Tuesday, April 26

Do we think in words?

Writers, expressing ideas in words.  So how separate are thoughts and the words which express them.  And which comes first?

Do words come first?

The idea that words can shape thoughts is suprisingly contraversial.  Benjamin Whorf was an early linguist who studied different world languages.  He came to the conclusion that the language a person speaks determines the way they see the world - a person's ideas and world-view are a product of their words.

Words by Feuillu
This idea, known as linguistic relativism, implies that speakers of different languages must think differently - a notion that has largely been rejected nowadays; the modern theory of universal grammar states that at a basic level, all world languages are very similar.  The capacity of works of literature to be successfully translated is further evidence that thoughts are not closely linked to a specific language.

Having ideas as we write

If this is true, then do the ideas and feelings expressed in a piece of writing come to mind before the words used to express them?  Virginia Woolf certainly thought so, saying:

"a sight, an emotion creates this wave [a rhythm] in the mind ... then, as [the wave] breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it."

I'm sure most writers can identify with this - holding a thought in mind, while the words take their time to arrive!

Wave by Treehouse1977
Current views

However, both ideas are probably over-simplistic, and perhaps link to the outdated belief that mental processes are controlled by different brain areas.  Although there are brain areas associated with both language and imagination, the brain is densely interconnected, and activity spreads very quickly from one area to another.

Our conscious experiences relate more to the interaction between groups of cells than to the function of any particular area.  The connection between creativity and hallucinations shows the interaction between thought and language areas can be unpredictable and sometimes harmful.  This is an area where further research is needed.

The idea of linguistic relativism has made a comeback, in a weakened form.  George Lakoff (e.g. Lakoff, 1987) has suggested that metaphors we use are interconnected with the way we think.  For example, in English, we talk about time using money metaphors (spending time, etc), and use battle metaphors for debate (winning arguments, advancing a theory etc).

How important is metaphor to the way you use language?  Do you feel that it is just an add-on, or something more fundamental to your understanding and communication?

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Woolf, V., cited in Dick, S. (ed., 1983).  To the Lighthouse: the original holograph draft, preface.  London: The Hogarth Press.