Can you think without language?


It’s almost impossible to study humans in the absence of language. Our brains soak it up so voraciously that only the most isolated people reach adulthood without it–and then only because of disability, abuse, or abandonment.

Even those situations are vanishingly rare, and usually attended by malnutrition, violence, and other developmental harm. Most “feral children” are incapable of reintegrating with society or learning language as adults, so we can’t very well ask them what it was like to live in their skin before language.

The few who can articulate the memory of consciousness-without-language are folks like Helen Keller, who was raised and socialized by loving parents, but without any experience of communication apart from the primal language of caresses.

When Helen Keller describes her mind before learning to sign, her thoughts seem almost shaped in the image of that touching-language–powerfully-felt, but imprecise.

“Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.

I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire…

I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it … My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.”

Helen Keller, The World I Live In

On the day of her first language lesson, her teacher brought her a new doll, and was persistently tracing the word on her hand with one finger, d – o – l – l.

Helen says,

“I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet.

Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed.

She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.”

Helen Keller, The Day Language Came Into My Life

She describes how her first motivation to learn language was only “a keen delight in obtaining more easily what I wanted”; but as she learned to articulate more sophisticated ideas, the thoughts themselves became more sophisticated, and even her ability to form specific, lucid memories was sharpened; as if her teacher was raising a trellis for her mind to twine itself around.

Language definitely affects how you think.

There’s mounting evidence that cognitive functions are influenced by the particulars of your native language. Depending on the the structures your language provides, your ability to remember and mentally “unpack” certain concepts can be enhanced or impaired.

For speakers of the Himba language, for instance, there are only four colors–asking a Himba speaker to distinguish between dark red, dark brown, and black is like asking an American man whether he likes the spiceberry or the fuchsia drapes–and it actually shows through in their ability to tell objects apart.

Conversely, since English speakers rely heavily on relative directions (left and right, forward and behind), our spatial reasoning lags well behind people like the Pormpuraaw, who use cardinal directions exclusively (so you’d say things like “my southwest foot” and “my north hand”, depending on where you were standing). Those who speak it simply know, always, which way they’re facing, because it’s wired into their minds by language, almost from birth.

Turkish, meanwhile, contains a property called “evidentiality”, in which the expression of any event includes how you know it happened. You can’t just say, “The vase broke”; you have to explain that you broke the vase, or you saw the vase break, or someone told you it was broken, or you’ve deduced that it broke based on circumstantial evidence.

The rules of Turkish grammar require this; just as you can’t say “the vase break” (omitting tense), or call a person an “it” in English. Exactly how this feature affects their worldview is a matter of debate, but it surely affects the way they sell cars.

This should change the way we teach and learn language.

Particularly languages like music, mathematics, and programming–languages whose use is considered “non-essential” by so many people.

We have to banish the thinking that says, “I’m just not a math person”, or “When am I ever going to use this?”, because the very act of learning a mathematical principle allows you to think in ways that were impossible before.

I hardly ever “use” calculus, if that means writing equations and finding the area under curves–but every day I see things that look different to me because I learned it. From simple, mundane things like the flow of traffic to the “infinite” nature of God, my world is richer and deeper because I have “words” for things that were only hazy intuitions before.

The power of God is often described in terms of language.

In the Qur’an, God is called the one “Who has taught with the Pen / Taught man what he knew not!” (Sura 96:1-5); and the Pen is among His first creations.

the New Testament famously calls Jesus Christ “the Word” of God’s power (John 1). And in the Pearl of Great Price, Adam’s perfect language is referred to as a “Priesthood”–or in other words, a portion of God’s power delegated to man.

Tantalizingly, we’re promised that “this same Priesthood, which was in the beginning, shall be in the end of the world also” (Moses 6:7)–and if our jury-rigged mortal languages can make the difference between a man and a beast, what will God’s language do?

What was lost at Babel

Viewing it through this lens, the story of the Tower of Babel is deeply tragic. The people weren’t just disunited by the confounding of their tongues–some piece of consciousness was actually taken from them, like in Flowers for Algernon. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t understand each other–they couldn’t understand themselves.

That may be one of the most frightening, melancholy images in scripture: one can almost see the builders of this great, cunning, decadent civilization waking up one morning and simply wandering aimlessly off from everything they’d built, having forgotten what it meant.

(I’d love to hear from any linguistics majors on this. The idea that your field encompasses the wellspring of human consciousness is a flattering one; so if you don’t believe it, maybe you should.)

Can you think without language?

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