Language & Thought

by Hunter MacKenzie & J.P. MacKenzie

What is the relationship of language to thought? Most people would probably accept the idea that language is what describes our thoughts as well as the things we perceive in the world around us. The alphabet and the words we make from it are symbols by means of which we attempt to translate our subjective experiences into something more concrete. Language arises, at least in part, from the need to express our thoughts and experiences to others, as well as to reference them for ourselves.

We describe our visit to the dentist and our co-workers cringe because the words which we use in the telling of the story evoke images and memories from their own visits to the dentist. Stop right now and think about your reaction to reading the word “dentist” on this page. Chances are, even if you have no particular aversion to dental appointments, it is still probably quite a different reaction than you would have upon reading the word “chocolate.” You know that the word “dentist” has a very negative connotation for many other people, and this pervades our thinking so that it is likely to affect even those who have never even been to a dentist. Likewise, you may be allergic to chocolate and have your own wary associations with it, but you know that for most people it is a very pleasant and enjoyable thing; therefore, that association is available to you as well even if it is not the “primary file” you have stored in your own memory.

We make a “mental note” to ourselves to stop by the grocery store on the way home, and we write down on paper a list of things we need to remember to buy when we are there — theoretically, this is so that we can look at the list later to recall what we needed, but often just the act of putting the thought into words and transcribing it onto paper is sufficient to imprint it into our short-term memory. We find that we don’t even need to look at the list when we get to the store. In a way, then, language creates thought as well; the two have become somewhat interdependent.

Has language taken on the power to create reality? To a certain extent, perhaps it has. People read in a newspaper or hear on the radio that one country has bombed another, and this is accepted as a reality; it matters not that the individual hearing the report has never experienced a bombing or visited the country mentioned. The words have made it a reality for this person — a second-hand reality, but one which this person may not have ever experienced otherwise. Without being told about such things, without having the language to describe them, many of us would probably never know what a bomb was unless it was dropped on our heads. Even then, we would not know immediately what was happening because the language with which to describe an experience we have never had before does not usually just spontaneously arise from the experience itself.

Take another example, something a bit less objective: the out-of-body experience, or OBE for short. Does having the language to discuss it make it more tangible? Somewhat, perhaps, but it is still an elusive idea for many. One can read about OBEs day and night but those who have experienced them are adamant that words are quite inadequate to accurately convey what the experience is really like. Reading about it does not fully translate the experience. It is something like trying to transfer a file from one computer program to another; you may get the main part of it copied, but it may be missing certain features such as type styles and sizes, while it has numerous little symbols scattered here and there which did not appear in the other program. On the other hand, there are people who, upon reading about OBEs for the first time, have a reaction of, “Oh, so that’s what it was! I’ve had those for years and never knew what to make of it.”

We have said that reading about an experience makes it more real but that it is a sort of “distant” reality; it is not a direct experience. Can language close the gap and bring the theoretical reality near enough to become your own experience? Go back for a moment to the example of OBEs. Reading about OBEs does not make you have them any more than saying, “vodka and orange juice” will make you drunk right there on the spot. However, in the same way that saying the words “vodka and orange juice” will get the bartender to bring that to you, thus bringing the possibility of drunkenness closer than it was before, reading about OBEs may implant the suggestion in your mind in a way that will allow you to have an OBE.

Words can be very persuasive and suggestive to various levels of consciousness. The power of what is called “subliminal suggestion” is well-known by now, though the extent to which it is used will probably never be ascertained. Interesting results have been obtained with language and hypnosis as well; in fact, the practice of hypnosis relies very heavily on words and language to override sensory input. Perhaps this is because language can penetrate to a level of our mind deeper than the surface awareness which is so dependent upon physical sensation. A hypnotized subject, for example, can be told that there is a snake in the room, and upon seeing a yardstick lying in the floor, will perceive it as a snake and evince all the physiological signs of fear which he would show if he actually happened upon a snake while out mowing the lawn, for instance. Even though the yardstick is still a yardstick to anyone else looking on, the word “snake” has created that reality for the subject in the particular state of consciousness in which he finds himself.

It is a somewhat unfortunate thing that our language is often arbitrary and that there are gaps in it. Some words do have a certain inherent meaning to them, it seems. We say that a bee buzzes because the sound that it makes sounds like the word buzz; this is called onomatopoeia. But what about words like the names of colors? If someone says to you, “think of something blue,” you know right away what color that is, what it looks like — not the precise shade, perhaps, but you know what blue is. You think of blue, and not green or red. But what if you said this to someone who spoke only French, or German? Chances are, you would not be able to evoke the color blue for them by saying “blue” — you would have to translate it into their own language. There is no inherent color in the phonetic sounds or combination of letters of the word “blue.” The reason we automatically “see” blue when the word is said is because we have learned and internalized the association between the word and the color; it is stored in our memory banks, and that “file” automatically opens when we hear the word. But even though it is by now an automatic association, it was still originally an arbitrarily designated word to stand for that color. And here we encounter one of the problems with language.

Language is a finite concept whereas the mind has infinite capacity for perception and expression. To continue with the example of color, even with all the possible variants upon “blue” we can contrive, the words are still arbitrary and there are still gaps between them. If we encounter a color that is somewhere between cobalt blue and Prussian blue, we have difficulty describing it precisely until a name is assigned to it. Any time we express something using our spoken or written language, we limit the concept; if it is “this” it cannot also be “that.” Unless we are talking to someone who is very gifted with comprehending paradox, we diminish the experience we are trying to describe by the very act of describing it. It is somewhat like a sculptor working on a block of stone; every piece that is chipped away helps define more clearly the form which the artist wishes to show us, but by doing so, part of the essence of the stone is taken away.

Why is language so limited in comparison to our thought capacity, if it is supposed to be the codex through which we communicate our thoughts? If we accept the basic premise that language arises from the need to express thoughts, then our language is delineated by our experiences. Ideas are assigned words according to how important we deem them, or in proportion to the impact they have upon us. In some Scandinavian countries, for instance, where the weather is wintry for much of the year, there are a dozen or more different words for “snow,” each one referring to a slightly different but distinct form of snow.

Anything we encounter must necessarily be understood at first by comparing it to the closest experiences in our “memory files” with which we are already familiar. However, as our range of experience broadens, we are able to conceive of a still wider range of potential experiences, thereby enlarging upon our ability to describe and translate the ideas which we already know as well as those which are still potential realities. For example, if you understood only what was meant by the word RED, then everything you saw would be described in terms of RED or NOT RED. Once your eyes began to pick up and discern commonly occurring patterns which were close to red — say, orange — then the scope of your descriptive abilities would expand to include RED, ORANGE, and NOT RED OR ORANGE. And from there you might progress to yellow, etc., until you were describing things in terms of, say, DEEP ULTRAMARINE BLUE or BURNT SIENNA.

What about more abstract or ethereal ideas? How well does our language serve us when we want to explain something that isn’t concrete? We still have to resort to pulling comparisons from the concrete; we say things such as “love is like a rose” because that is as close as we can get to describing what cannot really be described at this point in the evolution of our language. Our language is not only limited, it is also approximate. The word is not the idea any more than the map is the territory. We have enough words that it is relatively easy to talk about something for hours and never really hit upon the mark exactly, but somehow not enough words to be able to say precisely what we mean at any given time. There is always a gap between what is said and what is intended; the size of the gap varies depending upon the language skills of the people involved as well as the objectivity of the experience, among other factors.

How do we begin to close the gap? Certainly the human race as a whole is still some distance away from being able to communicate telepathically (at least on a conscious level), a situation in which words would be largely unnecessary. Our languages are still a much-needed (and, for some, much-loved) component of communication, and they are expanding constantly; even the Oxford English Dictionary occasionally revises its many volumes to include new words which have become common usage since the previous edition.

Naturally we don’t need words to be in a dictionary in order to use them; it helps to define them, certainly, making them more widely available for everyone to understand, but all we really need is for a word to be understood by the individuals who use it. Consider the words you use to translate your thoughts; if you don’t find them adequate, explore, create, make variations! Take language into a new dimension, one letter at a time if necessary.

Let your words illuminate, not limit, your thoughts.

© Copyright 1999, 2013 by Hunter MacKenzie & J.P. MacKenzie

[This article previously appeared in SKOPOS Vol. II No.3; it is presented here in an updated format by permission of the authors.]

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