Psychology 101 – Language

Language and Thought – Did you know that the Hanunoo people of the Phillipines have 92 names for rice? Does this mean the Hanunoo can think about rice in more complex ways than most westerners, who only really have ‘brown rice’ and ‘white rice’ in their vocabulary? This line of reasoning led Benjamin Whorf (1956) and others to formulate what came to be called the Whorfian hypothesis of linguistic relativity, the idea that language shapes thought. According to the Whorfian hypothesis, people whose language provides numerous terms for distinguishing subtypes within a category actually perceive the world differently from people with a more limited linguistic repertoire. In its most extreme version, this hypothesis asserts that even what people can think is constrained by the words and grammatical constructions in their language.

This hypothesis can’t help but remind me of George Orwell’s dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the English language had been stripped of many words and adjectives in order to have a condensed version of the language known as Newspeak – which was basically English but with simplified vocabulary and grammar. The aim of this language (each yearly edition of the Newspeak dictionary contained fewer words) was to eliminate the possibility of thoughtcrime (later changed to crimethought in a later edition of the Newspeak dictionary) which is the thinking of crime, by eliminating any words that could possibly allow one to think of rebellion against the totalitarian regime of Big Brother. One character, Syme, says admiringly of the shrinking volume of the new dictionary: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” The premise of replacing oldspeak (modern English) with newspeak, was to control people’s thoughts, because if they didn’t have access to the vocabulary, they couldn’t think it. This is an example of how the Whorfian hypothesis works at it’s most extreme.

With complex concepts language does appear to play a role in shaping thought. Having certain concepts such as freedom or capitalism, would be impossible without language. Reasoning deductively would certainly be difficult if people could not construct propositions verbally and draw conclusions based on verbally represented premises.

Elements of Language – One of the defining features of language is that its symbols are arbitrary; the English language could just as easily have called cats dogs and vice versa. In this next section, we examine how sounds and symbols are transformed into meaningful sentences, beginning with the basic elements of language. We then explore the grammatical rules people implicitly follow as they manipulate these elements to produce meaning.

Element Definition Examples
Phonemes Smallest unit of sound that constitute speech th, s, ā, ă
Morphemes Smallest unit of meaning Anti-, house, and, the,  -ing, -ed, -er
Phrases Groups of words that act as a unit to convey a meaning Ate the chocolate, the rain outside, inside the fridge
Sentences Organised sequences of words that express a thought or intention Did you get milk? Where is the milk? This milk is old

Language is produced hierarchically, from the small units of sound people produce through their mouths and noses, to the complex combinations of words and sentences they produce to convey meaning.  The smallest units of sound that constitute speech, called phonemes, are strung together to create meaningful words and sentences. In the English language, phonemes include not only vowels and consonants but also the different ways of pronouncing them.

A string of randomly connected phonemes, however, does not convey any message. To be meaningful, strings of phonemes must be combined into morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in language. Words, suffixes and prefixes are all morphemes, such as pillow, and, horse, the, pre- and -ing. The word cognition, for example, consists of two morphemes: cognit – from the Latin cognitio (part of the verb ‘to know’) and ion – meaning ‘the act of‘. So strung together, cognition translates to the act of knowing. Similarly, psychology is broken up into two morphemes: psych (which comes from psyche and means ‘the mind‘) and ology which means ‘the study of’ – Psychology = the study of the mind.

Morphemes are combined into phrases, the groups of words that act as a unit and convey a meaning. In the sentence ‘when people speak, they make many sounds’, the words when people speak and many sounds are phrases. Words and phrases are combined into sentences, organised sequences of words that express a thought or intention. Some sentences are intended as statements of fact or propositions, while others ask questions or make requests.

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