A few days ago a couple of men walking beside me woke me from my trance like commuter state as I headed into the tube station on the way to work. What they said was profound. My ears caught them discussing one question, and it was just that one question I had heard before the sound of their voices disappeared – ‘What came first: language or thought?’
Ever since, this question has lingered in my mind playing itself over and over again like a broken record player. Because I don’t have an answer.
Surely we are born with thoughts and feelings which we have prior to developing language. However, at the same time I always think in words – my thoughts are silent words and sentences to myself in an internal dialogue. I use language to express and make sense of things in life in my mental forum. Yet babies, though not possessing any form of language, reach out to hold objects. They smile. They react to their environments and that certainly cannot be a thoughtless action.
4th century philosopher and theologian St Augustine considered language to be labels for already existing truths and ideas. On the other hand many centuries later, the German philosopher Willhelm von Humboldt stated that ‘The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views in the world’. Extrapolating from this idea further down the generations was Edward Sapir, a key figure in linguistics, who said, ‘No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached’. Sapir’s student Benjamin Whorf compared this concept to that of Einstein’s theory of physical relativity giving rise to the principle of linguistic relativity; also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
This certainly highlights the issue seen with the translation of scripts including religious scripts. Where a script has been written in a language relevant to and reflective of its parent culture, the reader must read it with respect to that and acknowledge this very fact in an attempt to comprehend its true meaning. We see every day how interpretations stray very far from the intended communication due to a disregard for the context in which a script was revealed in. And this is probably why those with logic are beginning to learn the language (including its culture) before interpreting the script. That language acts as a key to unlocking the true depth of wisdom hidden in the text.
But if we strip down to the basics and look at things simply (keep it simple stupid, always) then we can conclude the following. Or at least I conclude the following for now.
Language is a mode of thought.
Just as art is a mode of thought.
Just as movement is a mode of thought.
And language, art and movement are all expressions.
And expressions are vehicles of contemplation.
However, our exposure to these forms of expression are vital to shaping our thought capacities. That is why we see such a difference between people who read, write, paint, travel, create and people who do not. Exposing ourselves to more culture and knowledge allows us to stretch our minds thereby influencing the thoughts we manufacture in them. Of course we must not also forget that it is not about the sheer volume of knowledge we expose ourselves to but the quality. We must be careful in what we allow to determine our thoughts.
I do not think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis answers the question as to which came first although I can certainly appreciate the points it conveys. It certainly makes sense that language enables us to envisage abstract concepts we would otherwise be unable to. Essentially, both thought and language encompass each other. And in an unknown and extraordinary way they develop simultaneously. They complete each other.