Language and Thought: The Direction of Influence

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            At the time of publication of Orwell’s novel (1949/1992), fear, indeed hysteria, over the threat of totalitarianism, specifically the “red menace” (i.e., communism), was rampant (Zinn, 2005).  Readers were ready for a horrifying projection into the future, a world controlled by a totalitarian regime, where by turning language upside-down, so to speak, people were turned into docile obedient sheep, fully manipulated to be comfortable with linguistic changes such as reversing war and peace, hate and love, etc. There’s no question that people still believe in the strong influence of language on thought.  Until the past presidential election, since the Vietnam era, candidates would not use the word “liberal,” other than to attack an opponent.  This time, when the word failed to have an impact, the dreaded “S” word of the past, “socialist,” was substituted.  Based on benign intent, “politically correct” language “guides” have been justified by the belief that words have the power to correct biased thought.  Unfortunately, if the belief were true, there wouldn’t be a cycle of “politically correct” words becoming “incorrect,” substituted for new “politically correct words,” etc.  One needs look no further than the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2003) to see how good intentions can degenerate into silliness.  Does anyone really think we can reduce homophobia by refraining from phrases such as “participants who had engaged in sexual intercourse” and substituting “participants who had engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse” (p. 74)?  Indeed, do you suppose the college sophomores and white rats were pleased at being promoted from “subjects” to “participants”? (p. 70).  If you had a stroke, would you really feel better being referred to not as a “stroke victim,” but as an “individual who has had a stroke”? (p. 76).

            The theory that language determines thought, “linguistic determinism,” was studied intensively by Whorf (1956, as cited in Hunt & Ellis, 2004).  Contrary to the theory, Whorf found, for example, that people using languages with many words to describe snow or color were no more sensitive to differences in types of snow or variations in color than those using languages with few words.  Thus the strong version of linguistic determinism was replaced by a weaker one, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the theory that under limited conditions language can influence thought (as cited in Hunt & Ellis, 2004).  For example, Martyna (1978) demonstrated that when participants heard phrases using the generic “he,” they were likely to respond that a subsequently presented picture of men and women did not apply to the phrase.  While there has been consistent evidence that people do not interpret words such as “he,” “man,” etc. generically, and while it’s nice not to hear it used, there really is no evidence that the linguistic change played any causal role in advancing women’s rights.

            We know there are ugly words for disparaging people of different races or religions, but the ugly moral vegetables who use these words already know they are ugly.  I believe that we should refer to people however people want to be referred to, because doing so is respectful, not because I believe words can change thoughts, which probably are rooted in character.


American Psychological Association. (2003). Publication Manual. Washington, DC:

            American Psychological Association.

Hunt, R.R., & Ellis, H.C. (2004).  Cognitive psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Martyna, W. (1978).  What does HE mean? Journal of Communication, 28, 131-138.

Orwell, G. (1992).  1984.  New York: Knopf. (Originally published 1949).

Zinn, H. (2005).  A people’s history of the United States.  New York: Harper.

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