The consistency of human behavior, such as it is, is due entirely to the fact men have formulated their desires, and subsequently rationalized them, in terms of words…. For evil, then, as well as for good, words make us the human beings we actually are.Huxley (1962, pp. 4–5)
Slobin (1979) notes that human culture, social behavior, and thinking could not exist as we know them in the absence of language. Although we are inclined to agree with both Slobin's and Aldous Huxley's assessments of the importance of language in our lives, it is not entirely clear how best to define that importance. This dilemma has bedeviled thoughtful persons since at least the beginnings of philosophical inquiry. In this chapter we begin with a brief review of the language–thought controversy and an analysis of the roots of the problem, and then describe some research that addresses the issue.
A taxonomy of theories
Huxley and Slobin represent a traditional and persistent hypothesis in psychology, that language and thought are equivalent and that language is primary. In the behaviorist tradition, thought was considered to be subvocal speech. In contemporary psychology, knowledge is characterized as semantic understanding. A concept is a dictionary definition or an encyclopedia entry. Planning, problem solving, and reasoning, all examples of thought, require that knowledge used to access them be coded and stored. Although there is much debate about the form in which coding takes place, words are among the most obvious candidates. Contemporary cognitive psychology has proposed other alternatives that are also linguistic, such as propositions (Frederiksen, 1975; Kintsch, 1974), prototypes, and features. Propositional models interrelate concepts in an abstract network. The links between concepts in semantic networks are largely sentential. Feature models break down concepts into semantic components, such as human and female.