Does language define our thinking?

“Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.”

– Benjamin Lee Whorf

Does our language define our thinking?

Or rather, to put it another way, is our thinking limited by our language?

Probably the best film I watched over the last couple of years was “Arrival”. If you haven’t seen Arrival, and don’t want me to ruin it for you… stop reading now. Go watch it.

I even have my clients watch the film as part of the main course I run.

It’s that good.

Anyway, the film is based on a short story called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

In a nutshell, Alien spaceships land on earth. Linguist Dr Louise Banks is called in to try and learn the Alien’s language and communicate with them. But their spoken language is impossible for humans to reproduce.

Not so for their written language.

Very quickly, Louise realises that their writing system is very different to their spoken language. It is reproducible by humans… but the way the aliens create their writing is strange. They write complete ideas as single circular characters. And the writing is non-linear – meaning there is no start or end. It doesn’t make sense. In order to write the characters, you would need to ALREADY know how the conversation finished.

Eventually, Louise understands something important: The aliens understand time differently from us. We live in the present and remember the past. The future, however, is a mystery. But they remember both past AND future. So when they write their language, they already know the outcome. Because they remember it from the future.

And as Louise learns the alien language, she also starts to remember the future.

The film arrival is based on an idea in linguistics called “linguistic determinism”. In the 1940s, Edward 1940s and Benjamin 1940s suggested that language controls what we can think about. The idea is that if we can’t say it, we can’t think it. This was called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”.

There is some evidence for this.

Different languages have different words for different colours. Some languages have only two colours: “hot” and “cold”. Russian, apparently, has two words for different shades of blue (though I don’t know from personal experience).

Research with the Amazonian Piraha found they couldn’t learn to count or do sums – their language only has two numbers: “one” and “many” (though there is counter-evidence to this too – the Australian Warlpiri tribe also only have, “one”, “two” and “many”… and they did sums just fine).


I find an extreme version of the idea difficult to accept.

It doesn’t make sense to me that we CAN’T think things we can’t say. But it also doesn’t make sense to me that language and thought are completely separate.

Anyone who has learned a second language knows it changes your thinking.

Broadens the horizons, as it were.

Certainly, my experience learning a second language to a high level changed my thinking dramatically. And I’m sure other people who’ve learned languages have had similar experiences.

That’s it.

Julian Northbrook