Language and thought

Relationship between language and thought

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)

Does our world view depend on the language we speak? What is the relationship between language and thought? The concept that “language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought” is referred to as linguistic determinism (1, 8). One of the first to express this idea clearly was Wilhelm von Humboldt, although it had already been outlined in some form by scholars such as Vico, Condillac and Herder. Humboldt argued that languages differ not only in sounds and signs, but in the world view that they incorporate (3, 4). Similar ideas were outlined in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, whose ‘strong’ version states that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories (5). It also implies that it is theoretically impossible to translate texts from one language to another (6, 7). In fact Wilhelm von Humboldt already realised that differences between languages are more in what one is obliged to express in speech than in what one can describe or the way one thinks, and it is widely believed (at least by translators) that what can be expressed in one language can be expressed in another (9).

Guy Deutscher examines the relationship between language and thought in his book ‘Through the Language Glass’ (3), with particular attention to what the speaker of a language must specify. An obvious example is gender in German and many other languages, such that the grammar requires the gender of a noun to be specified by the definite article. But there are many examples that sound strange to an English speaker. Deutscher points out that while English and German grammar require some past, present or future tense to be specified by verbs, this is not the case in Chinese, in which the verbal form may be the same for past, present and future. However, the language of the Matses, who live on the border between Brazil and Peru, requires a great deal more specification when describing past events, including whether what is reported is based on direct experience, inferred from evidence, conjecture or hearsay.
But the strongest case for the link between language and thought is the Guugu Yimithirr language of an aboriginal community from near Cooktown on the north-eastern coast of Australia (3). Most languages have two systems for describing spatial relationships – an ‚egocentric‘ system in which the positions of objects can be described in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ something, and a ‚geocentric‘ system in which directions are specified in terms of the points of the compass. In the Guugu Yimithirr language, only the geocentric system is used – there are no words corresponding to left, right, in front or behind. The result is that people who speak this language are obliged to specify directions or locations in terms of points of the compass, and so they need to be constantly aware of their own orientation in space in order to communicate spatial relationships.
Another example of a ‘geographical’ language is Tzeltal, a Mayan language whose speakers live on a mountain range in Mexico, and orient themselves to ‘downhill’ ‘uphill’ and ‘across’ rather than north, south, east and west.

These examples do not show that our mother tongue governs how we think or limits what we can express. However, they show surprising differences between languages in what they oblige us to specify when we speak, and what we need to be aware of when we communicate.


  1. Linguistic determinism (Wiki article).
  2. Steiner, G. (1998) ‚After Babel – Aspects of language and translation‘. 3rd edn., Chapter 2, ‚Language and Gnosis‘. Oxford University Press.
  3. Deutscher, G. (2011) ‚Through the Language Glass‘ 320 pp. Arrow Books.
  4. von Humboldt, W. Durch die gegenseitige Abhängigkeit des Gedankens, und des Wortes von einander leuchtet es klar ein, daß die Sprachen nicht eigentlich Mittel sind, die schonerkannte Welt darzustellen, sondern weit mehr, die vorher unerkannte zu entdecken. Ihre Verschiedenheit ist nicht eine von Schällen und Zeichen, sondern eine Verschiedenheit der Weltansichten selbst.“
  5. Linguistic relativity (Wiki article).
  6. Sapir-Whorf-Hypothese Geht man von einem linguistischen Determinismus aus, folgt daraus eine prinzipielle Unübersetzbarkeit fremdsprachlicher Texte.“
  7. Untranslatability (Wiki article).
  8. Language & thought (Linguistic Society of America)
  9. von Humboldt, W. „On language: the diversity of human language structure and its influence on the mental development of mankind“, trans. Peter Heath (Cambridge, 1988).