The relationship between thoughts and words

Frans de Waal is a well-known primatologist who has written many books on the behaviors of apes and what we have learned about them and from them. In an excerpt from his 2016 book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he discusses the relationship between thought and words. He does not share the enthusiasm of many of his fellow scientists to talk with animals to find out what the think, largely because what even humans say may not be accurate reflections of what they are thinking, so why would we place any more credence on what other animal species may tell us?

No one is going to admit to murderous thoughts, stinginess or being a jerk. People lie all the time, so why would they stop in front of a psychologist who writes down everything they say? In one study, female college students reported more sex partners when they were hooked up to a fake lie-detector machine, demonstrating that they had been lying when interviewed without the lie-detector. I am in fact relieved to work with subjects that don’t talk. I don’t need to worry about the truth of their utterances. Instead of asking them how often they engage in sex, I just count the occasions. I am perfectly happy being an animal watcher.

But he goes on to say that his objections run deeper because the relationship between thoughts and words is highly murky, “despite the widespread assumption that language is at the root of human thought”.

It is now widely accepted that, even though language assists human thinking by providing categories and concepts, it is not the stuff of thought. We don’t actually need language in order to think.

As the chief architect of the modern concept of mind, the American philosopher Jerry Fodor, put it in The Language of Thought (1975): ‘The obvious (and I should have thought sufficient) refutation of the claim that natural languages are the medium of thought is that there are non-verbal organisms that think.’

You won’t often hear me say something like this, but I consider humans the only linguistic species. We honestly have no evidence for symbolic communication, equally rich and multifunctional as ours, outside our species. Language parallels between our species and others have been called a ‘red herring’.

There is a notable irony here. In an earlier age, the absence of language was used as an argument against the existence of thought in other species. Today I find myself upholding the position that the manifest reality of thinking by nonlinguistic creatures argues against the importance of language.

I personally do not believe that we think in words, even though I fancy myself as a writer. In fact, it is precisely because I write so much that I am skeptical. As anyone who writes anything other than routine stuff knows, writing down one’s ideas is not easy and takes time and multiple rewrites to get the ideas in one’s head even close to what one thinks they should say. If we thought in words, the process should be much easier. The only time I think in words is when I am actually constructing sentences in my mind with the intention of writing them down later.

The funny thing is that when I think about thinking, such as when I tried to think about whether I thought in words, then I do think in words. But when I am not thinking about whether I think in words, I do not know what is in my mind. It has a loose parallel to the measurement issue in quantum mechanics, that certain quantities take a definite value only when one measures them. The ‘measurement’ in this case is the act of consciously thinking about what one is thinking.

The somewhat confused nature of my above remarks is an indication that I do not think in words because it took me some time to be even halfway coherent about what seemed to be clear when I started writing about it.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … I consider humans the only linguistic species. We honestly have no evidence for symbolic communication, equally rich and multifunctional as ours, outside our species.

    Au contraire, we have terabytes of elaborate and sophisticated acoustic communications among cetaceans -- we just don’t have the brain/computer-power to interpret any of it.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Feynman reported that he thought he thought in words, until a friend simply said “you know the shape of a crankshaft? What words are you using to think it?”. An elegant demonstration, assuming you know what a crankshaft looks like…

  3. Jenora Feuer says

    @Pierce R. Butler:
    Well, if you include the next line:

    […] I consider humans the only linguistic species. We honestly have no evidence for symbolic communication, equally rich and multifunctional as ours, outside our species.

    The ‘equally rich’ phrase there is pretty much mounting wheels on the goalposts so they can be moved easily.

    One of the more heavily-studied forms of non-human vocalizations is that of prairie dogs. Like humans, they are an incredibly social species, and we’ve recorded many many hours of vocalizations, much of which seemed to be pretty much the equivalent of ‘watch out, an XXX is coming’. But even so…

    They have a language. There are different sounds for different other animals, but the same types of animals get the same or similar sounds. They have grammar, though it’s pretty simple. They have adjectives, where the same modifier will show up for black wolves and humans dressed in black.

    They have dialects, where different warrens will have different words for the same thing, but those words will be entirely consistent within that warren. And a baby prairie dog that was born to parents from one warren but grew up in a different one will learn the language of where they grew up, so it’s all cultural and taught from one generation to the next.

    Sure, there are no abstract concepts so far as we can tell (are colours abstract?), and it’s orders of magnitude simpler than human language, but it is still a language by many useful standards. It allows for reasonably unambiguous communication.

    I know there’s one theory about ‘thinking in words’ that is basically that what we think of as a single-threaded consciousness is basically an illusion caused by the serialization of otherwise parallel brain operations by filtering them through the language centre. So we don’t really think in words, it’s just that by the time what we’re thinking gets to what we consider our ‘conscious selves’, it’s usually been translated into words (or at least symbols of some sort; a lot of the shape of a crankshaft could be built of symbolic blocks I suppose).

    In that model, the whole ‘left brain == logical, right brain == intuitive’ … gross overgeneralization, really boils down to the left brain gets ‘checkpointed’ more often in the language centres, while the right brain can go off and let things sort themselves out for a while before ‘reporting’ the results.

    That said, some of that theory came from Dr. Michael Persinger’s work, and some of Persinger’s work was more parapsychology than neurobiology. This is the guy who claimed to be able to create religious visions in people by using a tuned electromagnetic field. So take all that with a whole shaker of salt.

    <checks Wikipedia> Hunh, and Persinger apparently died two days ago.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Jenora Feuer @ # 3 -- Wow. Thanks for posting that.

    Do prairie dogs have more brain capacity than, say, squirrels? How many other species have undergone similar monitoring and analysis? Got a link or a book title to share?

    Otoh, certain individuals insist we can’t call it a language until it has a body of literature, so we may have exercise a bit more patience until making such claims for our respective examples.

  5. anat says

    Pierce, the definition of grammatical language that Steven Pinker uses in his popular writing about language (the only part of his popular writing I am willing to take seriously) is the ability to express who did what to whom. The requirement for a ‘body of literature’ comes across as kind of racist, as we know that human oral languages are just as expressive as written ones. (Or do they consider songs and legends transmitted orally as literature?)

  6. Jenora Feuer says

    The main person who’s been doing work on this has been Constantine Slobodchikoff, who also founded the Animal Language Institute. The Wikipedia page there on Slobodchikoff has links to some of the books and research he’s been doing.

    And yes, this has been mostly a small group of people, because it takes someone borderline obsessed to put microphones out near prairie dog towns and sort through days of audio recordings. A lot of it is probably in the ‘should have independent verification’ stage.

  7. Jenora Feuer says

    And the main reason prairie dogs have been studied that heavily is because they are so social: they congregate in huge town-like warrens. and once they’ve settled in they tend to guard their warren and not move around much, which makes them a lot easier to study than rather more flighty squirrels.

    The ‘body of literature’ line is another example of checking the location of the goalposts. There’s a lot of semantics in defining just what exactly counts as a language.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    anat @ # 5: … the ability to express who did what to whom.

    Sounds arbitrary -- we could easily construct sentences, or a whole dialog, lacking that. (Agreed, re: Pinker)

    The requirement for a ‘body of literature’ comes across as kind of racist…

    I think that rule came about, in Europe, as a way of formally distinguishing dialects from official Languages, so we might consider it white-on-white discrimination (depending on the ever-varying definition of “white”, of course).

    Jenora Feuer # @ 6&7 -- Thanks for the clue, and good for Dr. Slobodchikoff! (I think I’ll start with Chasing Doctor Dolittle).

    In the last decade or two, miniaturized mikes & cams have reportedly revolutionized wildlife ethology, even in the absence of lapels on which to clip lavalier mics. Here’s hoping Dr. S & colleagues can take full advantage of that.

    There’s a lot of semantics in defining just what exactly counts as a language. How gorgeously self-referential!

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