Thoughts Without Words?

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In Orwell’s 1984, the totalitarian government is continuously improving on their replacement of old English called Newspeak. The goal of Newspeak is to limit the vocabulary of the people down to the point where they won’t be able to think any thoughts the government doesn’t want them to. It assumes that thoughts can not be expressed without corresponding words, and that thoughts cannot even be thought without those words.

As Orwell writes in the appendix of 1984

“It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

So, is it true? Is it true that it’s not possible to have certain thoughts if your own vocabulary does not have the words to correspond to those thoughts?

In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker says it’s not true. Words and thoughts are not the same. Potential thoughts are not necessarily limited by a limited vocabulary.

“The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications.”*

“People can be forgiven for overrating language. Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see. Thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker. To know what someone else is thinking, or to talk to each other about the nature of thinking, we have to use — what else, words! It is no wonder that many commentators have trouble even conceiving of thoughts without words — or is it that they just don’t have the language to talk about it?
As a cognitive scientist I [Pinker] can afford to be smug about common sense being true (thought is different from language) and linguistic determinism [the idea that limited vocabulary limits thoughts] being a conventional absurdity… [There is] a body of experimental studies that break the word barrier and asses many kinds of nonverbal thought.”**

An example Pinker uses is the false idea people have about the Inuit (Eskimos) having many different words for snow, implying they have a deeper understanding for snow than us “southerners” do. He says this is based on false data and the Inuit have approximately the same number of words for snow as the English language.

There is more to say about this. I am currently reading this book and will write a review on it later.

A good question to ask at this point is: What is the difference between thoughts and ideas?

*Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Penguin, 2015, page 55.
**Ibid., page 65.

Further reading: Past & Future: Connected by Speech

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