Does Language Shape and Constrain Thought?

Published: 2021-06-29
762 words
3 pages
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University of California, Santa Barbara
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Language does not shape nor constrain thought. As a vehicle of communication, people are affected by the language they use, but it does not make thoughts thinkable or unthinkable. Due to the differing makers and origins, language molds thought by emphasizing some distinctions while at the same time, ignoring others. When one speaks in a given language, the framework of the language guides some of the factors that the user has to pay attention to. Language therefore helps filter out attention by bringing to the fore important details relevant to the language the speaker is using. It thus means that language only exert an impact on cognition in the same way, cognition exerts influence on language.

It thus means that individuals are affected by language, shaping their understanding, and affecting their perception within the context of the features of the language. However, this does not give an implication of language constraining or shaping up thought. The aspect of thought goes beyond linguistic factors (Bloom 2014). At the same time, linguistic may hinder the level of language proficiency for example, neighbor in English is not gender particular, however, in Spanish or German, the grammar reveals the gender of the neighbor since the pairs Nachbarin/Nachbar, voisine/voisin specifies the neighbors gender (Winters et al., 2015). In an experiment, 3 apes are given 5 photos in which all the photos resembled in their feeding habits. After a careful analysis, the apes put the animal photos togetherer depending on their feeding habits. For example, all animals feeding on greens the apes put separately. At the same time, all animals feeding on both greens and meat, the apes put separately. Through the experiment, it is evident that animals can carry out a task without the need of language. Although this does not mean that the English speaker is limited in his or her thoughts while the Spanish or German speaker is not limited in the ability to conceptualize certain aspects of language. While certain languages may acknowledge given concepts of objects, some are either silent or non-specific at the same, thus giving the notion that the language that is not limited in its context may constrain ones ability to think (Bloom 2014). The old German rhyme, thoughts are free, is a pointer to the independent nature of human thoughts. Additionally, the constant nature of languages to alter and revise their grammar is proof that human thought cannot be limited, constrained, or shaped by thought (Winters et al., 2015).

Certain languages give conflicting messages as concerns gender. Germans, for instance equate inanimate objects as either a she or a he, same to the Spanish. While the Spanish will consider a bridge a she, the Germans will talk of the same bridge as a he. Despite this variation in thought, the two speakers are not lost to the fact that a bridge is not male nor is it a female. An English speaker will from the word go, not equate a bridge as a male nor a female. However, all the three speakers have their thought process in order and are not limited in their ability to understand or go beyond the knowledge of a bridge as a physical structure for crossing over a body of water or valley. Humans do not think in the form of sentences, or within the language system (Gleitman & Papafragou 2013).

Thought is a form of analyzing, reviewing, and expressing oneself, not in languages, but in impulses, feelings, fragments of images, and a lot more than what is commonly perceived. The world of grammar, sentence fragments, words, only offer a means of conveying the thoughtful details into a form understandable by another, but does not dictate, constrain, shape, nor influence thought. If language did truly shape thought, then it may be right to say that deaf people do not and cannot think. The reality that people think differently is also a pointer to the fact that language does not constrain nor shape thought. If this were true, then it means that all Germans would be thinking the same, all English people would be thinking the same, and all ethnic grouping would be thinking the same. However, the truth is, no two humans think the same even if they share the same ethnic background or culture (Gleitman & Papafragou 2013).


Bloom, A. H. (2014). The linguistic shaping of thought: A study in the impact of language on thinking in China and the West. Psychology Press.

Gleitman, L., & Papafragou, A. (2013). 32 Relations Between Language and Thought.

Winters, J., Kirby, S., & Smith, K. (2015). Languages adapt to their contextual niche. Language and Cognition, 7(03), 415-449.

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