Does The Language You Use Reveal Or Alter Your Thinking?

Language is the dress of thought

The quote above is from 18th century english writer, Samuel Johnson. It suggests that the style of our speech or writing indicates our way of thinking. It tells us that the specific words, phrases, and patterns of language we use, reveal how and what we think.

Is it true? Is the reverse also possible? Is our way of thinking sometimes affected by the language we use?

It’s not too hard to see how language is the dress of thought. In observing myself I notice I use some words and phrases quite a bit. I don’t think about them, but they naturally come to mind and find their way into both my speech and writing.

For example words like probably, likely, and maybe are often present in both my writing and speech. I think these words reflect my belief in a world that isn’t made of absolutes. I see the world in shades of gray and not black and white. Words like probably, likely, and maybe help express that view without me explicitly saying it.

I also find myself constructing sentences in certain ways. I often connect two thoughts with a though or a but. Again I think this comes from my seeing the word as something other than absolute and because I often see both sides of an issue. This contrasting sentence structure, like the words I mentioned above express this thinking even without consciously saying it.

However on a conscious level I use different language based on the context in which I’m communicating. I wouldn’t speak the same way talking to friends in a bar as I would my grandmother at the dinner table. In a sense this also reveals something about what I’m thinking, but it’s more what I’m thinking in the moment, in that context.

At these times I don’t think my language reveals as much about my thinking, because I might be consciously framing my language to fit the context.

The language a person speaks determines the way that a person thinks.
Ibid

Which Comes First? Language or Thought?

There’s an opposite side to language and thought where language is the fabric of thought instead of the dress of thought

Many, many, many years ago when I was in college, a professor of mine was talking about how his thoughts were different when he thought in French vs English. He spoke English while living in America, but he had spent considerable time in his life speaking French and both were natural to him.

The different vocabulary and grammar of each led to different ways to express himself and those differences ultimately altered the way he thought. He told us there were some words in French that were without equivalent in English and there was no way for him to express certain ideas using the English language.

We think in all sorts of ways. Sometimes we think in words and sometimes in images. Sometimes it’s feelings or just an abstract concept that comes fully formed.

All of these are different languages we use for communication whether with others or with ourselves. I don’t think it’s too hard to see that your thoughts are probably different if you’re thinking in images as opposed to words and that the language of choice affects your thoughts.

Our ability to use a language influences how we think. If you don’t know the meaning of a word you don’t use that word when thinking. If you don’t understand how to reproduce a certain technique on a website, you tend not to design sites that use that technique

I’m bringing all this up because I think communication is central to what we do as web designers. I think we’d all do better to understand how language works.

Sticking with visual language for a moment. We build a vocabulary and grammar through the different techniques we use and the different design choices we make. As we lean on these techniques and choices over time they become our style. Do we ever stop to think what our visual style reveals about us and the way we think? Do we ever stop to ask how our style affects how and what we think?

If I could offer a suggestion I’d say to pay more attention to the language you use. Notice words and phrases, grammar and structure in your speech and writing. Spend some time considering what they say about your thought and also how they might influence your thought. Are there differences in how you use language when speaking as opposed to writing?

Perhaps more importantly for designers, pay attention to how you communicate visually. Do your design choices reveal something about you? Do your designs come about because of your limitations and ability with visual language. If you can observe where your skill with visual language limits your visual thinking you can improve your skill and thus your thinking.

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
George Orwell

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

2 comments

  1. Excellent review!

    I speak Spanish and English and actually I do realize the differences between my spoken and written words. And I’m agree that using and visualizing images and understand every word of your desired language connected to them helps you to communicate better.

    • Thanks Marty. It’s interesting isn’t it? I only speak English, but if you count things like visual language and programming language and markup languages, I’m familiar with a few more.

      You definitely do think differently based on what your language allows. I don’t think it’s something most people think about.

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