Many times we retract what we have said before with the excuse: "sorry I was not thinking when I said that."
Which isn’t true because words do not happen without some thought (conscious or unconscious) preceding them. When we say "I was n't thinking" we probably mean, I was n't thinking again about how to present this thought in an acceptable way or /in a way that doesn't hurt the other person or /in a way that they can understand it the way I intended it.
Of course we are excluding the kinds of speech like the words that kids repeat merely for the sound of it without any thought in the background. We are talking about transactions between individuals who use language to convey thoughts and ideas and feelings and emotions.

So while some thought is essential for words, are words essential for the process of thinking? George Orwell's idea of Newspeak in his 1984 had its roots in the idea that "if something can't be said, then it can't be thought".Antoine Rivarol said: "Speech is external thought, and thought internal speech." This school of thinking called "linguistic determinism" claims that the language we use determines the way we think about the world. So do we actually think using words?

Would we be hampered from thinking about something if we did not have a word for it? I think not – Without words, we may not be able to talk about things but we would certainly be able to think about them - like that "stuff" we tasted at some place which looked "great" and tasted "yummilicious"? It is just "stuff" but we can still think about it - can't we? Like an infant smiling in his sleep seeing something that he still has no word for!
And then there is this whole thing about "abstract thinking" which starts with that dangerous line- " let us call it X" and then goes on to unravel the laws and mysteries of the universe.
Sometimes we think in images like in our dreams.Many scientists confess to have seen the results of their research – inventions and discoveries - as a wordless dream before they set about formally working on their work.

So what is the link between language and thinking? As Judy Dench playing Iris Murdoch says in the movie “IRIS”
“What are thoughts without them?” (‘Them’ being ‘words’)
(Yes indeed "What are thoughts without" words - Xs and Ys and XYs?
Does this mean my dog thinks in Xs and Ys? No wonder he has that depressed look on his face at times!!)

I do not like thinking in Xs, Ys and Zs. I love words. They help me think in a neat and organized way. I feel comfortable when I have nicely labelled something with a word and stored it in its place for revisiting when I want to. I feel safer when I know the word for everything around me and everything that goes on inside my head.
Thank god there is not a helluva lot going on there. Otherwise I may have to make peace with those Xs and Ys!
10 Responses
  1. Mahadevan Says:

    I fully agree with you. Your thoughts commence with words you are comfortable with. It can be English, it can be Tamil and in your case it could be French too. One cannot intentinally use words, without a thought behind it. Sometimes,the thought processes are faster than the ability to convey and at other times the words come out faster. Here what exactly happens is too many words convey the same thought. Coming to the beginning of your essay, what the people are trying to do is to wriggle out of an embarrassing situation when they realize that they had hurt the other person.

  2. Swapnil Says:
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Paavai Says:

    Haaa my favorite topic, trust me I was about to post something on these lines today.

    Words can spoil the beauty of a lot of things. I was talking to this friend of mine, extremely talented painter and he said - words are so cold and they seem to help only to deconstruct things... so much so he does not want to paint anymore after going through his academic course in art !!! Life is much more than words and words form a miniscule element of human existence

  4. A.R.Malik Says:

    Re thinking in Xs and Y's... ever since they've started using this brain imaging technology called PET, scientists can actually see thoughts in realtime 3-D as they light up certain areas of the brain. What's been discovered so far is that the most primitive responses-fear, lust, aggression, anger- originate in the parts of brain that're most ancient in evolutionary terms (the 'reptile brain')- and hence are prelinguistic; and the more sophisticated cognitive functions-so-called 'higher thoughts'- moral systems, art, science, mathematics- originate in the new brain or neocortex.

    Does this satisfy your query about your dog's quanta of thought? ;)

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Words have helped our thinking in the sense we have been able to share our thoughts and further develop on them. Language has also helped us in passing on knowledge across time so later generations do not have to reinvent but can build on what has already been arrived at after considerable thoughjt and discussion.
    So language has played a very important role in refining the thinking process.
    As for the "let us call it X" - those classes were a torture chamber to me too.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    “Language is an encyclopaedia of ignorance. It’s frozen into permanence and forces us to to look at the world in a very old fashioned way. The biggest barrier to progress is language because it ties us to the past.” - Edward de bono.

    - Narayan

  7. Usha Says:

    Mahadevan: As Dr abhilash has pointed out in his comment, some levels of higher thinking require language but all thinking does not. The primitive part of our brain can still manage with sights and sounds and images. But literary and philosophical thinking surely need language.

    Swapnil: Interesting to hear about the absence of an authoritative guide on horse riding. Is it because each animal thinks and behaves differently and hence requires a different approach? I think it is true of all animals, right? Just like each of us require a different method of treatment to befriend us?

    Paavai: Yes life is much more than words and that information about your paintr friend is fascinating. Please do a post soon - would love to read it.

    Abhilash : so the final verdict and the hammer goes down. I thought it was something like that. And sure the highest level of sciences like Mathematics require very high level of thinking - the "let us call it X" zone.
    I guess we lesser mortals have to be contented within the confines of words.
    Hey thanks for that clarification.

    Sahana: Very valid point and all thanks to language.

    Narayan:As sahana pointed out, are there not benefits of tying us to the past like benefitting from the body of knowledge of those who have gone before?So we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time or is that exactly what Bono wants us to do?

  8. George Orwell was probably anti-Semite. Who cares what he said!

    Radhakrishnan said, "Before thought can begin, there must be something to think about." So what?

  9. Yes, I think what the cat said was correct.
    However, I also pay attention to what the goat said!

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Art Quote of the Day
    Words are often seen hunting for an idea, but ideas are never seen hunting for words.
    Found this in your page. Hpw appropriate to this post!!