鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 1
Chapter Nine Psycholinguistics
Instructor Date Day Ss No. Ss Level Class
Ju Jing Mon.Tue.&Wed. 398 Elementary 40mins
By the end of the chapter, the learners will be better able to know what psycholinguistics is
about, how people produce, comprehend and acquire language, and how language and thought are
related to each other.
Focus: language and thought
Aims: I will be working on improving the learners’ understanding about language production and
Aid: on-line courseware
日期 教学内容 Teaching contents 教学模式
Section 1 Language Acquisition Teacher
Chapter and Language Production presentation
Nine: Section2 Language Comprehension on-line and
linguistics Section 3 Language and Thought discussion
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 2
Section One Language Acquisition and Language Production
Outline of Procedures:
1. 5mins. Whole class.
Aim: Class brainstorms the concept of psycholinguistics by the following questions:
Q1. What is psycholinguistics? What are the two possible directions of study in it?
Q2. What is language acquisition?
Q3. How many stages are involved in language production? What are they?
2. 20mins. Whole class. Aim: Teacher presents on line.
Introduction to psycholinguistics
First language acquisition& second language acquisition
Overgeneralization & undergeneralization
3. 10mins. Students in groups.
Aim: discuss major types of slips of the tongue
4. 3mins. Plenary Summary
5. 2mins. Homework
Please consider the following two questions.
(1). How do psycholinguistic investigations of language differ from theoretical linguistics?
(2). Consider the following slips of the tongue. What does each reveal about the process of
a. They laked across the swim.
b. The spy was gound and bagged.
c. I will zee you in the bark.
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 3
Almost every day of our life we engage in language processing. This processing takes place
when we listen to the radio, watch television, read a newspaper, write a letter or have a
conversation. Even when we are talking to ourselves alone, we are also using language, though
mentally. Usually these language activities are carried out easily and subconsciously. Sometimes,
we might be aware that we are searching for a word, composing a sentence, or trying to
understand someone else, but we are never aware of the actual mechanisms and operations
involved in producing and understanding language.
Psycholinguistics, earlier called the psychology of language, is the study of the
language-processing mechanisms. It is concerned with the relationship between language and the
human mind, for example, how word, sentence, and discourse meaning are represented and
computed in the mind. As the name suggests, it is a subject which links psychology and linguistics.
The common purpose of psycholinguists is to find out the structures and processes which underlie
a human's ability to produce and understand language. But above all, psycholinguists are
interested in the acquisition of language: how children acquire their mother tongue. The study of
the acquisition of language by children is often called developmental psycholinguistics.
There are two possible directions of study in psycholinguistics. One is that we may use
language as a way of explaining psycholinguistic theories and processes, for example, the role of
language as it influences memory, perception, attention and learning. And it is for this that the
term psycholinguistics is sometimes used. The other is that we may study the effects of
psychological constraints on the use of language, for example, how memory limitations affect
speech production and comprehension. It is the latter which has provided the main focus of
interest in linguistics, where the subject is basically regarded as the study of the mental processes
underlying the planning, production, perception and comprehension of speech. The best-developed
branch of the subject is the study of language acquisition of children. Of course, some other topics
have also attracted considerable interest, such as the link between language knowledge and
language usage, the production and comprehension of speech.
This chapter will examine research questions in four sub-fields: how language is acquired,
produced, comprehended, and the relationships between language and thought.
9.2 Language Acquisition
Many linguists feel that if we can understand the internal mechanism which enables children
to learn language so quickly we shall have penetrated one of the deepest secrets of the mind. To
what extent are humans programmed from birth to acquire language? Is there such a thing as a
language gene? Or is it simply that we have a general cognitive, or mental ability that enables us
to pick up language quickly? All of these issues are part of an ongoing debate within linguistics.
Currently, the genetic view of language ability holds the field. The psycholinguist Steven Pinker,
in his popular book The Language Instinct (1995), makes a strong case for considering the
elements of linguistic knowledge to be innate. This is consistent with the Chomskyan concept of
universal grammar: the idea that there is a common underlying structure to every language, the
knowledge of which we are born with.
Language acquisition refers to the learning and development of a person's language. The
learning of a native or first language is called first language acquisition, and the learning of a
second or foreign language is called second language acquisition. The term acquisition is often
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 4
preferred to learning because the latter is sometimes connected to a behaviorist theory of learning.
Language acquisition is studied by linguists, psychologists and applied linguists to enable them to
understand the processes, and to give a better understanding of the nature of language. Techniques
used include longitudinal studies of language learners as well as experimental approaches,
focusing on the development of phonology, vocabulary, grammar and communicative competence.
Here, we only introduce two basic notions in first language acquisition: overgeneralization and
undergeneralization. A detailed study of language acquisition will be made in Chapter 11.
It is shown by psycholinguistics that children's use of language is rule-governed. For example,
children frequently say tooths and mouses, instead of teeth and mice, and holded and finded,
instead of held and found. These are examples of overgeneralization or overextension: the
extension of a rule beyond its proper limits. In these cases the child knows the regular rule for
forming the plural and the past tense but doesn't know that some particular words are irregular.
Overgeneralization is a frequent phenomenon in language development. It can be found not
only in syntactic usage but also in word meanings. Many young children sometimes refer to all
four-legged animals as dogs or all round objects as moons, or call all vehicles cars, and perhaps
more disconcertingly, all men dad. Researchers have found that some, like the examples given
here, are based on perceptual similarities between objects. Others are based on other kinds of
similarity, such as functional (a child referring to a shirt stuck on a person's head as a hat),
contextual (calling a crib blanket a nap), and affective (referring to a forbidden object as hot)
similarity. Discovering the limits of these words, what they do, and do not, apply to, is a useful
way of penetrating the child's semantic system. It takes time, for example, for children to learn that
words can refer to separate things. When a child refers to milk, for instance, does she/he mean the
whole process of pouring it into a mug and placing it down, or does it convey the restricted
meaning we are used to? Most psycholinguists believe that the intonational, gestural, and
contextual clues make it clear that children are using single-word sentences, exactly as adults often
do in a conversation. Milk is often used as the shortened form of "Do you have any milk?", but
given the appropriate context, "Milk" is just as obviously an abbreviated version of "I'd like some
Children also undergeneralize. When a child uses a word in a more limited way than adults
do (e.g. refusing to call a taxi a car), this phenomenon is called undergeneralization or
underextension. Indeed, undergeneralization is also frequent phenomenon in first language
acquisition. A child may often be able to use words only in a particular context. It's not uncommon
for children to call their own shoes shoes, but not know what someone else's are called. Reich
(1986) provides a very interesting example. When his son, Quentin, was asked ''Where's the
shoes?" when he was in his parents' bedroom, he would crawl to his mother's closet and play with
her shoes. If other shoes were between Quentin and the closet, he would crawl around them to get
to his mother's shoes. Similarly, his father's shoes did not count. Reich found that Quentin's notion
of shoes gradually expanded to coincide with adult usage.
There are some reasons why children use overgeneralization and undergeneralization. On
some occasions, children's conceptual categories may actually differ from those of adults; children
may, for instance, initially regard cows and dogs as part of the same category until being told
otherwise. On other occasions, they may know perfectly well that a cow is not a dog but not know
what it is called. In this case, a child may deliberately mislabel an object to be corrected and thus
hear the appropriate name. On still other occasions, the child's misuse of words may reflect an
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 5
attempt at humor.
9.3 Language Production
Language production is a difficult subject to study. Although speech is observable, the ideas
derived from or leading to speech are far more elusive.It is no wonder that the progress of
studying language production is slow.
Language production refers to the process involved in creating and expressing meaning
through language. A number of theories have attempted to account for the different processes
involved in language production. According to Levelt (1989), language production contains four
successive stages: (i) conceptualization, (ii) formulation, (iii) articulation, and (iv) self-monitoring
(Scovel 1998:27). First, we must conceptualize what we wish to communicate; second, we
formulate this thought into a linguistic plan; third, we execute the plan through the muscles in the
speech system; finally, we monitor our speech, assessing whether it is what we intended to say and
whether we said it the way we intended to.
Where do ideas come from? In what form do ideas exist before they are put into words?
These are difficult questions to answer, partly because we still don’t know enough about how
language is produced, partly because they deal with mental abstractions so vague that they elude
empirical investigation. As to second question, psycholinguists generally agree that some form of
mentalese exists--a representation system which is different from language. The notion is that
thoughts take form in mentalese and are then translated into linguistic form, but there is little
agreement as to the properties of this prelinguistic mental representation. The question of the
origin of ideas may be even more difficult to deal with at this time, although some efforts have
been made to study this issue.
Formulation is the second stage of speech production. It is much easier to describe than
conceptualization because analysis on eventual output of the process, such as speech errors, and
the choice of words or sentence structures can be a great help for understanding speech production.
Here we only focus on speech errors.
Speech errors are made by speakers unintentionally. They are very common and occur in
everyday speaking. In formulating speech, we are often influenced by the sound system of
language. For example, big and fat is spoken as pig and fat, and fill the pool is spoken as fool the
pill. Speech errors are not random; there are a certain number of frequently occurring types; and
they permit certain generalizations. The scientific study of speech errors, commonly called slips of
the tongue or tongue-slips, can provide useful clues to the processes of language production: They
can tell us where a speaker stops to think, for example. Although speech errors cover a wide range
of semantic content, there appear to be only a small number of basic types. Examples of the eight
types are given in the following table, with the words that were apparently intended in
Table 1: Major types of slips of the tongue (Carroll, 1999: 194)
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 6
Shift That's so she'll be ready in case she decide to hits it (decides to hit it).
Exchange Fancy getting your model renosed (getting your nose remodeled).
Anticipation Bake my bike (take my bike)
Perseveration He pulled a pantrum (tantrum).
Addition I didn't explain this clarefully enough (carefully enough).
Deletion I'll just get up and mutter intelligibly (unintelligibly).
Substitution At low speeds it's too light (heavy).
Blend That child is looking to be spaddled (spanked/paddled).
In shifts, one speech segment disappears from its appropriate place and appears somewhere
else. Exchanges are, in fact, double shifts, in which two linguistic units exchange places.
Anticipations occur when a later segment takes the place of an earlier one. They are different from
shifts in that the segment that intrudes on another also remains in its correct place and thus is used
twice. Perseverations appear when an earlier segment replaces a later item. Additions add
linguistic material while deletions leave something out. Substitutions occur when one segment is
replaced by an intruder. These are different from the previously described slips in that the source
of the intrusion may not be in the sentence. Blends apparently occur when more than one word is
being considered and the two intended items "fuse" or blend into a single item.
Various hypotheses concerning the basis for such errors have been advanced. An outstanding
hypothesis has been Freud's view that errors occur because we have more than a single plan for
production and that one such plan competes with and dominates the other. Although the Freudian
type of explanation may apply to some speech errors, more recent thinking has concentrated on
the psycholinguistic processes underlying speech errors. The most common interpretation is that
we produce speech through a series of separate stages, each devoted to a single level of linguistic
analysis. Errors typically occur at one level, but not others, during the production processes. This
is the so-called spoonerisms, named after Dr. Spooner, who was known to have made a good many
Articulation of speech sounds is the third and a very important stage of production. Once we
have organized our thoughts into a linguistic plan, this information must be sent from the brain to
the muscles in the speech system so that they can then execute the required movements and
produce the desired sounds. We depend on vocal organs to produce speech sounds so as to express
ourselves. In the production of speech sounds, the lungs, larynx and lips may work at the same
time and thus form co-articulation. The process of speech production is so complicated that it is
still a mystery in psycholinguistics though psycholinguists have done some research with
high-tech instruments and have known much about speech articulation.
Self-regulation is the last stage of speech production. To err is human, no matter who he is,
whether a native speaker or a non-native speaker, he would make mistakes in conversation or in
writing. So each person would do some self-correction over and over again while conversing.
According to some psycholinguists, errors are committed only by non-native speakers, but
not by native speakers. Native speakers often make “mistakes” and correct immediately,
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 7
which gives us deep understanding of the production process. Firstly, the production is not
one-way transmission of messages. Speakers or writers self-regulate constantly so as to ensure
each previous stage is accurate. Secondly, speakers or writers are sensitive to mistakes they make.
So at the sight of mistakes they are capable of readjusting messages at the stages of
conceptualization, formulation, or articulation quickly. Lastly, the fact that native speakers can
monitor and correct mistakes immediately in production proves Chomsky's idea that there are
some differences between performance and competence. Performance refers to a person's actual
use of language, whereas competence refers to a person's knowledge of the languages.
Competence monitors performance to ensure the production is accurate.
Native speakers often use different ways to edit their linguistic performance. Firstly, at the
very beginning or the conceptualization stage of the speech, when they find their speech
inappropriate, they would start the utterance all over again. Secondly, at the formulation stage or
articulation stage, speakers would not like to start afresh, but renew the sentence in part from the
From the ways native speakers use to monitor their performance, we can know that people do
not just communicate with, or listen to, others; they communicate with, or listen to, themselves.
Speech production or written production is not a one-way linear process; it is a parallel, two-way
system involving production and self-regulation in the production.
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 8
Section Two Language Comprehension
Outline of Procedures:
1. 5mins. Whole class.
Aim: Class brainstorms the concept of language comprehension by the following questions:
Q1. How do you understand word comprehension?
Q2.What is a PDP model? How is it related to lexical access?
Q3. How do you understand sentence comprehension?
2. 20mins. Whole class. Aim: Teacher presents on line.
Parallel distributed processing (PDP)
3. 10mins. Students in groups.
Aim: discuss bathtub effect and garden-pathing
4. 3mins. Plenary Summary
5. 2mins. Homework
Please consider the following question:
Since 1949, great changes have taken place in China. Yet, the Chinese language has changed
relatively little in terms of its basic syntax and phonology although some vocabulary changes,
such as in forms of address, e.g. tongzhi (同志), xiaojie (小姐), and xiansheng (先生), have
occurred. How does this fact (that the world view of a people has changed radically but the
language has changed little) relate to the claim that knowing and using a particular language
shapes one's world view?
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 9
9.4 Language Comprehension
Understanding language, like producing it, is such an automatic task that it seems to be a
relatively straightforward process. Sounds or letters strike our ears or eyes in such a swift and
linear fashion creating words, which in turn very quickly form phrases, clauses, and sentences that
comprehension seems to be nothing more than recognition of a sequential string of linguistic
symbols, although at a very rapid pace. What appears on the surface to be linguistically
transparent, however, turns out to be almost complex from the perspective of psycholinguistics.
What is apparent from the vast research into the comprehension of spoken and written language is
that people do not process linguistic information in a neat, linear fashion; they do not move
smoothly from one linguistic level to another as if they were riding a lift that began on the ground
floor of phonology and finally stopped at the top floor of meaning. The research shows that in
most situations, listeners and readers use a great deal of information other than the actual language
being produced to help them find the meaning of the linguistic symbols they hear or see.
9.4.1 Sound comprehension
Sound comprehension is not a passive process. It often depends on the context from which
listeners expect to hear. People understand the meaning as a whole, not in isolation. They do not
listen to each word individually. For example, when hearing the two phrases the __eel on the shoe
and _eel on the orange, listeners can restore the phonemes according to the information provided
in the context without any listening activities (the first answer is heel, the second answer is peel).
So we can see that understanding language is greatly influenced by slight changes in discourse
which listeners attend to, and that listeners do not understand the information word by word.
Distinguishing similar sounds, such as /b/ and /p/, /t/ and /d/ in English, is another type of
sound comprehension. People often recognize the differences of sounds based on the length of
producing time. Psycholinguists have fount that humans are born with the ability to distinguish
different sounds. As sound categories vary between languages, for example, English has a
two-way categorical split, whereas Thai has a three-way categorical split, people's categorical
perception (only possessed by humans) can be obtained by being exposed to language
In a word, the successful comprehension of speech sounds is a combination of the innate
ability of humans to distinguish minute differences between speech sounds, and the ability to
adjust to the acoustic categories of the language they are exposed to.
9.4.2 Word comprehension
Word comprehension is a very complex psycholinguistic process is much more complex than
the processing of speech sounds. That is because there are mountains of words in the vocabulary
which not only consist of sounds, but also convey meanings.
Psycholinguists use parallel distributed processing (PDP) to explain the complex process of
word understanding. PDP is a model of cognition developed from research in neurology, computer
science and psychology. It is a way in which people use several separate and parallel processes at
the same time to understand spoken or written language. In understanding words, for example,
when people try to remember a word, they search for its meaning, spelling and pronunciation at
the same time.
A PDP model of comprehension can be used to explain lexical access. In our mind we have
stored many words, some of which are easily accessible, but some of which are not. As a rule,
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 10
high-frequency words, such as book, are rapidly and frequently activated, and low-frequency
words, such as logogen, take longer time to be incorporated into a system of understanding. All
this is based on logogen model of comprehension. Logogens, or lexical detection devices, are like
individual neuros in a gigantic neuronal network. When they are activated, they would co-operate
with many other logogens to create comprehension. There is another factor about word access.
The words with semantic association are easily accessible. For example, between teacher--student
and teacher--office, we find that teacher--student is easier accessible than teacher--office. So we
do not access words in alphabetical order.
The PDP approach is able to explain tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon. In our daily life
many of us have had the experience that we knew the word, but could not access the whole word.
For many times we could only get part of the words vaguely, such as the beginning or the ending
of the words. This is called bathtub effect because when we submerge ourselves in a bathtub, we
can only see our head and feet.
In the comprehension of words, people do not understand words through only one strategy.
They have some other strategies to understand words, such as by top-down data involving context
and meaning, and by bottom-up information involving pronunciation and spelling. The
comprehension of words is a very complex process indeed.
9.4.3 Sentence comprehension
Besides decoding sounds and lexical meanings, comprehension also includes untangling the
meanings of sentences. At first, psycholinguists made use of Chomsky's TG grammar to explore
the process of sentence understanding. They claimed that the more transformation the sentence has,
the more complicated the sentence is. But according to the results of experiments, transformational
complexity does not affect comprehension greatly and the greatest influence on sentence
comprehension is meaning.
There are a few factors influencing the comprehension of sentences. The first is that the
ambiguity of word meaning leads to difficulties in sentence understanding. The more complex
information the word has, the more difficult the sentence is to understand. In sentences (1) and (3),
the meanings of the words drill and straw are ambiguous. Drill has two meanings: drill by using
an instrument; drill by rehearsing marching formations. Straw has two meanings here too: dried
grass; a tube used for sipping liquids. In contrast, sentences (2) and (4) do not use ambiguous
words and are easier to understand.
(1) The men started to drill before they were ordered to do so.
(2) The men started to march before they were ordered to do so.
(3) The merchant put his straw beside the machine.
(4) The merchant put his oats beside the machine.
The second factor is that the linguistic structure of the sentence affects the processing time. If
the sentence structure is what readers or hearers expect to read or hear, the processing time is short,
and the sentence is easy to understand. If the sentence structure is not what readers or hearers
expect, the comprehension is disrupted and sentence comprehension becomes slow. This is
so-called garden-pathing, a natural comprehension of strategy. In understanding sentences, the
point is whether readers or hearers choose the right path or wrong path. Perhaps the most famous
garden path sentence is the following one:
(5) The horse raced past the barn fell.
This sentence is perfectly grammatical, but almost impossible to understand. The reason for
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 11
this is that, as we read the sentence, we build up a syntactic structure in which The horse is the
subject of the sentence and raced past the barn is the main VP of the sentence. When we get to the
word fell, we are surprised because the sentence we have built up has no room for an extra VP. In
the correct interpretation for the sentence, fell is the head of the main VP and raced past the barn
is a clause that attaches to the NP the barn (see the following figure).
The horse raced past the barn
The horse race pats the barn fell
Figure 1: A garden path sentence. The garden path effect is shown in a. The correct interpretation
is represented in b.
9.4.4 Text comprehension
Text comprehension is the largest unit compared with the comprehension of sounds, words
and sentences. According to research on text understanding, people tend to comprehend or
memorize the content but not the structure. Therefore in the process of understanding texts,
background information plays a very important part, and greatly affects the way in which people
remember a piece of discourse. Background knowledge can activate people's mental association
which can help the comprehension of texts. For example, if people are given the title of the text,
the text is easier or more quickly to remember. Now, let's make a little experiment: Read the
following passage first, then close your book, and attempt to write down as much as possible of
what you have just read.
With hocked gems financing him, our hero bravely defied all
scornful laughter that tried to prevent his scheme. Your eyes
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 12
deceive you, he had said, an egg not a table correctly typifies
this unexplored planet. Now three sturdy sisters sought proof,
forging along sometimes through calm vastness, yet more of-
ten over turbulent peaks and valleys. Days became weeks as
many doubters spread fearful rumors about the edge. At last,
from nowhere, welcome winged creatures appeared, signify-
ing momentous success.
You may have difficulty in recalling the exact wording and the sequence of sentences in this
seemingly incoherent account, and you may also have wondered what it was all about. Now give
this passage to one of your friend to read and to recall, but before you do so, point out that this is
the story of "Christopher Columbus Discovering America". In the psycholinguistic experiment
that contrasted subjects' ability to recall a passage like this, those who were given an appropriate
title first showed much more accurate recall than those who were not.
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 13
Section Three Language and Thought
Outline of Procedures:
1. 5mins. Whole class.
Aim: Class brainstorms the relationship between language and thought by the following
Q1. Can you name some of the views about the relationship between language and thought?
Q2. What is linguistic determinism? What is linguistic relativity?
Q3. Please give examples to show whether language determines thought or thought determines
2. 20mins. Whole class. Aim: Teacher presents on line.
Language determines thought.
Thought determines language
3. 10mins. Students in groups.
Aim: discuss the relationship between language and thought
4. 3mins. Plenary Summary
5. 2mins. Homework
(1) Define the following terms briefly.
psycholinguistics language production language comprehension
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis linguistic determinism linguistic relativity
(2) "1 know what I want to say, but I can't find the word." What implication does this
phenomenon have for the language and thought controversy?
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 14
9.5 Language and Thought
Have you ever tried to catch yourself thinking? You can try to think while remaining
conscious of your thinking process. Try and see if you are always thinking using language and, if
yes, try to see if your language in the thinking process is very clear, grammatical or unclear and
messy. Suppose we believe we can't think clearly without using language, what about those deaf
and mute people? If they do not have a language, do they think without language or they do not
think at all? Then what about children of two or three years old? Their language is certainly not
adequate enough. Do they just think unclearly with whatever language they have acquired? Would
it be true that children's clarity in thinking depends on their language ability? Do a small
experiment on yourself before reading this section.
The relationship between language and thought has long been a subject of discussion. There
are a wide range of opinions about the general nature of the relationship. It is probably true to say
that every possible relation between the two has been proposed by some theorists. Classical
theorists like Aristotle argued that the categories of thought determine the language. To them,
language is only the outward form or expression of thought. An opposing view was expressed by
the behaviorist J. B. Watson. According to him, thought is language. He believed that thought is
sub-vocal speech, like a very quiet whisper to oneself. Watson's position, in its radical form, is no
longer popular today. A less radical position is that language determines thought. According to this
view, the categories of thought are determined by linguistic categories. Theorists within this group
are divided between those who think that language completely determines cognitive categories
and those who merely say that language strongly influences cognitive categories. At the risk of
oversimplification, we can still say that there are mainly two groups: those who believe that
language determines thought and those who think that thought determines language. So the whole
question we are concerned with here is whether our thoughts are formed in advance of the words
that we utter or whether our ideas are formed in terms of the words themselves. In this section we
will discuss some of the arguments.
9.5.1 Language determines thought
There are dramatic vocabulary differences from language to language. In some languages,
there may be only a single word for a certain object, creature or concept, whereas in another
language, there may be several words, even quite a large number. Generally, the greater number
would be to show finer distinctions. In Chinese, there is only a single term luotuo (骆驼); in
English there is camel (or dromedary for the one-humped camel, and Bactrian camel for the
two-humped animal). But in Arabic, it is said that there are more than 400 words for the animal.
The camel is of far greater importance as a means of travel with most Arabic-speaking people. The
greater number of words relating to the camel is an obvious reflection of this. The 400 or so words
may show differences in the camel's age, sex, breed, size, etc.; they may indicate whether the
animal is used for carrying heavy loads or not. It is said that there is at least one term which
indicates that the camel is pregnant. The Eskimo language has a large number of words involving
snow. For example, apun = "snow on the ground", qanikca= “hard snow on the ground”, utak=
“block of snow”. Can all these examples tell us that language system forms thought or is necessary
for thought, and a particular language imposes particular ideas of nature or of one's culture? Yes,
some scholars, for example, E. Sapir and B. Lee Whorf, think so. This view is generally referred
to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or Whorfian Hypothesis.
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 15
According to them, the child's cognitive system is determined by the structure of the
language he acquires. Since linguistic structures are different, the associated cognitive systems are
also different. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has two parts. The first is called linguistic determinism,
which says that linguistic structure determines cognitive structure. That is, learning a language
changes the way a person thinks. The second part is called linguistic relativity, which says that the
resulting cognitive systems are different in speakers of different languages. Sapir spoke of
language as a "tyrant" that not only reflects experience, but actually defines it, imposing upon us
particulars and ideas about the world. Whorf, who was Sapir's student, shared his views stating
that language is not only a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper
of ideas. We cut nature along lines laid down by our native language. He noted that some
languages, Eskimo for example, have separate words for different types of snow. A child who
grows up speaking such a language will develop more cognitive categories for snow than will an
English-speaking child. When the former looks out at a snowy environment, he will, in some sense,
see it differently from a child who has but one word snow.
Whorf claimed that the perceptual events that we experience can be very different from those
experienced by a speaker of another language who is standing beside us. When you look at the
rainbow, how many colors do you see? Most English speakers see red, orange, yellow, green, blue,
indigo and violet. Whorf would say that the colors we perceive come from color-naming influence
of the language. Some languages do not divide the colors into the same number of basic categories.
One language may not distinguish between green and blue, for instance. A speaker of that
language will not describe the rainbow in the same way as English speakers do.
How much truth is there in the Whorfian Hypothesis? Whorf's writings contain numerous
examples of how languages differ in the way their vocabularies segment the perceptual world. As
we have mentioned, languages vary in the number of colors and terms they possess, and the parts
of color spectrum to which the terms refer.
What is the significance of such lexical differences? Does the fact that a language does not
have separate terms for certain phenomena mean that the users of this language are unable to
distinguish these phenomena from others? Certain aspects of language behavior challenge Whorf's
thesis that the absence or presence of a lexical distinction can be taken as an indicator of a
corresponding perceptual or conceptual distinction.It may not be possible to translate one language
into another with term-for-term correspondence. However, it is possible to preserve some part of
the original meaning in another language. This seems to show that there is no hard-and-fast
identification of word categories with thought categories. Secondly, there are bilinguals among the
general population in most communities who can express their ideas freely in two or more
languages. Thirdly, languages borrow words from each other fairly frequently, which demonstrates
that the existing vocabulary does not exhaust the discrimination of which the language users are
capable. So a more acceptable conclusion might be that "languages differ not so much as to what
can be said in them, but rather as to what it is relatively easy to say" (Hockett, 1954: 122). The
ease with which a distinction is expressed in a language is related to the frequency with which a
particular perceptual discrimination is required in everyday life. It seems clear that a strong
version of the Whorfian Hypothesis--language determines thought--cannot be supported. However,
it is equally clear that a weak version of the hypothesis--language influences thought-- is
reasonable and supportable.
9.5.2 Thought determines language
鞠晶：《英语语言学》教案 Ju Jing : Course Design of English Linguistics Studies (2006--2007) 16
Those who believe that thought determines language would say that cognitive development
comes earlier in the life of children and that cognitive categories they develop determine the
linguistic categories that they will acquire.
Many experiments have been carried out to test the validity of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
The results of some experiments turned out to argue against it. B. Berlin and P. Kay's experiment
in 1969 is a case in point. It was concerned with how speakers of different languages divide up the
color spectrum. They used an array of 329 colors which they presented to speakers of 20 diverse
languages. Berlin and Kay first tried to find out the basic color terms in each language. (Note, for
Berlin and Kay, the basic color terms could not be compounds such as blue-green; basic terms
were ones which stood alone such as red, blue and green in English.) After they found the basic
color terms of a language, they then presented the array of 329 colors to the speaker of that
language and asked the subject to name the colors and draw lines around them. After that, the
speakers of the 20 languages were asked to mark with an "X" the most typical example of each
color in their basic color vocabulary. This was called the focal color.
There are a number of important results from the Berlin and Kay's study. First, the basic
color vocabularies of the 20 languages are restricted to a small set of terms. Some languages have
two basic color terms and no language has more than eleven. Second, the focal color terms are the
same across the 20 languages. That is, if language A has four basic color terms and language B has
six, the four focal colors chosen by speakers of A will closely correspond to the four of the six
focal colors chosen by speakers of B. The boundaries between the colors are variable across
languages, but the focal examples of the colors are not variable. For example, no language divides
the color spectrum in such a way that the English speakers' blue is divided in half.
In addition, it is worth noting that Berlin and Kay also found evidence suggesting that there
is a standard order in which basic color terms are added to languages. If a language has only two
color terms, they refer to dark versus light colors. If a third basic color term is added, it invariably
refers to red. The next color terms to enter a language refer to yellow and green. If there are six
basic terms, the sixth one is always blue.
For our purposes, the importance of Berlin and Kay's work is that it strongly argues against
the hypothesis that languages are free to divide the world of experience in any convenient way. In
the realm of colors, at least, there appear to be some basic constraints that limit the way in which
this aspect of our experience is coded in the language. This conclusion is directly contrary to the
If the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is accepted, i.e. language totally
determines thought, there will be no thought without language. If there are no constraints on the
variation to be found between people in the way they think, speakers of different languages will
never see the world in the same way. It also follows that if one can find a way to control the
language that people learn, one would thereby be able to control their thoughts. Therefore, if the
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is true, then we are helplessly trapped by the language we speak. We
could not escape from it and even if we could, we would fall into the framework of another
language which would determine what we think, what we perceive and what we say. What is more,
if language determines thought, people speaking diverse languages would never understand each
other. The fact is that people of the world have been communicating over the centuries and that
there have been radical changes of world-views within languages.