I was thinking — if we didn't have words our experiences would be different somehow. It seems to me that perhaps words are limiting our experiences because as soon as we relate an experience to a word it becomes entrenched, explored, all the mysteries given up, all the options explored — meaning that there are now so fewer explorations to be made.

Would we be able to effectively communicate without words? (not including body language and other forms of non-verbal expression).

More to the point: How does language alter our experience of the world?

  • 4
    Regarding the effect of language on thought, it sounds like you might want to take a look at the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 18:54
  • Just in passing, this line of argument has a tendency to cut both ways -- that is: language might very well be delimiting the horizon of conscious experience, but on the other hand it may also be one of the conditions of (the richness and vitality of) experience itself.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 23:31
  • Bernanos had nice words about words "C'est une des plus incompréhensibles disgrâces de l'homme, qu'il doive confier ce qu'il a de plus précieux à quelque chose d'aussi plastique, hélas, que le mot." Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 14:08
  • An interesting expansion might be: some people subjectively report thinking in words, while others report that they first think and then translate their thoughts into words. (I am one of the latter type.) Are there any substantive distinctions between experiences had by people at either end of the all-encompassing-internal-monolog vs. argh-now-i-have-to-translate-my-thoughts-into-my-so-called-native-language spectrum?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 15:08

2 Answers 2


As pointed out in the comments, in linguistics and science circles there is a name for view you advocate in your post: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I don't think there is much evidence for the strongest forms of the hypothesis, but there is definitely some cool science around it. I will give my favourite example.

Physics does not have colour, it just has a continuous spectrum of wavelengths. Even when you look at the sensitivity of the 3 types of cones in the retina it is not discrete, but continuous. The categories of colours (i.e. "that's red", "that's blue") are produced by perception and these discrete-ish categories form the basis of colour qualia. Scientists can study these categories by asking participants if various stimuli 'feel' like the same colour. The arbitrary boundaries of the categories people draw between colours is language dependent (Regier & Kay, 2009).

Of course, the brain is a messy place, and there is no reason to expect that it will produce a clean well-ordered mind. Gilbert et al. (2006) showed that the Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. In other words, when I present colours in one part of your visual field, you experience them one way and when I present them to the other then you experience them in a fundamentally different way. The right visual field integrates with your linguistic processing and the other doesn't. As often is the case in science, the answer is messy and not what arm-chair reasoning might suggest.

The effects of language on perception (and thus the conscious experience) are not limited to colour. Unsurprisingly, you have a similar effect in phoneme perception: how the continuous variations in how the air shakes get mapped to discrete categories of "that's an a", "that's an o". Peltola et al. (2012) showed that this categorization is not only language-dependent, but in the case of bilingual speakers depends on if they are a balanced or dominant bilingual (see the paper for details). Yay, for relativity.

Does this mean you should draw conclusions about linguistic-relativity of higher level cognitive processes from this evidence? If you are a philosopher then maybe, if you are a scientist then of course not.

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you can look at this the other way around as well, and you don't need to take into account the sapir-whorf hypothesis. words, as well as languages, change over time also because they adapt to the way the world changes. i don't know if any teenager from last century would be able to begin anything with a millennial's vocabulary. it's not like we have a fixed set of words which we use over and over again to make sense of the same reality. our daily lives change, so does the way we grasp it with our words. that's why we make up new words, we use metaphors (new ones, though not always fortunate), we import words, etc. so, i would say it's a two-way street, it's a continuous exchange between the way the world is and the way we represent it in language.

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