Language and Thought

This is a huge topic. I hope to investigate this realm and relate my findings to a long-standing issue of mine: communication with my older brother who is low functioning, autistic and nonverbal. Those of you who follow my posts know that I am probably obsessed with the idea of communicating with Mike. In some way, I know that I already do. I see it in some of the photographs that I have taken of him. Perhaps delving into theoretical and philosophical aspects of language and other kinds of communication is my way of stepping back from my wish that I could have a closer tie with my older brother.

What is language?

I did not consider the meaning of messages transmitted and received when I introduced a basic definition of communication in the past couple of posts. In the realm of the animal world, the message content of a simple warning bark or screech isn’t relevant either. The very fact that an animal emits a sound, serves a purpose of alerting other animals to possible dangers in the vicinity. Perhaps, different frequencies of yelps or groupings of yelps have meaning to individual species. The definition of human language that Hayakawa and Hayakawa put forth is particularly apt: “While animals use only a few limited cries, however, human beings use extremely complicated systems of sputtering, hissing, gurgling, clucking and cooing noises called language, with which they express and report what goes on in their nervous systems.”[emphasis in original] [1]

Linguistics is the study of languages that “can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context.” [2] The Hayakawas define the field of semantics as the study of human interaction through communication. Since semantics is contained in the linguistics category of language meaning, it would seem that this would be a good starting point.

Mike giving the sign for 'eat'

I think Mike is making the ‘sign’ for food here, but I’m not sure.

Is there a way to study what goes on in a person’s nervous system if they are unable to express themselves in language; if they express themselves in other ways? Is the study of language the right path to this goal? There are other disciplines contained in the broad field of linguistics, including psycholinguistics – the study of cognitive processes involved in properly constructing sentences “as well as the processes that make it possible to understand utterances, words, text, etc.” [3] – and neurolinguistics – “[T]he study of the neural mechanisms in the human brain that control the comprehension, production, and acquisition of language.” [4]

I would love to see ethically performed scientific research about the brain subsystems that affect language production and comprehension in profoundly retarded, autistic, nonverbal individuals like my brother.


Does one need language to think? In thumbing through The Language Instinct, the book by Steven Pinker [5] I just bought yesterday, I found that he posed exactly the same question. He maked quick work of this topic by suggesting that language is not needed for thought. After all, he said, “…how could a new word ever be coined? How could a child learn a word to begin with? How could translation from one language to another be possible?” [6]

I am relieved to have such a resounding and definite answer from such a distinguished scientist, but I will be looking at how language influences thought and the way thoughts are communicated without language in future posts.

[1] Hayakawa, S.I. & Hayakawa, A.R. Language in Thought and Action (5th ed.) A Harvest Original, Harcourt, Inc. Orlando: 1990 print

[5] Pinker, S. The Language Instinct Harper Perennial Modern Classics. New York: 2007 print

[6] Ibid pg 47

6 thoughts on “Language and Thought

  1. Ever wonder if Mike might living vicariously through you in some unspoken way? I find that a rather fascinating thought, however improbable it may sound to some…

    • That is the question! Some unknown frequency? Pay more attention to pheremones, perhaps? Catalog nose twitches? Could be anything… But I’m thinking along the same line as you, M.

      Warmest regards to you too,


      • Certainly there has been a lot of research done in the field of NLP with regard to micro-gestures, which I think provides valuable insights into the way in which people communicate non-verabally with one another. It is suggested that we all recognise those micro-gestures and movements at a neurological level, even if consciously (in the conventional sense) we are mostly unaware of them. However this being said, we all recognise the difference it makes when we do not have access to the visual input in communicating with others, for example as we are doing so here. Much is left to the imagination or perhaps other auspices of untapped knowledge regarding modes of communication 😉


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: