Can we think things if we don't have words for those things? Are our imaginations limited by our language? Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that "What we cannot say, we must pass over in silence." Some have interpreted this to mean that the words we possess determine the things that we can know. My interpretation of this is that there are some thoughts or feelings we have that we cannot properly express with the ready-made, accepted vocabulary of our language.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests a slightly different premise: people experience and understand the world differently depending on the concepts contained in their language.
Sapir and Whorf asked people to describe how many stripes or bands they saw in a rainbow. Since rainbows are actually a continuum of color, there are no empirical stripes or bands, and yet people saw as many bands as their language possessed primary color words.From Wikipedia entry on Linguistic Determinism
In August of 2004, Peter Gordon, a psychologist at Columbia, published a study which provided support for the theory of linguistic determinism:
Language may shape human thought suggests a counting study in a Brazilian tribe whose language does not define numbers above two.From New Scientist.
Hunter-gatherers from the Pirah tribe, whose language only contains words for the numbers one and two, were unable to reliably tell the difference between four objects placed in a row and five in the same configuration, revealed the study. . . .
The language, Pirah, is known as a "one, two, many" language because it only contains words for "one" and "two" for all other numbers, a single word for "many" is used. "There are not really occasions in their daily lives where the Pirah need to count," explains Gordon. . . .
The Pirah also failed to remember whether a box they had been shown seconds ago had four or five fish drawn on the top. When Gordon's colleagues tapped on the floor three times, the Pirah were able to imitate this precisely, but failed to mimic strings of four of five taps.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has interesting intersections with deconstruction. If we accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the language we are born into controls our perceptions and understanding of the world. If, for example, we have a distinct word/concept for green (some languages do not), we will see it in a rainbow; otherwise we will not.
Deconstruction holds that we are not masters of our own speech or writing: speech or writing cannot faithfully represent us as it is always infected by other minds, both in the accepted, established structure and edifice of language that precedes us, with which we must make do, and the open interpretations other minds give to our statements, interpretations over which we have no authorial control; indeed, the very language we must use subverts our attempts to present a coherent and unified meaning. We make do with the currency we have, the language we our using, and do our best to fit our thoughts into available language.
But because the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that our thoughts themselves are more or less formed by our language, it suggests that the collective process of creating a stable language in effect programs the minds of the language's speakers. If this is true, Wittgenstein (as I understand him) and Derrida are undercut to a certain extent: we are only capable of saying what we are capable of thinking, and we are only capable of thinking what we are capable of saying. This agrees with deconstruction to some degree: our speech is not our own; we are not able to present our "own" ideas or thoughts; we are only able to reiterate in new contexts the ideas made available to us by our language.
I have no doubt that this is too simplistic, and that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in its vulgar "prisonhouse of language" form, cannot be true. How to account for emotions, images in dreams and imagination that we cannot articulate in words? How to account for visual art, music, dance? Surely these forms are able to communicate concept not contained in a particular language. Still, it is a fascinating concept, and surely good impetus to continually study other languages to expand one's capacity to imagine and experience the world.