talking about how the universe has had to learn how to get ever smaller and ever larger as we probe it with microscopes and telescopes, receding ever further in the distance as self observes itself.”
    7. Quantum potential is spirit.
    8. Much of what exists is yes-yes both/and complementary.
  4. If our modern language hobbles our ability to be part of, and appreciate, all-life-on-Earth, to be “the space through which stuff passes which we touch (as it passes) in hopefully useful ways” (with the “passing” and the “touching” being the essence of our living, not the “stuff” or the “we”) — then how can we set aside that language and its terrible conceptions, and learn to simply vibrate, “flux-tuate”, enfold, self-entangle, be-a-part, complement, self-spirit-ize, and in so doing use language as wild creatures (and to some extent indigenous human cultures, poets, musicians, artists and dreamers) do — to self-express our joy and discovery and curiosity, in useful and interesting ways, without obsessing about what Eliot called “the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings”?

Subject for an interesting “dialogue” (which means etymologically “a speaking across” and contrary to popular misconception has nothing to do with “two”), perhaps. What do you think?

“What we feel most has no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.”
— Jack Gilbert, The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart

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11 Responses to Does Our Language Restrict What and How We Think?

  1. Rayne says:

    Have several books which I’d recommend to further the discussion:

    The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Schlain

    The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why by Richard E. Nisbett

    There’s definitely a difference in how we understand the world based on our language, but it may be more than just verbal language which shapes our perception. It may be processing of written word versus images, and perception may be further shaped by our individual biology, even our gender.

    With only a little snark, look at the reaction men and women may have to the phrase, “We need to talk”, depending on who delivers the phrase and how. And when did we formulate our reaction to key phrases like this? Much later in life, not grade school, so there is still some room for change in perception depending on cultural delivery mechanisms.

  2. Wendy Farmer-O'Neil says:

    Couple of interesting patterns i’ve noticed in my researches into this over the years.
    1. relationship between language structures and art: while exploring both celtic knotwork and Coast Salish designs, i experienced a similarity in the way the artist was engaging with ‘negative space’ as fundamentally different to traditional western art techniques. The negative space was an active element, equal in importance to the foreground or ‘worked space’. Both cultures were primarily oral. In language, both cultures were more relational, spatial. ie: in Irish the translation of the element for i am: i stand. Similar structures appear to exist in Coast Salish. It seemed to me that the artistic expression was influenced by a very non-European experience of reality.

    2. yes/no. Languages that possess the yes/no dichotomy struggle with the concepts of relativity and relationalism. (Hence our general global failure to embrace either of these concepts over the past century. Oh thank you english/french/spanish empires). eg: if you ask an irish speaker if they want to go to lunch, you get a story: not because they can’t make up their minds, but because Irish doesn’t have a word for yes or no. The respondent is required to give you a both relative and relational answer to your question. And you get to utilize those rusty intuition skills to figure out what’s really going on. Also the yes/no dichotomy pre-sets speakers to the opinion stance. eg: english speakers generally feel required to have an opinion on any question. As contrasted to the operation of something like a First Nations talking circle where each participant speaks from his or her own experience–not as a response/opinion to a previous speaker.

    3. The unspeakability of direct experience. For example, in experienced meditators – poetry is often used not as a metaphoric device, but as a means to evoke the same direct experience in the listener. The concept is taught that once direct experience is subject to the meaning-making/judging/naming apparatus of the mind, it is fundamentally altered. Once something is named, it is no longer known.

    4. Current trend watch: the rise of the importance of intuition: including empathy, bodytalk, telepathy. Hypothesis: survival strategies are requiring us to attune to more subtle communication channels–bypassing mind-language structures–and accessing energetic and body-based channels more frequently.

    Havin’ fun,

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  5. Christopher says:

    Yes, language does affect how you see the world. I learnt this lesson when I was learning French at Concordia. One snowy evening, after dutifully conjugating various irregular and regular verbs, the language teacher told us a folk saying – something that means oh dear, you (or I) am in trouble. When she said it, I distinctly remember thinking oh! that’s another way of seeing the world or something similar. It was an amazing revelation.

    Since then I’ve understood language creates our worlds.

    For further reading one could read David Abram’s book, ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’. This examines the development of language from ancient times, and how language today is a shadow of the language that was then spoken, and which reflected the natural world.


  6. shane keven reinhart says:

    Christopher – Beautiful use of language to communicate your ideas in this post. Have printed it for my reflection, because at some point in the coming days I’ll think: What as the part about…and I’ll have the language handy to read. You’ve really inspired me here, and I thank you. Warmly, Shane

  7. John Graham says:

    To take a more actionable angle – (I’m not going to go and un-learn English) – the more languages we collectively know, the more language “biodiversity”, the greater the repertoire of thinking styles we collectively have. Further, if we have some understanding of the language of another culture, we’ll be less inclined to bulldoze over them with our ideologies (not to mention our bulldozers.

    This is why language extinction – currently estimated at one language per week and rising – is such a threat to our wellbeing (not to mention a language’s inherit beauty).

    This is where I figure playing “Where Are Your Keys” is going to be my thing. There’s more to this game than meets the eye, as it can be taken beyond language to reviving endangered traditional skillsets. I think we need this, relearning how to *do* stuff rather than just be a big brain outsourcing all our activities, more than we need to be some space through which stuff passes. And it’s all about conversation – I’ve already seen with my own eyes how it’s helping build community just by playing, right where I am. And it’s beyond “unschooling” – this is getting the highest level education, most relevant to your immediate local situation, just by playing and debriefing.

    Check out and . Also check out their workshop charter:

    As well as workshops, looks like there’s a conference coming up in Vancouver in June – I’m totally jealous of anyone living in the same hemisphere as these guys, can’t wait to meet them.

    Sure, it starts out focussing on objects and moving them around, and I can see reasons why that might not be the utopian ideal of going beyond subject-object duality from day one – but it’s what we’ve got at the moment, and it seems “most likely to succeed”. And yes, at this moment in time, English is the language in which you’re going to get the highest level mentoring in WAYK – for me that’s just another reason not to waste the gift of English language ability I’ve been given.


  8. John Graham says:

    Picking up on another theme in your post which I (hehe) probably bulldozed over in my zeal earlier….

    If you ever get into Rudolf Steiner you’re likely to hear a lot about the “evolution of consciousness” – in many ways I see him as a Media Studies pioneer, exploring the consequences of writing on our consciousness, and the “genius”(/”spirit”) of each language. Something is lost in each ‘advance’ in communication technology (including speech), and there is danger in introducing for example writing to children too young. However, the Steiner approach is not to damn anything. Instead for example with his “speech formation” which reconnects us with speech as a *sensual*(and spiritual) phenomenon, and other such remedies, we can have the benefits of writing and reading without becoming completely ungrounded from the rest. I don’t see the English language as a problem, more so the “alphabetisation” of the mind as Illich put it, the expecting to learn everything from books and computers rather than simply by talking and listening to living people,

  9. Bohm said, we don’t have thoughts, thoughts have us. ;-)

  10. Dave – if you took all the empty space out of the six billion people on the planet and just placed the ‘stuff’ of them remaining it would be as big as a sugar cube, and i presume quite heavy.

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