I want to know whether language and thought are the same.

I think language enriches one's thought and thought helps one to use language better. Without language how could man think? Did they have inner language which helped them to think?

I think the invention of language helped man to think progressively and helped them to learn not only language but also many other things.

My question is whether language and thought are the same or not.

If not, how are they different?

  • 20
    You can have thoughts without language. Picture something. Change it to a different color. You’re “seeing”, not “reading”. Further evidence: my cat clearly has complex thoughts when he’s trying to sneak human food without getting caught. Pre-verbal babies clearly think. Language is a tool of thought, and unparalleled and nearly ineffable extension, broadening, functional explosion for thought, but there is more to thought than language (for example: is “ouch” a thought?).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 12:48
  • 2
    What do you mean by "thought"? Esp. how is it different from cognition, awareness, sentience, intent, propositions? I disagree with Dan Bron that cats have thoughts, so clearly we must differ in what we take "thought" to be.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 14:45
  • 3
    @user6726 When I was referencing my cat, I picked an example that approximated human activity (the basis for our models of thought) which I think demonstrates a sophistication that goes beyond “instinct”, “awareness”, “behaviorism”, &c. It starts with the cat demonstrating awareness that he’s not allowed to eat people food, being able to distinguish people food from his food, from making multipart and complex planes - forecasts - which necessarily must & do model me as an agent, feints & counterfeits, and so on. It will be nearly impossible to draw a line that includes humans but excludes that
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 15:19
  • 3
    @user6726 I would say "human food" (as opposed to "cat food") is a concept, and "cats are not allowed to eat human food" is a proposition.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 22:54
  • 3
    If I think about it, they are obviously different, but then when I try to put it into words, they look the same.
    – Kaz
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 23:34

7 Answers 7


The idea that language and thought are one and the same, that thoughts cannot exist without language, is sometimes called strong linguistic determinism or the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (*). It's extremely popular among non-linguists, and shows up a lot in fiction: see George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for one of the ur-examples.

The problem is, it doesn't really line up with the data we can observe. Have you ever had a word "on the tip of your tongue", where you know exactly what you want to say, but can't think of the words for it? Or had difficulty getting your thoughts down in writing, even though they're clear in your head? If we actually thought in English (or Arabic or Chinese or whatever), this wouldn't be expected to happen.

Similarly, depending how you define "thought", it seems clear that infants can think before they can speak. My three-year-old nephew still hasn't mastered English syntax, but he clearly makes plans and follows through with them all the same—even plans he can't explain particularly well in words.

The more popular hypothesis nowadays is called linguistic relativism or the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and is something like "language and thought influence each other". Which is much more plausible, but also much less exciting, and much fuzzier in its boundaries (how much influence is there?). The specific details are still an active area of research: the classic experiments that always comes up are Kay and Berlin's color studies, which might be a good place to start from if you want to look into this further.

(*) Sapir really doesn't deserve to have his name associated with this; Whorf just attached his mentor's name to the work to make it look more prestigious. So I've mostly heard linguists call this sort of thing "Whorfianism" in an informal context.

  • 10
    Helen Keller also describes something of her mental life before language in her autobiography. It's not complex, but it clearly has emotion, intent, conceptualization, episodic memory... Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 21:07
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    My go-to example of non-verbal thought is spatial reasoning. Personally, I never experience any verbalization of what I am doing, when I visualize and mentally manipulate objects. I just see the object moving around in my head.
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 5:11
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    I wouldn't say Orwell is an example - he (correctly) suggested that control over the language gives you some control over thought. Lacking proper language for your thoughts definitely makes thinking harder, even though not impossible. Heck, his characters in the very same book make it clear that the circumsized language doesn't make it impossible to have rebellious thoughts - they have them all the time!
    – Luaan
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 9:30
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    @vectory "The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible." (Emphasis mine.)
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 19:22
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    I think what going on is that the success of Newspeak depended on the strong version being being true, while the actual plot of the book demonstrated that it wasn't, although the weak version may have been.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 20:36

These examples show that in some way thought continues even if you temporarily lose language:

[neuroanatomist .. was struck with a left hemisphere haemorrage.] Over the course of 3-4 hours, she lost her inner speech, became hemiparetic, and soon realized that her utterances did not make sense, nor did those of others. In her retrospective recall of that time, she experienced the loss of function of a good part of the left hemisphere, language included, and remained fully conscious, though things felt differently from a 'right hemisphere perspective.' Her account not only confirms that consciousness continues in the absence of language – or at least left hemisphere specializations having to do with comprehension and production, but that thought and self-reflection continue too.

Another extraordinary report is from a patient who underwent an anesthetic injection into the lower division of the left middle anterior artery. The anesthetic ... caused as expected a deep Wernicke aphasia indistinguishable from that due to strokes, except it was temporary (a few minutes) and fully reversible. From the patient's recollections of the experience, it is clear not only that he was conscious and thinking, but that he also had a much better understanding of the situation than appeared from the language tests being administered.

  • p. 377, The Neurology of Consciousness: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropathology, ed. by Steven Laureys, Giulip Tononi

Thought without language


I only have anecdotal evidence that they are not the same, but I hope it might give an explanation or at least a starting point where to research it deeper.

I know someone who had a car accident and lost the ability to speak due to a head injury. She didn't lose the physical ability, but the part of her brain responsible for language was damaged. She had to learn to speak again just like a baby does, completely from the beginning. She is doing well now, but there are still some words she doesn't remember, but only the words, not the concepts (she is intelligent and can fluently insert a description for anything she doesn't remember the word for). What is very interesting is that her cognitive ability and intelligence didn't suffer in any observable way. In the early stages of her recovery she couldn't even use conjugation or any pronouns, she used a grammar even worse than the Hulk from the comic books. Yes, for a long time she referred to herself in third person, and had to study the grammar of her own mother tongue a lot before she could start speaking fluently again. However, no matter how hard it was for her to express her thoughts, it was evident that her cognitive ability was normal for her age of approximately 30 years.

This shows that language is not necessarily the same as thinking ability.

  • 2
    yes this is related to brain damage that is localized in the speech producing and language recognition "parts" of the brain, which I believe are named after the scientists who proposed/observed this behavior, i.e., wernicke and broca...
    – Carly
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 17:08

It certainly does seem like thought and language are the same; that's been the presumption in human society for as long as we know about. But it's not really true, any more than it's true that your emotions reside in your heart.

Certainly it must be true that one's thoughts -- whatever thought might mean -- have to be related to one's speech in some way. It's just that specifying what way is impossible.

The reason for that is that people are different from one another in unpredictable ways, because everybody -- even identical twins -- has a different life with different experiences, and draws different lessons from it. In particular, everybody thinks differently; and that means there can be no universal definition of thought that can encompass all humanity.

As for language, people also vary widely. There are people who learn their native language and never are able to learn another; but there are also people who soak up languages like sponges and can converse within a few days of arriving in a strange place. Some people display great creativity in their use of language, others don't. Clearly everybody has their own relation to their language, which may or may not be the same as -- or even resemble -- someone else's relation to their language.

Thus, for some people, the Whorf hypothesis is true -- they do think in language and they can't detect any differences, except that thinking is easier, clearer, and less noisy than talking. At the other end of the cline, there are people for whom language is a skill like walking or driving that they use when they need it, but which has little to do with their thought, in use or apparently in structure. And then there are most people, who are in between these poles, or situated on some other branch of this multidimensional spectrum.

To answer this question for even one person, one would have to know everything about that person's thought, and everything about that person's language use, and everything about how they were connected. Obviously there is only one person in a position to do that research, and it will only apply to that one person.

Generalizations are dubious, but you can often tell by someone's attitude toward the Whorf hypothesis how they think their thought works, and how they think it's related to their language use. People sort themselves out on this spectrum by how they react to the possibility.


I found a web page that might interest you: Ask A Linguist FAQ: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

It gives the following quote:

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees." -Whorf (1940:213-14)

(There is a lot more on this web page. Go look)

Note the focus on "categories and types".

A important part of thought is categorization: "Muffy is a cat. Cats are animals. Therefore the things I know about animals apply to cats and to Muffy." It is natural to assume that if I didn't know a word for "animal", I wouldn't be able to make this generalization.

Personally I think this is partially true, at least for me and my thoughts. Having a word for a category makes it easier to think about. However, it is possible to have informal categories without names. Typically these will be "people/things who remind me of each other".

Also, the categories just corresponds to single words. Language also has sentences and complex grammar. Very few thoughts get that complex. In my mind, at least.

Incidentally, I think it would be better to talk about cultures rather than languages. I learned most of my categories from my culture. Both my language and my thoughts reflect these categories, but the origin is the culture.

  • +1 for the quote, saved to my bookmarks.
    – tum_
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 14:33

I know that they are not the same, from personal experience.

More than once, when writing a mathematical proof, I developed the core part of the proof visually in my head.

In one case I remember, I did translate the mathematical language (which wasn't a verbal language, but a symbolic one that could be read) into visuals, worked out what the visuals would "look like" if the proof was invalid, then took the visuals and generated a mathematical description of what I was visualizing.

The process of manipulating that visualization was thought. At one point it was converted from a (non-verbal) language, it was manipulated as visualization, then it was then converted back to that non-verbal language.

I tried to explain the visualization steps -- the way I worked out how to do the proof -- to someone in order to explain how I generated the proof. I couldn't explain the visualization steps sufficiently in English, nor in Mathematics, despite the fact both her and I where fluent in both languages. When describing it, I used various and sundry terms to describe the things I was thinking about, but nothing fit; I suspect that is why communication failed.

The proof generated was clear, the problem statement was clear (both written in Mathematics), but the process used to generate the proof was not in any "language" either of us spoke.

Now, I guess you could stretch the definition of language to include visualizing things and motion of said things. If you define language to be "that which you use to think", that would make your proposal true.

(For the curious, the case I'm thinking about had to do with the existence of certain categories of continuous inverses of a particular kind of function. The visualization was imagining coloring things with a continuously changing tint and examining what it meant to the colors of the inverse. The proof had to do with how the category of functions limited the properties of the inverse, and hence how the inverse would paint the domain. Nothing really deep.)

Odds are you can experience this yourself. Think about doing something physical with your body, how it will move, etc. Try not to "narrate" it. Are you using language to describe how you imagine your body moving?


How do you want to articulate the difference (or the quasi-identity, depending on your viewpoint) between language and thought without language ?

While there are certainly valid arguments to claim that thought is not, statically speaking, a language, thought -- the act of thinking -- is, dynamically speaking, a language. Think of it: if you want to think something, you're speaking a language. Now you can claim that this language is personal or is impaired, flawed, unspoken, whatever, language of your body, or even that no one else on earth understands it. Still it is a language. Even if the hypothesis of strong solipsism is true, precisely because then, it does not matter. Just like we can not refute the hypothesis of solipsism, but learn to live with others whom we seem both to understand and not to understand, we have the ability to think by learning the language of others. Thinking implies to deploy words, not just to imagine or visualize.

Conclusion: if you make thought, or language, into a category, then they are distinct (because no one will "contain" the other). But each time you truly think, you create a language of yours.

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