Language and thought

Much like our method of studying culture, the study of language in anthropology is broad and inclusive of multiple perspectives. The assigned readings cover the definition of language (not an easy task), its evolution as a biological and cultural phenomenon, and sociolinguistics – or the way that we use speech in various ways depending on social circumstances.

Of course its impossible to get inside someone else’s head and know what they’re thinking, but by means of language anthropologists can directly interact with and query people from other cultures to learn why they do the things they do. Language is such an important window into people’s inner lives that the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf suggested that language itself structures how people think.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that like the grooves in a vinyl record, different language predisposes people to thinking and acting in particular ways. Today this has become something of an old fashioned idea, but it is still provocative to contemplate.

In this short animated lecture, MIT psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that the relationship between language and thought can be understood in the way veiled language is used to mediate diverse social relationships by playing with mutual knowledge.

Are we constrained by language, or aren’t we?

In the comments section below respond to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Pinker’s modern update, addressing either is sufficient. Is our thought structured by the syntax of the language(s) we speak? When you hear your mind’s voice in your own head I presume it is in English. Does that mean you are thinking English thoughts right now?


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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71 Responses to Language and thought

  1. Rhea Weldon says:

    The video for one was very entertaining and interesting in itself. The way they had the viewer follow the artist and how he wrote all that he was saying along with illustrations, made it very easy to understand the theories being presented in the video. After watching, I took away the fact that human language is used in so many different ways and have so many different meanings, interpretations and extra thinking involved than I originally thought upon viewing the selection. I believe that the information given within the video was very sufficient and very relevant. The part that stood out the most was the section about the sexual innuendos. When he gave the example of using other ways or more ambiguous phrases to ask for sex so that it leaves some type of unknown in order to save face in a friendship. He also mentioned an example involving a couple at a dinner table, and one of them asking the other “if you could pass the guacamole; that would be awesome!” implying that this is a more “polite” way of asking instead of seeming demanding. He went through dominance hierarchies, communality and reciprocity. All of which he provided an example for and explained that depending on the relationship type determines which type of the three would be more appropriate to use. Everything mentioned in the video leads to and supports my belief that our thoughts are structured by the syntax of the language we speak. We say certain things in certain ways so that they come out the way we want them to be conveyed, so I believe that they are, most of the time, put together in our heads before put in to words and said aloud. A far as thinking English thoughts, I believe that your thoughts are up to how ever you may say something, or whichever is easiest for you because thinking is something that comes naturally, like a first language. All in all, I enjoyed the video and I gained a lot of informative insight on language and interpretations.

  2. Alana Weldon says:

    I thought the video was very interesting, quite funny as well. It was an interesting take on simple conversation and what it really means. How language can sometimes be taken different ways and said with different attitudes and intentions. I do believe that our thoughts are structured by the syntax of language. The way we use words or even the way we DON’T use words is very important to the way we think. You could say one thing to me and I could take it a completely different way than your initial purpose of saying it. The most interesting part of the video was the date scene. It is funny how we say certain things thinking that it is an “okay” thing to say when in actuality it is not socially right to say that in certain situations. Like “it would be awesome if you could pass the guacamole” the intentions were good but the way it is taken is bad. We make simple language seem a lot more complex than it needs to be. He could have easily said “Can you pass me the guacamole please” it’s a weird way to put such a simple task. Language is so important, not just verbally but physically. A wink, a smile, a simple shift of your body could say so much to someone. This video really put that into perspective. Yes we do think in English. We organize what we want to say and how we want to say it in our heads, so each conversation starts out as an idea or a thought, and then situated and organized into words. It’s cool the way language works and how it helps and sometimes hurts us as a society.

  3. Landon Jones says:

    I agree with Pinker’s idea that for example politeness, also the statement doesnt make sense, it is acknowledged and understood by the other party. I really like how he used the Sopranos as an example because almost everything out their mouth is veiled by others within the community and have a common understanding. When understanding what your are speaking in your brain, i would have to say it may english but you use your own lingo and their is no need for another party to understand what your are meaning. The ideas that are understood by you may not be understood by someone else.

  4. William Hayes says:

    This whole video was very cool and entertaining. It really knew how to keep my attention. I believe we are some what constrained by our language. The reason why some is that one can use context clues to figure out what another person is hinting at like in the Sopranos skit. Though he does not come straight out and insist money for protection. The store clerk can gather through context clues and sometimes body language what the mob bass is ensuing.In my opinion slang is the only thing that can constrain language. In that it is generally harder to figure out what the person is trying to convey to another person.

  5. Justina Williams says:

    I believe Steven Pinker hit the nail on the head with his breakdown on how we use language. There are so many underlying meanings in what most people view as “everyday” conversations. Instead of directly saying what we mean, we tend to sugarcoat things or attempt to hide behind innuendos. I believe that our thoughts are structured by the syntax of language. Even a young child learning how to speak may have a basic structure of how language works and later on his structure will become more complex. Our thoughts are probably structured as soon as we are able to interact with one another. I can only believe that my thoughts are in English. My thoughts are structured around the English language because it’s all I know.

  6. Sabrina Faulkner says:

    The video, for one, was very entertaining to watch. I’ve seen various speeches done in that context, and I think it really enhances what the speaker is saying. As for the content of the video, I coudln’t agree more with Pinker. While watching you saw that there are various innuendos and ways of speaking within those three specified relationships. Everyone just assumes that when using various innuendos such as the etchings one, or one that I think is more up to date “want to watch a movie,” they are going to be understood by the other person. Also, when he said that when we use that veil it is okay to say what we say but without it it becomes unacceptable or may damage a friendship/have lasting consequences. That veil is there not only for the protection of our own feelings, but for the protection of our social relationships. While watching this video, slang also came to mind. The word bitch technically means a female dog but it is used with a negative connotation for people. Slang and innuendos make it difficult for people from outside cultures to understand a language.

  7. Ethiopia Gultneh says:

    I agree with both hypothesis’s. I have heard of the Sapir-Whorf idea before in an introductory sociology course and I don’t agree that language does have an effect on the way people act, think, or even perceive. I do not think that this intersects with pinker’s idea about blanketed language and innuendos. I agree with Pinker’s modern update more, because I don’t think our thought process has much to do with our dialect. One would assume that their thoughts would be in the same language they speak. But I don’t think the words that we speak are verbatim to the way that we think due to social norms and societal expectations that cause us to think twice and sugar coat or filter what we say out loud, not only when it comes to negative comments, but also, as Pinker points out in the video, in order to avoid awkward situtations. Although a lot of inferred statements are widespread common knowledge, people still hide behind the innuendos and depend on others to read between lines. The common knowledge and innuendos do vary throughout different societies and cultures though.

  8. Sean Bujno says:

    1. Is our though structured by the syntax we speak?
    I would say NO and YES. Babies have thoughts and problem solve even though they don’t know language. Steven Pinker bases his skit off of the idea that “thoughts” are some sort of objective tangible thing so it would just depend on one’s definition of THOUGHT which would give you whatever answer you desire. I agree and disagree with Pinker and his opinions on the subject. It would be nice to see a comparison of why someone else would think differently than him to better grasp both sides of the subject.

    2.When you hear your mind’s voice in your own head I presume it is in English. Does that mean you are thinking English thoughts right now? I think that we are simply thinking. I tried thinking in Spanish then in German then in English on the same assortment of topics and I came to the same conclusions as I would have in my native English. Language could be a simple means of coming to the same place as someone else but what would or could effect it is the different understandings of culture and the culture itself effecting the a different understanding of the same topic. It could be that thought is universal.

  9. Kylie Beauchamp says:

    This video was very entertaining as well as informative and made some relevant points about language that I think are often times just looked over and that we fail to realize how complex language and speaking really is. I think its very interesting that we aren’t necessarily taught how to interact with our friends compared to coworkers or bosses but its just somehow just socialized in us. Whats even more interesting is the usage of innuendos. We all use them, but whether we do it consciously or not is something worth noting. Whether we are just sugar coating something or trying to feel someone out, I think our language is structured by our thoughts that create the syntax we speak. I do also tend to think that people think in their first language, for us it would probably be english. We may not say everything we think, probably hopefully we don’t either, but based on the situation and culture we are in we will try to say things that are important and relevant to the topic at hand.

  10. Ryan Whitmore says:

    I really enjoyed this video. It was easy to understand even though it moved quickly. I like this topic becaus eit is something I think about alot. Why do we need to beat around the bush all the time? but i guess in more situations then not, if confortablility is a factor then it might be better then being blunt. As for the question of weather or not my thoughts are English because I am thinking thoughts in the English language, I would like to say that my thoughts are not to be catagorized by any language barrior. yes I do think thoughts in English, but I am an individual and my thoughts are one of a kind no matter where Im at or what language is my first. I really hope I understood the question.

  11. Mark Belardo says:

    My belief is that our thoughts are in fact structured by the syntax of the languages we speak. Although, human thoughts are generally centered on the same subjects, our different languages and cultures change our conscious on our different ideas of life, and whatever we particularly believe. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems to be the truth when it states that different languages predispose people to thinking and acting in particular ways.

  12. Samara says:

    I’ve watched a few videos formatted similarly and I must say ..the approach is wonderful. Not only do you get to visually see the speaker’s messages in artistic ways, you’re also able to hear and re-read (most of the time) what the message is as well. I’ve never looked at communication through different categories described in the video however now I certainly do. On one hand I agree and fully understand the different concepts Pinker discussed and I find them pretty fascinating, but I also agree that there are many communication contexts that cannot be placed in specific categories that always act in accordance to that specific context. It seems rather weird to me that us humans have this enormous tendency to over-think or over-generalize everything. Once something is said bluntly (without the “sugar coating”), I do find it hard to see that person in the same light, but that does not mean that I cannot continue to have that person in my life. I personally honor/respect someone who is honest and blunt compared to a sugar coater. As a woman I do also prefer to have communication be as direct and blunt as possible, instead of always having to guess implicitly and explicitly different meanings associated with what was spoken. You cannot take “bluntness” back this is true, but I also know that human beings aren’t perfect which is a truth as well. I’m overall pleased with the video and the concepts however there were a few ideas I have my reservations about.

  13. Communication and language between people has always been something that interests me. While viewing the clip, I was able to find similarities within Pinker’s video and what I am currently learning about in my conflict communication class. For example, we are learning that dominance and power are major underlying issues during times of conflict. I think that when the video mentions how overt language is something that you cannot take back, it helps bring to light how important power is between relationships. Once you say something you can possibly experience loss of face, or even you power over the other person. This clip really made me think about how much indirectness is used on a daily basis. When I am indirect with my friends, they always are able to read between the lines and know my actual intent. However I find it very fascinating how individuals change this patterned language response depending on the audience involved in the conversation.

  14. Devin Allen says:

    I think that language does make a person’s thought process different than someone of a different language to a certain degree. Growing up we all learn what is acceptable in a social setting and how to react a certain way to what is said to you and I think knowing how a language is setup and how you process it in your head is what separates us language wise. I don’t think different language thoughts are completely separate I believe that the translation in our head just makes us go about things a little differently in life but in a general sense the same so, I agreed with both hypothesis in certain ways. Learning how to read body language and tone is a barrier that can be created by different languages that are typical things people learn from being others of the same language and culture.

  15. Jashonda Elliott says:

    I believe language doesn’t constrain us it can be used to convey many different type of relationships or how to the person you are having a conversation with! Just like I love you and I’m in love with you are two different things and are said to two different types of relationships. Lets say we do think in English just because we think in English does not mean we are thinking English thoughts because we could technically be using words and slang that could be used in a different culture in a different way. So depending on the definition it could change what kind of thoughts you have. I believe language is wonderful it’s a way to show our thoughts and emotions to others in the world.

  16. Rebecca Taylor says:

    I thought the video was really interesting and funny, I have known about the sapir-whorf hypothesis for a while and always agreed with it. I think language definitely influences how people think, because it is such an important part of culture. An example of this is how Eskimos have many different words for snow that describe it in greater detail than our one word does in English. They need to have more descriptive words because that’s part of where they are located, and when languages die out you lose a lot of information about culture because you can tell a lot of what was important to people by the words they use, such as how the Native Americans had many different words for corn.

  17. Desiree Johnson says:

    I think this video was very ineresting. I especially like the point that he made when he said language consists of 3 things a bribe, command and a proposition. I feel language does shape our thoughts. How we speak is how we think. If you look at other cultures and languages, they think differently from us, because their language is different. We can think something, and instead of flat out saying it, we find others ways to say exacly what we want to say. I feel language does shape our though process and what ever language we speak is what language we think. If I speak english, I cant think in german or french. I feel language has alot to do with how we are, because every language consists of different words, and words become actions and behaviors.

  18. Josh Frechem says:

    I do actually believe that because of the language we speak we are predisposed to have the TENDENCY to think a certain way. I think this goes down to the dialect level because each individuals language is determined mostly by the area and household where they learned to speak. I believe I have the deep down tendency to think of things a certain way but through my scientific education my mind has been able to venture and broaden the way it thinks. After learning Spanish I would find myself just speaking Spanish randomly in places which means my mind has obviously done some rewiring to where it enjoys to speak in Spanish from time to time because, at least for me, taking so many classes has made me interested in the Spanish culture and history in turn opening my mind to contemplate differently. So I believe we are predisposed to think a certain way but as we grow old and learn more and allow changes to our internal code, our way of thought changes with it. Now people who don’t learn to accept other influences on thought and do not travel to get first hand experiences may not stray so much from their original internal code and think a similar way their whole lives because that is what they know and all they know. For example, and I do not mean to seem insulting, people from the middle of nowhere who never travel, no higher education or anything.. they speak the same way their entire life because nothing is coming in and challenging their way of thought. No foreign languages come in to interact with, no higher education to explore the cultures of different languages and I really think that has an effect on their lack of cultural and mental growth. This is a good thing that higher education is such a common thing these days. The more you interact with other cultures the more you are exposed to them and your definition of language is changed along with your way of thinking because of these interactions. In the end I believe these interactions are what defines language and they have a direct impact on the way we think.

  19. Juan L Rodriguez says:

    I think both hypothesis are good. I think language really does have an impact on how we think in a way. Our thought is some what structured by the syntax of our language. When i think i think english thoughts.

  20. Alan Flynn says:

    There is no doubt that human thought is structured by the way we speak. Although the majority of the time we do not say exactly what was said in our head, it is all based on what we are comfortable with. Relationships such as those of reciprocity and communality are somewhat similar because of the way that we interact with one another within them. The way that Pinker described situations with people and how they react based off their relationship with a person makes perfect sense. I found it interesting how he touched on the cultural aspect being that through time we have learned ways to interact with people, such as dominance for instance. Language constrains us because everyone is not always thinking the same thing, or on the same page so it matters most that we think about what we say. A good example was the sexual innuendos and mutual knowledge. One could never possibly know what someone knew or was thinking without direct speech, that of which provides mutual knowledge.

  21. Santanna Miller says:

    I think that this video explains very clearly just how much of an impact our thoughts have on our language. We use language as a way of expression. Whenever we are trying to convey to another person what is going through our minds we depend on our language to explain for us. Most people have something that they want to say and then they try to find the words to match whatever it is that they are feeling and/or thinking; But what happens when our language falls short of adequately describing our inner thoughts? If we cannot find the right words then sometimes we must change the way we think, and as the way we think continues to evolve with us it becomes time to change our language. I think that it is interesting also that as much as language effects our thoughts and our views on certain things and situations, there are still some thoughts that words just aren’t enough for. Every once in a while there is something that influences the way you view things or the way your mind processes something and it seems as though there may be no words or sufficient exchange of language that could possibly capture that perfectly. Language and thoughts are powerful and complex tools.

  22. Will Sykes says:

    I agree with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, assuming I understand it correctly. Let’s look back to the 1800’s in Great Britain. People spoke in very proper and sophisticated language. I believe this had a major impact on the way that they dressed and behaved, or vice-versa. In either case, the way language is structured directly correlates to the way people think and act. We have abandoned the Old English style of speaking/thinking and now we use Modern English. Because of this transition of language, I believe our actions and thoughts have changed accordingly, perhaps for the worst.

  23. Antasia Ward says:

    The video was very cool because of the illustrations. I had never took the time before the video to realize just how language works. I have been in a few awkward moments where miscommunications or assumed meanings lead to me wanted to run away and hide out of embarrassment but hey did the other person really know what I was thinking by what I said anyway?

  24. Myko Banks says:

    One, I would like to say that Pinker is a great speaker. I was engaged in his whole lecture. I like that he used modern references, but also threw in some older ones (pertaining to the emperor). His thoughts on how we speak to one another are absolutely correct, in my opinion. It is easier for me to address his ideas than that of Sapir and Whorf because Pinker puts his ideas in easier terms for me. I also learn better with audio and visual teachings. This video was very entertaining, but more educating. I appreciate that professors, anthropologists, psychologists, etc. find the time to come up with lectures such as this.
    Pertaining to the actual lecture, Pinker touched on very important aspects to the way we speak to one another. I agree, if someone is blunt about something, it may ruin how someone thinks about that person. Also, it could ruin whatever connection they may have. However, if we use language, such as veiled bribery, some things are left unsaid and it may just save you. There are reservations about certain aspects of that, as well; but that is a different discussion in itself, and I could speak forever on it.
    Two, yes, the thoughts in my head are English. I speak no other languages fluently. So what else could it be? As we discussed in class, though, someone who speaks another language will be thinking in their own language; otherwise they would not understand their own thoughts. The subject we may be thinking about in different languages, however, may be the same. Say we are at the aquarium. We see a lot of fish in a tank. I will be thinking in English, “Wow, that is a lot of fish.” Or, “Those fish are very colorful.” Where the person I may be with or around who is foreign would be thinking the same thing, but in their language. It only makes sense!
    I love how this lecture got me thinking, though. I definitely wrote more on the topic than I though. Thank you for that!

  25. Dustin Woodham says:

    This video was very interesting to me. The most interesting porition in my opinion was talking about three different relationship types: dominance, reciprocity, and communality. It’s not something that I’ve thought about but it makes sense when you do. You can see how these relationships relate to one’s actual life and those around you. Another interesting topic is the people assembling in public scenario, answering the question of why is it that people gather in public squares to challenge the authority of governments or higher powers. People didn’t know that other people felt the way they did, and thus when they gather together they realize that these other people have thoughts in common with theirs, or the collective power. Overall, the video was pretty cool to watch. It talked about a lot of things that someone might not be able to explain and describe, but that they know from real world experiences.

  26. Samantha Peters says:

    I definitely enjoyed Pink’s video, although it was hard for me to follow at first. Because he is such a fast speaker, it took me a few moments to catch up with him. The fact that he was illustrating the concepts that he was verbally telling us made it difficult at first, but I soon found myself drawn in and it actually made it easier. I certainly agree with what he was saying about mutual versus individual knowledge. I have wondered about these sorts of things many times before. Why don’t we just say what we mean, instead of being so implicit and sort of beating around the bush? However, this is so normal in our society (and many others, I’m sure) that speaking totally overtly would be shocking in many situations. I believe there is a certain “safety” in saying things that only express individual knowledge, because you can take back what you said, or you can claim that you did not mean what the other person thought you meant. However, like Pinker said, you CANNOT take back mutual language/knowledge because there is no guessing what your true meaning was- it is just “out there” and cannot be changed. So yes, in a way, I do think we are culturally and personally defined by our language. It gauges and guides our relationships, whether they be of the family, friend, or career sort. Furthermore, I believe that our thoughts are influenced by our language because of this. After all, if our language influences our friendships, then it must influence our thoughts, because we decide who we do and do not want to be friends with based on our mental perceptions. And because I do not speak another language fluently, my thoughts are always in English. It is true that I know a few words in Spanish and use them occasionally, but it is just for fun and never for a serious intent. I really enjoyed this video and I think learning about language and how it effects us on a mental, personal, and cultural level is very interesting.

  27. Samantha Peters says:

    *Pinker’s video

  28. Marta Kidane says:

    When referring to Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, I completely agree. I speak Tigrinya (Ethiopian/Eritrean), when I am in that particular language zone my words have a different meaning. When I think to myself, that voice speaks in Tigrinya, and in translation I do feel as if I am thinking Tigrinya thoughts. When typing on here, it looks and sounds ludicrous but in all actuality it haves legitimate backing to it. The video was somewhat confusing, Pinker’s suggest of language and thought relationship certainly has a solid explanation but I feel on has to understand the full definition of language and thought on separate terms before combing the two. When Pinker refers to Fiske and the three major human relationship types I found that better to understand when in combination. The three types dominance, communality, and reciprocity all have different stances but all hold common ground when in translation. I definitely enjoyed the presentation, it brought a new perspective to language as a whole.

  29. Amber Thorne says:

    I agree completely with Pinkers video. People, as the saying says, have always “beat around the bush” instead of saying what they really want. And this could be the cause of an issue. Say for instance a man and woman are having a conversation and the man says something that the woman interpreted in a negative way. Now the a perfectly good conversation has a most likely chance of “turning sour” because of one bad interpretation. However, in reference to the movie “When Harry Met Sally”, Sally was right once something is sad it can not be taken back; and depending on what was said the person may have time to redeem his/her self by stating while you may have thought this, I actually meant this. So in a way we are somewhat able to hide behind our own language

  30. Alfred Posis says:

    This was a really entertaining video. The smooth animation and quick humor only made the video that much more interesting and easy to follow.

    Overall, it was nice to see how Pinker laid out the basis of language and interaction among people, both in the implicit and explicit sense. Breaking down communication really made it clear what defines language. A language needs to convey a content and needs to negotiate a relationship. Without these two aspects, there is no language.

    In addition, Pinker adds Anthropologist Fisk’s theory of the major types of human relationships, it clarified how language was influenced and further developed. The three types of relationships are dominance, communality, and reciprocity. One cannot interact the same way they do with their communal relationship than with dominant ones. The outcome may not be what was desired.

    Lastly, it was really fascinating to look deeper in veiled conversation or innuendos. He adds that refraining from directly speaking the intent can potentially prevent a strain in a relationship, but actually being blunt may do the opposite. I agree with this somewhat. In my opinion, dominant relationships works with this, but not so much in communal and reciprocal relationships. With the latter two, I believe there should be complete honesty. Trying to insinuate or imply another meaning may come about suspect between close relationships or business relationships. But I completely understand what Pinker was trying to say.

    This truly an insightful video to watch.

  31. Anthony Portacio says:

    I really enjoyed what this video discussed about the use of language. I think Pinker’s discussion about language is very accurate. I agree that the use of overt language is a means of hiding one’s true intentions or possibly a way to say things we are generally afraid to say, but want to say without negatively impact a relationship. I am not fully bilingual, but I know many words and phrases of my native language so I do often find myself thinking about certain things in my native language. This happens mostly because I am used to my parents using these words or phrases for whatever it was that i was thinking about.

  32. Jelanie Hill says:

    This video was kinda of funny. Although I had to watch it a few times because it wasn’t the easiest to understand at first. I agree with Pinker’s description of language. Overt language is a way to safely say something that could potentially be inappropriate. It’s used as sort of a safeguard in our interactions, like in the way a person looking to buy drugs would use somewhat ambiguous language to convey their meaning. In my head, my thoughts are generally in English. I believe language is a way for people to express thoughts into a medium that can be understood by others.

  33. Jennifer Follin says:

    I was surprisingly entertained by this whole video. The way in which the lecture was presented was very smart and kept the audience engaged and wondering what the artist would draw next. The subject in itself is a very interesting topic. I found that many of the points that Pinker was making made a lot of sense in respect to the way people interact with one another. The whole concept of ‘you can’t take it back, it’s already out there’, is one that, in my experience, has been found to be very true. Although we might say certain thoughts aloud, the innuendos that are taken from what we actually say can have a major affect on how another reacts to your words. And when we choose not to use those innuendos and instead outright say exactly what we want or what is on our mind, we take a chance that our words will have a harsher impact on the conversation than if one was to simply use an innuendo to get their point across. Overall, I thought this was a thought provoking video and know some of the concepts will stick with me as I continue with my studies.

  34. Julianna Nickolas says:

    I think Steven Pinker’s breakdown on how we use language is extremely accurate. There are so many different versions of what people interpret language to be. People can have conversations without even speaking to each other. Or have conversations through gestures instead of coming out and actually saying what we are thinking. We also tend to hide what we really think majority of the time because of social norms that are forced on us.. I think that our thoughts could be structured by the syntax of language. From the day we are born we are taught how to interact with other people from our parents facial expressions and their tones of how they speak even before we can comprehend what they are saying. Our thoughts are probably structured as soon as we are able to interact with one another.I also think that our thoughts are in the language that we are native to because that is the language we were taught from day one and i’m sure it is the same in other countries where different languages are spoken.

  35. Nick Leider says:

    Stephen Pinkner really put everything into perspective with his modern update video. Through his breakdown of the English language, I kept finding myself agreeing with things he was arguing. Also, he backed everything up he said, which was reinforcing to me. After watching Pinkner’s video, I would say that I believe our thoughts are structured by the syntax of the language we speak. Pinkner backed up this general claim numerous times throughout his video. One time in particular was when he went in depth about innuendos, and not saying all of what you mean. Because other people who speak english fluently will generally “read between the lines,” as Pinkner puts it, we can assume that language syntax plays a huge role in the structure of our thoughts. There has to be some overlapping from culture to culture about thought processes, especially simple ones. Having said that, I think that most of our cognitions are shaped by the language which we speak.

  36. Keenan Falls says:

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that like the grooves in a vinyl record, different language predisposes people to thinking and acting in particular ways. Today this has become something of an old fashioned idea, but it is still provocative to contemplate.

    In this short animated lecture, MIT psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that the relationship between language and thought can be understood in the way veiled language is used to mediate diverse social relationships by playing with mutual knowledge.

    Are we constrained by language, or aren’t we?

    In the comments section below respond to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Pinker’s modern update, addressing either is sufficient. Is our thought structured by the syntax of the language(s) we speak? When you hear your mind’s voice in your own head I presume it is in English. Does that mean you are thinking English thoughts right now?

    I find it plausible that language predisposes our thinking and actions. Constraining us in the ways in which we think, so is this limited by the number of languages we know and understand? I think so. Pinker’s suggestion is definitely appealing and an interesting way to approach the hypothesis. However I think it’s deeper than the language we speak. For instance, in russian, german, or italian culture, with their respective dominant language, do they use veiled language as well? Or do they skip this and speak directly about everything? I think that if veiled communication is consistent across a variety of different languages, then it is something more than influenced by our language. More as a traditional sort of thing that has been passed on. If our parents never used veiled language, then why would we start using it?

  37. Zach Christman says:

    I agree with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I think that our language does dictate our world view and our actions. A prime example of this hypothesis is our dialect. People from the country will still speak English but will have a different dialect than those who live in urban settings. This subtle difference in dialect greatly effects human’s world view. Not only is language a crucial part of our culture yet language is what makes us human. The little voice inside of our head derives from learning language. Without language, we will not have a voice in our head instead it would just be grunts. The little voice in your head would be Spanish if you spoke Spanish also. Overall, language greatly affected the evolution of mankind.

  38. csmit165 says:

    Throughout our lives, we are trained to engage in this kind of linguistic interaction (and presumed understanding). We learn to attach objects to certain names based upon ostensive means of teaching. In the same way that we point out objects and attach them to their appropriate names, we also develop specific ways to communicate with certain people–depending our relationships with them. The way that we speak may be ambiguous or clear and straightforward, depending on who we are conveying our message to–or rather, who we want to convey our message to. So as Pinker is emphasizing, how we convey our message is crucially important and reflects our relationships and ties with people as well. Our language also shows us many of the biases and misconceptions that are embedded into our language and our use of it. Many of the things that we convey (or attempt to convey) through language are discrete, despite their importance.

  39. Christina Cadore says:

    I found the video very interesting, I think it explains a great deal about the ways in which miscommunication or ‘awkwardness’ can occur. I think large parts of the ways we speak and the innuendos that we make while speaking are governed by the culture that we were raised in. From personal experience I’ve had a few miscommunications myself since coming to America, although both the British and Americans speak English, the difference in culture means that we communicate things in a slightly different way, on of the most notable ways being in what is regarded as polite. Equally interesting is how we adjust our behaviours and language depending on which of the three types of relationships we’re dealing with. This video emphasises the importance of adapting to different relationships and the power of language and how we choose to use it.

  40. Mary Parsons says:

    This lecture was very entertaining. I liked the way he related his topic to popular characters in movies and TV shows, making the topics easier to understand and relate to actual situations. I think that language both constrains us and allows us freedom. Language serves to establish hierarchy in our social relationships, such as the employer/employee relationship. Once this hierarchy is established it is hard to break out of it as that leads to the state of awkwardness described in the video. However, language also allows us the freedom to navigate whatever social relationship we are a part of at the moment, improve upon our existing relationships, and create new ones. Language allows us to cooperate as humans and to comprehend the world around us. It gives our thoughts form and helps us to understand the thoughts of others. Without it, humans would not be who we are today.

  41. Ryan Barbrey says:

    First off, loved this video. I like this way of going about teaching a topic and in this case it definietely kept my interest while watching. I believe the nail was hit on the head here. When we talk to each other, especially when it comes to a delicate topic, we tend to sugar coat what we want to say using the veil. People, especially Americans, like to use statements where they are saying something without actually saying it directly. I believe this is for two reasons; one is that it protects our social relationships because by not directly saying what you mean it protects you from being judged by someone listening. The second reason is protection from a terrible outcome. The example from Fargo that was used is a good example because he insinuating he wanted to bribe the cop and IF the cop decided this was wrong and did not want to take the bribe then he never directly bribed the cop, just insinuated. This protects the speaker from a troubled outcome.

  42. Cody Smith says:

    I found this video entertaining and informative. It is very true that people often use euphemisms for things instead of just saying them outright. Oftentimes it is seen as more polite to do this instead of just saying what we mean, and most of the time it works. It helps people to save face by not overtly being turned down for anything, it it helps to save friendships by keeping the illusion that that the two parties don’t know what the other is talking about. However, sometimes it is better to just say what you mean instead of trying to use veiled language.

  43. Jarrell Young says:

    Steven Pinker’s perception on language based on relationship seemed to fit dead on. I found his view point to be very informative and at the same time I was able to come to a full understanding on what he meant. For most, language is a key factor to communication and depending on how that language is conveyed by the sender will determine how the message is percieved by reciever. This is commonly where miscommuncation plays it part. As far as our communication process, I believe our thoughts are structured by a syntax of languages. Though my thoughts are based off the English language, I wouldn’t neccessarily consider them English thoughts, they’re just communicated in English. I believe the human thought process has no specific language until that thought is then processed out and interacted with another.

  44. Pinker’s hypothesis for language and its pivotal way with which we communicate sums up almost all of my daily interactions. We as a society utilize these set of commonly understood skills constantly. Whether we’re texting one another, a supervisor or coworker, spouse or lover, we’re constantly attempting to use the correct syntax to convey what we intent without causing an adverse reaction. I utilize this form of communication even at my place of employment, when speaking with a customer on how a computer has become corrupted or failed, I’m trained in the art of using selected communication that has been researched to keep the second party as calm and unalarmed as possibly while still conveying the severity or complexity of the situation. Great video, I’ve always been a fan of quick on screen “animation”

  45. Taylor Perschka says:

    Pinker’s modern update is sufficient in explaining the use of language in the modern age. Our thought is, without a doubt, structured by the syntax of language we speak–in particular, English. The English language, complex gramatically as it is, contains innumerable innuendos and euphemisms such as those discussed in the video. The language not only conveys content and negoitates relationship type, but conveys an underlying subconscious cultural understanding. In one’s daily life, so many things go left unsaid or are veiled by polite infractions to try to smooth over a situation. I think Pinker’s update is accurate; in this response, I am undoubtedly “thinking English thoughts”. The language has been programmed into us as a society and powers our thought process not only syntactically but content wise as well.

  46. Ashley Moye says:

    I think Pinker describes the English language very well. As far as the way I think, I think in English. However, I don’t believe that means I think completely different thoughts than French, African or Cuban thinkers. Only the syntax and phrasing of the thoughts differ. I think the culture and environment are more responsible in framing the way each of us thinks.

  47. Preston Wrenn says:

    I believe that Pinker is the best for describing the language of English, if I interpreted it correctly. I believe that our thoughts are structured by syntax. I do think English thoughts, if hearing myself speak English in my head.

  48. Parisa Fard says:

    I found this video quite interesting. Without the sketching, it would if been very hard to follow along! The way we use words and the words we don’t use are very important to human language. I believe that our thoughts are structured by syntax. To me, Pinker described the English language very well. We all go through this communication process everyday, we all know not to take every little thing literally. People love to sugar coat things, rather than come off as being completely blunt. This is because people don’t want to feel awkward, mean or misunderstood. When we sugar coat what we say, were taking a chance on whether the person will actually know exactly what were saying, and that can cause communication barriers. Overall, this video made a lot of sense-we are shaped by the language we speak.

  49. Rebekah Ewer says:

    I think our thoughts can be structured in some ways by the syntax of our languages. Its kind of hard to say, because I only know one language and culture very well, but I’ve read foreign words before that hold definitions that don’t exist in English, like Sgriob (Gaelic): The itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but the Gaelic’s have a real word for it. So we do think differently in different languages to some extent, but I also think our thoughts can have a lot in common, and maybe next time I take a shot of whiskey I’ll recognize the Gaelic’s train of thought. Additionally, in class we’ve learned that different languages/cultures can have a different scenes of humor, so that train of thought could differ, which makes me wonder how the innuendoes mentioned in the video would translate to other languages. And, an interesting side note I read online, babies who listen to different languages cry differently from one another, even though they may come out in the womb crying the same.

  50. Christopher Bailey says:

    Pinker’s update was fantastic. I could easily relate to the examples that he provided during his presentation. He skillfully illustrated that unspoken forms of communication can be as powerful as the spoken word. I think having this lesson delivered to individuals at a point early in their development, say puberty, would go a long in towards helping people to understand the information that is being transferred in everyday situations. Most ultimately learn the lessons that Pinker outlined, but it also usually comes with trial, error, embarrassment resulting from misunderstanding, and oh yeah, awkward encounters.

  51. Matthew Sachse says:

    I think Pinker really makes a great point of language, and interactions in general. He makes a interesting discussion on how we use veiled language in order to better communicate and not be as blunt as our thoughts really are. Also, the fact that even a difference in dialect can in fact actually lead to a great difference in how we communicate with each other was a bit unexpected. Finally, I had always believed that a person’s thoughts were in their native language, when in reality we are just translating what we are thinking to our most familiar way of expressing our thoughts

  52. Bryan Dorman says:

    Pinker has found this different way of viewing the English language. Although it brings up question such as; Do other languages have the same innuendos and indirect language? In my opinion I enjoyed this video, but it seemed to only touch one part of the English language. When Pinker states the different ways of communicating where would sarcasm or other language parts fit into this theory. In my opinion, although innuendos in conversations bring out answers that in my opinion you could learn more about a person than just direct knowledge or speaking. You are able to discover more on how a person thinks by their answers through innuendos than direct knowledge. Do not get me wrong I enjoyed this film and the drawings that went along with it allowed for an easier understanding of the topic, I just feel like it should have been touched on a little bit longer for a better understanding of the topic.

  53. Ashley Matters says:

    I really enjoyed this video because it brought up a lot of questions about how our language is set up. I really was interested in the indirect speech theory because it is true that we tend to cover up our true meanings in the guise of politeness. How do we expect others to read between the lines? Would it be so bad if we were more direct about what we actually wanted from other people whether it is a threat, request, ect? Our society has taught us that it is not socially acceptable to act thus with other people but I agree with Pinker if people used more direct knowledge there would be less confusion about what the other person whats and/or thinks. There wouldn’t be a need for sarcasm or innuendos in that case. I also really enjoyed his examples as they were presented in a very witty way and used many great examples such as the movie “When Harry Met Sally”. I feel that I would need to learn more about this subject however because I do agree that our language shapes the way we feel or think as I do “think” in the English language but the syntax behind language is too complex for me to be able to make a solid argument about the connection between speech and relationships.

  54. Tatiana Nell says:

    Language has the power to make the most uncomfortable situations bearable. I do strongly believe that our thoughts are structured by syntax because depending on how you word things makes all the difference. Pinker made a very good point regarding how we speak to dominant figures. Formal language is very important but knowing when to use it is key. For the most part think in English but sometimes I think in Spanish slang because that is what is spoken around me the most when I am at home.

  55. chend035 says:

    I think our language does in a since hold us back from different aspects of life. With the constraint we are only able to experience certain things. While body language and gestures are able to help us communicate, we can never fully grasp something without an explanation or being able to explain it. I believe that we often think in the language that we are predominantly around. While in the U. S. I think and dream in English, however when I was in Spain my thought process and dreams revolved alot around the spanish language.

  56. Scott Festejo says:

    Our language along with people from other countries language hold each other back from communication. Hand gestures that are learned while growing up can easily be used to communicate with other people. If there was only one universal language then it would make the world easy with communication but it would remove the diversity. My thoughts are always in english because thats what I speak everyday and its the language my mind is trained to use.

  57. Joe Perea says:

    I believe that language has a direct affect on our culture. various cultures use different languages and dialects that can be represented in that cultures customs. This video was an eye opener and i found the content very interesting. It can be interpreted into many different aspects of this study because it is a broad subject. In the united states, Many different regions have different ways of communicating within the English language. Some forms of slang derive from street culture and formal English can be traced back to England to where the roots of the language come from.

  58. Ashlynn Christian says:

    I would have to say I agree with Pinker, and how he explains how we use language and even interact with each other. It is true, we learn new things about our language when we interact with each other. Also, I do believe that a lot of individuals like to beat around the bush, and not say what they truly mean to say. However for me, I tend not sugarcoat my thoughts, I am very forward, blunt person. But that is just how I was raised, my mother is like that so obviously I learned from her. I strongly agree, that our thoughts are structured around syntax. I believed that is how we raised, even if all of us are not raised the same. I would definitely say that the voice in my is English, because that is all I know. But I do find myself “speaking in different language” but in different situations that remind me of my childhood memories when my best friend and I made up our own language.

  59. Kelsey Longnaker says:

    While we are somewhat restrained by the requirements of language so far as communication goes, we are not constrained in our ability to manipulate language. Our thoughts of course do follow our native language most of the time, but some individuals think in images as well, or even omit “verbal” thought. Where mere language cannot get an idea across, image does the trick. Also, our language is evolving. Any language spoken or written today is evolving. A changing language can be expanded upon or developed by its speakers so that it better suits our needs. The “etchings” scenario would not have been able to occur in the first place if the language and subtle meanings behind it were not capable of conforming to the needs of humans. And language could not exist at all if humans were not capable of bending it to their will to communicate an idea. A language that does not do as its speaker wishes is a very short-lived one.

  60. A.J. Boughner says:

    I agree with the video, we all have a distinct dialect, but language is the most important role in our everyday life. Language lets us communicate with each other and gets the job done when working with others. If you go back to the time when the people tried to build the tower of Bable, they could not build it, because every one spoke in different languages and they could not understand each other. Language varies from places though, I am from Pittsburgh, we say Pop when we want to know what kind of Soda is on the menu, we also say yinz instead of yall. We speak Pittsburghese, and the people of the south do not understand me when I speak like I do when I am at home, while when I am home and I try to speak like i am in the south, the Pittsburghers look at me like I am crazy. The moral of the story is, we all have different dialects and different ways of language, but when you speak English as a whole, we all understand English as a whole and can get along.

  61. Matthew Sachse says:

    I believe this video really breaks down social interactions and how we attempt to be indriect to appear more polite and make encounters less awkward. It does’nt really matter what language we speak, what is more importanant is not what we ask a person, but how we ask. The scenario with the etchings was a great example of how we tend to beat around the bush when attempting to hit on a member of the opposite sex. If we were to just outright ask a person, than chances are they would not respond positively, quite possibly be offended or uncomforable. Over time language has developed so that people do not have to be so direct with each other, but still are able to understand what another person may be subtlely implying. This is many ways is as big a part of human social interaction as direct statements are.

  62. Nick Rackowski says:

    Responsibility of our words. We use these indirect speech acts to set up a barrier between us and our words. Basically creating a “fall-guy” if our words create an awkward situation or result in a poor/undesired consequence. Our thought HAS to be structured by the structure(syntax) of the language we speak. In our language we find culture (vice versa), as a result our reaction to an event(traumatic/joyful) causes a thought shaped by our…..CULTURE aka LANGUAGE. I’m not saying it is only our culture that shapes our language but also the environment in which we find ourselves speaking/thinking. Some thoughts have no words explicitly but more of a feeling that has associated words.

    Thinking in english is not really an apt definition for thoughts in language. English is an audible sound that is understood whereas thoughts occur in silence and can range from the logical to the illogical. I think therefore I am, in a sense.

  63. Owen Branigan says:

    i thought that it was quite interesting that when you break it down, body language and communitcation are so strong it can be used to communicate conversation that is completely different from the based off of what is being said. i think that this kind of communication that we now have so much of is one of the leading causes to why lying about things is considered normal now in society.

  64. Jalisa Hall says:

    I found it quite interesting to see how we use language in so many different ways. Before watching this video, I actually never took the time to think that far into it. I do agree that language constrains us, without it, it would be nearly impossible to communicate. It is interesting to think of how different cultures have different ways of communicating. Also how phrases that would be understood in our culture might be misinterpreted in the next. I found the scenario explaining the difference between what would be appropriate to say to a person of dominance and a friend very intriguing, because without noticing we have an instinct to notice the difference between the two.

  65. Courtney Williams says:

    I feel that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct, and that language does predisposes people to thinking and acting in particular ways. A kid exposed to harsh and violent language will most likely grow up becoming a harsh and violent person reflecting on the language that he was taught to use. I also believe that our thought is structured by the syntax of the language we speak. Someone who only text and talks in text language will most likely think ” o.m.g. that’s ridic” vs a person who speaks proper English and would think “Wow. That is not probable”.

    I am thinking English thoughts because of where I grew up and how I speak, I am thinking thoughts a English person might have vs the thought a French person might have who grew up in France.

  66. Kelsi Grace says:

    I believe that Steven Pinker was very profound and accurate in the following video. It was not only informative, but also interesting and entertaining. I agree with the point of the veld speech because after viewing the video I really started to reflect on how our speech can actually have underlying interpretations or meanings that we have learned to understand with each other. It just goes to show that our culture can use communication in indirect and direct ways, language being the key to it all.

  67. Ashley Gibbs says:

    Overall I found the video rather amusing, not only because of the references used to relate points but because personally, all of that is what goes through my head during any and every interactions I have with others haha. Steadily awkward while adding awkward to awkward. The human language is complicated, the scattered explanations throughout the video make that extremely apparent, i.e. ‘you know that she knows that you know that he knows that she knows that you but you don’t know if she knows if he knows etc’ haha what’s appropriate when and with who and within what context and the everyday use of these thought processes, the trial and errors, the fact that these interactions change within different social groups and cliques and cliques within cliques etc. how what is understand within one social group may not be understood within another that has the exact same basic components. The main part I related to was the ‘etchings’ skit and thinking to myself how many different situations along those lines I’ve found myself in where things weren’t always as they appeared. How often ‘play video games’ really meant play video games, or listen to music, or look at art, etc etc. and the amount of times I’ve gotten references confused and turned down genuine offers of friendship in thinking there were ulterior motives, yet went along with what I thought were genuine but turned into ulterior motives and the awkwardness that ensued. Haha people are weird, human interactions via language only make things more weird and complicated especially when you add in the unspoken rules that everyone may or may not be aware of.

  68. Chris Hill says:

    The video was very interesting and funny. It accurately depicts people as they try to be clever and coy in respects to themselves and others. The use of the sopranos was the best way to depict it. Whether it was the etchings situation or the store reinactment you understood what was going on as did the persons involved, with the store for example the clerk understood if he didnt pay their freindly tax his store was going to pay the price. sub language is a clever way of going about saying something without actually saying it to be coy. As far as our thougght, i feel like language isnt really a barrier because if you speak with someone from a different language you have a good chance of articulating what you know about something for the person your speaking with for them to understand. I feel when you hear your own thoughts its more of a sublanguage/slang of your dialect of the original language. Its your own version; the way you think, speak, and act but in respects to language its the same as those who speak the same language.

  69. Dustin Robbins says:

    Whether Pinker is abosolutely correct or not, he did an excellent job at linking evidence together to prove his point. His artist sketchings showed the relationship between each term he used and he came back to each one at least once through the presentation. His view on the relationship between language and though is extremely believable to me. As a sarcastic person, I tend to veil a lot of my speech in order not to offend someone. This presentation did a very good job at answering questions I had about myself and the way I use my thoughts to process speech. I agree that playing with mutual knowledge to mediate diverse relationships is a profound theory and one that will be looked back on for years to come. The theory also does a great job explaining how we convey content and negotiate relationship types through indirect speech acts.

    After watching this presentation, I could only agree that our thoughts are structured by the language we speak and have a giant role in the way we convey this speech to others. I would have to presume that my thoughts are in english and the language that I speak structures the way I respond and process the language and speech of those around me.

  70. Bill Phillips says:

    From birth we are taught to express Ourselves in our native language. Is English so the majority of our thoughts and feelings are Expressed in the English language. However the answer to this question is no because language can be more than the written or spoken word it can also be body or Physical language as well.

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