Language and Thought

Does language influence thought or do thoughts influence language? Or both? These are questions I had debated in a linguistics class at Smith College several years ago. Now these questions come to mind again because of the young woman living with us who is adjusting to the English world. And in this case I mean English quite literally.

I remember for years after I'd left the Amish, I was often translating my thoughts from the German dialect that was my native tongue into English. But as I adjusted to my new world, I found I couldn't always express myself in my native tongue any longer, for I found that my original language was not expressive enough to describe my feelings. So I began to think more "in English." At that time I was going through the bitter phase that many people who've left the Amish go through… that phase in which no one could say anything good about Amish people, or I would "set them straight" immediately. And so what I did is I set about training myself to think in English. Whenever I had thoughts "in Amish" I would ask myself how I would think that in English. So slowly and deliberately I began deprogramming myself from thinking in my native tongue. (I would regret this later, when I would realize I was actually losing my native tongue).

Now I am reminded of the different ways of thinking between my native tongue and English. I'll start with early in the morning. In English we "get up" in the morning, while the Amish "stand up." If you think about it, they are the same thing, except in German we are more specific about it… most of us swing our feet off the side of the bed and "stand up."

In English we say that water is running, while the Amish say that water is walking. Is it mere coincidence that the Amish lifestyle is a slower pace than that of mainstream America? Or is that why their water walks, while ours runs?

In English we say we are going to "stand our ground" when we feel strongly about something. The Amish say (translated literally), "I am going to keep my foot down about that." When you stand your ground, you don't move your feet, so it is the same thing, but it sounds so very different. Again, the Amish are more specific.

In English we say, "You can do that as far as I'm concerned" or "It's fine with me if you want to do that." The Amish say (translated literally), "You can do that — about me." In this case the meaning is the same, but again, it sounds so very different.

There are ways in which English is much more specific than my native language. I mentioned earlier that there were certain feelings or ways of being that the Amish just didn't have words for. If someone had used the word "bitter" to describe my paternal grandmother, I would have wondered why that person is using a word that describes food. If someone had said there was a lot of "tension" in our family, I would have gotten an image of that part of a sewing machine that needed adjustment when it wasn't stitching properly. If someone had used the term "hitting on her" (flirting), I would have wondered why he was upset with her. In English we have all kinds of terms to describe what we feel when we've been wronged. We might describe our feelings as angry, mad, resentful, irritated, annoyed, aggravated, devastated, or outraged. The expression used most often in Amish was basic, "I am really mad over him." Conversely, in the English world if we are having an amazing moment that we know comes perhaps once in a lifetime, we might describe our feelings as overjoyed, ecstatic, happy, joyful, excited, overwhelmed, fortunate, wonderful, animated, thrilled, or overcome.

Now I've gotten myself stuck. I simply don't know what an Amish person might say in such a situation, nor can I imagine having an opportunity in my life as an Amish person for experiencing such a pinnacle moment. Mostly I kept my feelings hidden under a flat affect, so as not to have them spill out either side of what was "normal." I think this was typical, at least in my community. I don't think most Amish people would have (or recognize it as such) a pinnacle moment in their lives, when they allow their feelings to register at the "ecstatic" level. That would not be humble, and humility is stressed more than any other virtue in Amish communities.

I had an experience in Hamburg, Germany that shows what I mean. This happened the night of the 817th Hafengeburstag (Harbor Birthday). Ferries were a mode of transportation that evening. My friend Lucinda, who is from the U.S. and her German husband, and I boarded one. It took off really fast so that I felt butterflies in my stomach. Lucinda and I were leaning out over the railing, when I just went with what felt good. I looked at her and let out a “Whooo-hooo!” She looked back at me and responded with a “Yeeee-haaaw!” I noticed the Germans around us were eyeing us with judgment. Later I asked Lucinda, “So if the Germans felt excited about something like that, how would they express it?” She chuckled and  said, “They wouldn’t.” 

The Amish wanting to stay humble and avoid calling attention to themselves had to come from somewhere. Perhaps it's from their stoic and "proper" German ancestry. There are many things I miss about being Amish, but allowing myself the full range of my emotions is something I treasure very much. Lucinda and I didn't need words to describe our feelings on the ferry, but that didn't stop us. I'm sorry for the people around us who couldn't allow themselves that. 

So what do you think: does language follow thought or thought follow language?  

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10 thoughts on “Language and Thought”

  1. I think that language follows thought and thought follows language. We studied this in college, too. It does seem to be about linking outward expression with inner emotions. Many “English” people have a terrible time trying to do this, so the situation definitely is not specific to any one person or group of people. It seems that some people believe that expressing emotions is a sign of weakness; a character flaw or something. I so enjoy your posts. Thank you for another thought-provoking subject :)

  2. Language always intrigues me. And this post garnered a few chuckles – I can relate to some of your Eng/Ger translations. Hmmmm, not sure about your question, I think, sometimes it does, other it doesn’t.

  3. I think both.

    Language is constantly evolving and adapting to meet society’s needs, so it clearly follows thought to some extent.

    In the other direction, I am convinced that language also constrains how we think. We tend to think in terms that we can express in language, so if language is especially rich or lacking in some aspect, then I would expect our range of thought to follow suit.

  4. A language is indicative of the culture it represents, which is why Pennsylvania Dutch is a simple, unassuming language… Why I so frequently borrow from English to express myself properly… or instead just add “really ark” (very much) in front of an adjective. I think you’re right. A culture that does not approve of deep emotion, does not have need of a wide assortment of adjectives.

    About 20 years after I’d left the Old Order Mennonites I realized I was no longer thinking in Pennsylvania Dutch or Deitch, as I prefer to call it. I still talked it easily so I made a deliberate effort to speak it more frequently and now my thoughts and words again flow mindlessly in and out of English and Deitch. Language is a fascinating topic. I also found myself pondering on my language of origin in my linguistics class.

  5. I agree language is indicative or representative of its culture. But I also believe that, in some ways, thought follows language for multilingual people. I am fluently bilingual in English and Polish. Since I am a native U.S. citizen, my English is slightly better than my Polish, and I usually, but not always, think in English. That was not always the case. I used to think exclusively in English, even when I was making plans to speak to Polish-only speakers. Then, as I was spending a one-month vacation in Poland, I caught myself thinking in Polish. I was surprised because I had never before thought in Polish and had not intentionally started thinking in Polish. It had just happened. I theorize that being in an environment where Polish was spoken exclusively, my brain quickly rewired itself to also think in Polish. Today, my thoughts can easily go back and forth between the languages, depending on the context of the thoughts.

    Going back to my first comment, language is definitely representative of its culture, even in the Polish culture. The Polish people tend to emphasize the importance of hard work, and downplay the need for leisurely activities in their lives. This cultural value is reflected in their vocabulary (if not in the language entirely). For example, although there are a few Polish words that are similar to the word “fun,” none of them convey exactly the meaning and feeling of “fun.” One of the Polish words transliterates into the English phrase “play activity,” which makes “fun” seem like a childish thing, inappropriate for adults. And the Polish word for “hobby” is “hobby.” At some point in the recent past, Polish speakers had to “borrow” the word from another language when they discovered they didn’t have a word that adequately named an activity that was neither work nor play.

  6. What a fascinating topic! I, too, believe that the language/thought processes work both ways. Thoughts & feelings flow into & out of our brains and language is only one of the ways we can express them. Interesting how some cultures only “allow” some of our emotions & feelings to be expressed, while others allow a wider expression of them. Too much either direction may not necessarily be a good thing, me thinks! Makes me wonder if some emotions are stifled long/hard enough do they cease to exist altogether or merely simmer inside? Likewise, if everything that is felt is expressed, do some of the finer graces like respect, compassion, & empathy diminish?

    Enjoyed this post immensely, Saloma, as usual!

  7. What an interesting writing. Water is walking. I just can’t picture that.
    I’m with the rest of the troops in saying both apply. This question has the potential of great reflection which I’m not up for tonight. But if I were…
    I like that you ask questions. Gets the little gray cells squirming about.

  8. Elva Bontrager

    I had forgotten that water walks. Makes sense to me- I can’t imagine saying that the faucet “ist springa” lol

    I do think that ‘walking’ water refers quite specifically to dripping rather than a full gush. How does one say that the water is running fast?

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