Language and Culture: Mentalese. A short Overview

Essay, 2007

5 Pages, Grade: 2,7



Language and Culture: Mentalese

Mentalese: The language of our thoughts. Speech is a translation of mentalese.

George Orwell: In the year 2050, the ultimate technology for thought-control would be in place: the language Newspeak

Newspeak: not a language the whole world can understand, but a language that controls, to make all other modes of thought impossible. If the Oldspeak is forgotten, the word, for example, “free“ in our sense will be forgotten. No heretical thought will be possible anymore.

But: First, a concept can exist, even if there is no word for it. “Second, We have far more concepts than words for it, and listeners must always charitably fill in what the speaker left unsaid, existing words will quickly get new senses, perhaps even regain their original senses. Third, since children are not content to reproduce any old input from adults but create a complex grammar that can go beyond it, they would creolize Newspeak into a natural language, possibly in a single generation. The twenty-first-century toddler may be Winston Smith`s revenge“.

Is thought dependent on words?

- Experts assume that the government uses euphemisms to manipulate our minds. For example they use 'enhancement' instead of 'taxes', because they think the people believe that it is something different – if politicians meant 'taxes', they would have said it.
- Philosophers argued that animals do not possess the right of conscious beings, because they lack language and as a result must also lack consciousness.

The famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf produced arguments that the language of Native Americans, such as the Hopi, led them to view the world differently from those who spoke a European language. In the grammar of the Hopi, there is a differentiation of animate and inanimate things. As a result, Whorf said, they believe that stones are living entities. But do they really scare to kill a stone by running over it? The answer is no, because a Frenchman sais “la port“ without meaning that a port is a female being.

=> „The more you examine Whorf`s arguments, the less sense they make.“[1]

An example he gives proves it: A men caused an explosion, because he threw a cigarette in an empty bin. The bin was filled with flammable invisible gases. The mistake laid in the semantics of 'empty', Whorf claimed, but a bin with vapor in it looks like an empty bin. All in all, this catastrophe was caused by his eyes and not by his language.

- The idea to argue that language and thought has the same thing is absurd, and just conventional. The best proof is to remember situations in which we did not find the right words to express what was on our mind. A thought is emerged without words for it. Some artists or scientists, said, they thought about something without words, just by having special feelings or pictures and graphics in front of their mind`s eye.

Understanding of colors

Our perception of colors depends on the wavelengths of the light they reflect. Language differs in words for different colors. Some languages only have two -, others have a wide spectrum of words.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Language might be influential, but the visualization of colors is something that happens in the neurons, no language can change the ganglion cells. So even if there a different words for colors, all cultures with all different languages see the same colors, just name them differently.

The concept of time

Whorf wrote that the language of the Hopi has no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions referring directly to what we call 'time'. It also does not contain concepts for past, future or to enduring or lasting. They focus on change and process itself. According to Whorf, they are not interested in calendars, dating and chronology. The anthropologist Ekkehart Malotki refused Whorf theory and proved that the Hopi have words for time and units of time, by study them detailed. They also have a horizon based sun-calendar.

Eskimos and snow

English has a big number of non-lexicalized word for snow that means they are not expressed in one word. The language of the Eskimos, named Hoax, is assumed to have hundreds of words for snow. This is nothing more than an urban legend, which emerged by rumors and retelling. The Eskimo language does not have more words for snow than the English language. Some people and even scientists, try to mark a culture as wild and exotic to our own as possible. Snow is for Eskimos something that is omnipresent and important enough to split the category of snow and find expressions that describe the different shapes of snow. A man who works in a bakery also has quite a few words for bread.

What if someone is not able to speak, is he able to think?

Some deaf adults never got in contact with language of any kind – no sign language, no lip reading, no writing and no speech. We know examples like Ildefonso who was twenty-seven-years old, who learned and showed that he is intelligent and that he is a conscious being. Susan Schaller wrote about him after finding and teaching him. After her lessons, he was even able to tell her his life story using signs he was familiar with. The only problem we have is an ethical one. Is it right to study people like Ildefonso and their life without language instead of teaching them language?

Three other examples of a different kind, will also underline the statement that thought does not depend on words:

1. The psychologist Karen Wynn has shown, “that five-month-old babies can do a simple form of arithmetic“.

For example, she showed a baby a doll until the baby became bored and looked away. If she changed the situation by getting another doll, the babies regained interest. They could also differentiate between things they see. If she showed the first doll again, the babies recognized the doll and will look away quickly again.

2. The primatologists Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth discovered, that the Vervet monkeys they observed, recognize their family members. If an ape of family A attacks a member of family B, the victim`s sister, for example, of family B gets one revenge on the sister of the attacker of family A. The monkeys really know how their groupmates are related to each other.

3. Many creative persons remember that their most inspired moments are not made of words but thought in mental images. A mental image can also be a feeling or geometrical.

The Turing Machine

Alan Turing, a brilliant British mathematician and philosopher made the idea of a mental representation scientifically respectable. This theory describes the brain as a computer that consists of a processor, a gadget with a fixed number of reflexes, and a representation. In our brain, we can find three groups of neurons. One used to represent the individual that the proposition is about, for example 'Socrates', a second group representing the logical relationship in the proposition, for example 'is a' and a third one to represent the class or type that the individual is being categorized as 'man' and so on. If we have the concept of “Socrates is a man“ and “Every man is mortal“, the machine, our brain, comes to the conclusion “Socrates is mortal“. This is, of course a simplified example, but it can be applied to an as complex structures as every computer can. A big problem that brings up doubts of the functionality of this theory is the ambiguity of words. Another problem with English is its lack of logical explicitness and the co-reference. Say you start talking about someone by referring to him as the “tall blond man with one black shoe“. The second time you refer to him in the conversation you are likely to call him “the man“, the third time, just “him“. Something in your brain must treat them as the same thing; English is not doing it. A further problem is called deixis.

Deixis: “Expressions such as 'tomorrow' and 'here' are obvious examples of bits of language that we can only understand in terms of the speaker`s intended meaning. They are technically known as deictic expressions, from the Greek word deixis, which means 'pointing' via language.“[2]

A fifth problem is synonymy (two or more words, with a closely related meaning). We know that two sentence can mean the same, even if the words and word order is different, but a Turing machine cannot.


Pinter: “People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache, they think in a language of thought. This language of thought probably looks a bit like all these languages; presumably it has symbols for concepts, and arrangements of symbols that correspond to who did what to whom. But compared with any given language, mentalese must be richer in some ways and simpler in others. People without language would still have mentalese.“

=> Thought does not depend on words


Some further terms/definitions to help to deal with language and culture in a linguistic sense[3]

Culture: We use the term 'culture' to refer to all the ideas and assumptions about the nature of things and people that we learn when we become member of social groups. It can be defined as 'socially acquired knowledge'. This is the kind of knowledge that, like our first language, we initially acquire without conscious awareness.

Categories: A category is a group with certain features in common and we can think of the vocabulary we learn as an inherited set of category labels.

Social categories: Words, such as “uncle“ or “grandmother“, provide examples of social categories.

Address terms: When a man on the street asks another, “Brother, can you spare a dollar?“, the word “brother“ is being used as an address term.

Gendered words: In some languages, there are words used only by men and some used only by women.


[1] Quotation from Pinters text “Mentalese“, avaiable at blackboard

[2] George Yule “The study of language“ 3rd edition, page 115

[3] All information and quotes are from Yule, chapter 20

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Language and Culture: Mentalese. A short Overview
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar)
Linguistik I,2
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ISBN (eBook)
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Mentalese, Linguistik, linguistics, grammar, speech, language, thoughts, newspeak, oldspeak, saphir-whorf hypothesis, saphir-whorf, time, color, colors, eskimos, snow, the turing machine, deixis, synonymy, culture
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Anonymous, 2007, Language and Culture: Mentalese. A short Overview, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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