3. Mentalese
• 1. Thought is manipulation of
• 2. Representations may take several
forms or modalities
• 3. Language would be a poor --an
“absurd” choice
• 4. Surely thought is possible without
• 5. “Mentalese” is the hypothetical
“language of thought”
What does that mean?
• Thoughts transcend particular human
• Our beliefs are not “in” English
• Nor is chemistry “in” German
• Is sensory info coded into mentalese? Is a
object’s form conceptualized differently if
one sees it or feels it?
Newspeak (Orwell, 1984)
• "the purpose of Newspeak was not only
to provide a medium of expression for
the world-view and mental habits proper
to ..(English Socialism of the day) but to
make all other modes of thought
impossible.55 (Orwell's 1984)"
Newspeak 2
• "there would be many crimes and errors
which it would be beyond his (a person
growing up with Newspeak) power to
commit simply because they were
nameless and therefor unimaginable.
Newspeak today?
• January 23, 2005 Boston Globe
• “In debate over Social Security changes,
one word is key”
• “Semantics are very important … no one
is advocating privatizing Social Security”
(Rep. Bill Thomas, House.. Committee
• “they’re personal accounts, not private
“a conventional absurdity”
that L=T!
• "The idea that thought is the same thing
as language is an example of what can
be called a conventional
absurdity..(which) goes against all
common sense.."57
Are Thoughts “merely
clothed in words?”
• "Is thought dependent on words?...Or
are our thoughts couched in some silent
medium of the brain--a language of
thought--, or "mentalese"--and merely
clothed in words whenever we
communicate them...? No question
could be more central to understanding
the language instinct. p.56"
More or less!
• "Knowing a language, then, is knowing
how to translate mentalese into strings
of words, and vice versa. 82”
• "if babies did not have mentalese to
translate to and from English, it is not
clear how learning would take place.."
• "We have all had the experience of
uttering or writing a sentence, then
stopping and realizing that it wasn't
exactly what we meant to say....there
has to be a 'what we meant to say' that
is different from what we said. p.57"
Language & thought
• Locke (1632-1704)
• W. Humboldt (1767-1835)
• 19th century linguists
Vygotsky (1896-1934)
Sapir (1884-1939)
Whorf (1897-1941)
Descartes (1596-1650)
Leibniz (1646-1716)
W. Humboldt (1767-1835)
de Saussure (1857-1913)
W. Kohler (1887-1967)
Piaget (1896-1980)
Turing (1912-1954)
Chomsky (1928- )
• Language reflects thought
• Those without language find a way to
express them if they have them
• (D was familiar with sign language
• (D knew a larynx unnecessary for
• men .. by the use of their natural faculties,
may attain to all the knowledge they have,
without the help of any innate impressions;
and may arrive at certainty, without any
such original notions or
principles..p.38...No proposition can be said
to be in the mind … which it was never yet
conscious of....15.
• "Words, are like knots that tie bundles of
ideas together...Ideas may be "bundled"
differently among individual speakers ...and
among different languages." p.346.
• Anti-Locke -- innate ideas are like a
bust in marble
• Predispositions to certain ideas exist
in mind
• All ideas based on recombination of
basic ones - kind of mental chemistry
• “a calculus of thought”
Wilhelm von Humboldt
• Claimed by empiricists and others
• First explicit writer on linguistic
relativity (Whorf’s hypothesis)
• Yet also recognized the universal and
infinite, creative aspect of language
beyond words
19th century linguists
• Figured out that many languages
shared a common ancestor and
reconstructed much of the history of
human language from fragments
• Established some rules of language
change, e.g. Latin [f]->Germanic [b]
• frater, brother, brat
De Saussure
• “father” of modern linguistics
• Signs are arbitrary (cf. Pinker)
• Distinction between competence and
• Distinction between diachronic
knowledge (history) and synchronic
(current) knowledge
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
• Language structures determine thought
and/or perception
• (weaker) language influences thought
and/or perception
• Current research shows some perceptual
effects, e.g. on color categorization
• But little evidence for large, cognitive
effects, e.g. Papafragoua, A., Li, P., Choi,
Y., & Han, C.-h. (2007). Evidentiality in
language and cognition. Cognition, 103(2),
253-299. (BB)
They have a word for it;
does it matter?
Hopi concepts of time
Mokan time
Current English time
Relative reference vs direct reference
(when you take your shower vs
• Thinking is sub-vocal speech
• Focus on words and meaning as
conditioned response or association
• No concern for rules nor creativity
• Sympathy with Locke and relativists
on language as a medium of thought
Jerry Fodor
• Wrote “The Language of thought”
coining term “mentalese”
• language and thought?
• word & concept
"Whorf-Sapir hypothesis"
language as convention/behaviorism
color vision/color names (see Miller)
100 words for snow myths
Hopi "time" myths (see video)
language-cognition experiments "so
what?" p.66
What about Whorfian
• Read Pullum’s printer parody on
words for snow! P.65
• Some studies show words have
effects on memory or categorization
• Interesting but undemonstrated was
Whorf’s idea language might
advance the acquisition of concepts
thought without language
infant cognition
Humans without language?
Non-human primate logic
human imagery
– anecdotes
– Shepard letter rotation
Turing machine
• "reasoning is deduction" p.74
• This follows the idea that much of thinking
is a kind of computation.
• (does everyone know vaguely about
Turing’s contributions?)
• The idea is even older--”thought as
algebra” W. James cites several passages
on this theme (1890;270)
Turing 2
Thinking and being deaf
• Pinker on Schaller’s Ildefonso
• “despite their isolation from the
verbal world, they displayed many
abstract forms of thinking, like
rebuilding broken locks, handling
money, playing card games, and
entertaining each other with long
pantomined narratives.” 68
James, W. (1892). "Thought
before language: A deafmute's recollections." The
Philosphical Review 1(6):
(JL- recollections or
William James 1890-92
• Melville Ballard (p.266; James 1890)
• “I could convey my thoughts.. To my
parents.. By natural signs and
• Mr. d’Estrella (1892; p.63) “his narrative
tends to discountenance the notion that
no abstract thought is possible without
• "..for nothing is commoner than to have a
thought, and then to seek for the proper
words in which to clothe its important
features.”(WJ--not Pinker!)
More from Ballard
• Nearly all human emotions absent
• “everything seemed to appear blank
around me except the momentary
pleasures of perception”
Compare with dreams
You awake experiencing a dream.
But when did the dream occur?
In the past while you were sleeping?
Or just a moment ago, constructed upon
the specific bio-states of your brain at that
• Could there be a dream without a
representational system like language?
• How well can language interpret other
states of brain/mind?
Helen Keller
• "Before my teacher came to me, I
did not know that I am. I lived in a
world … that was no-world. I cannot
hope to describe adequately that
unconscious, yet conscious time of
nothingness...Since I had no power
of thought, I did not compare one
mental state with another".
• Helen Keller lost her senses just before
she was two-- plenty of time to internalize
some language and concepts of the world.
• For example, she would be in Piaget’s
symbolic stage of development. And in
some ways more cognitively advanced
than a normal chimp.
• Still interesting but not total proof of the
role of language.
Any Conclusions?
• I don’t know any case where deaf/blind
with NO input has been taught some
communication system with a successful
• Home sign seems universal but needs a
community to become a full language.
• compare pidgin->creole
Why can't English serve as
our "internal medium of
Ambiguity (several types)
lack of logical explicitness
deixis or pointing references
Representations inside the head and
sentences at cross purposes 81
Language details can have
some impact on thinking
• Processing speed might be different due
to syntax differences
• First phonology influences later
perception of sounds (hence accents)
• Having a word for it influences memorylexicalization effects
• any evidence of recoding memories into
mentalese for multiple modality access?
L->T continued
• Syllable length effects
• Priming/association effects
• (example?)
Language and thought
Thoughts automatically clothed in L.
That’s how we know our thoughts.
Language primes thoughts.
Hence we can somewhat manipulate
thoughts via language even though we
don’t think “in” L.
• This is probably reflective consciousness.
• And why we have the “illusion of
conscious will.”
The end
For now
• Simcock Hayne (2002)
• 3 age groups, 27,33,39 tested
• Retested 6 and 12 months later for
memory of experience with machine.
• Vocabulary assessed
• Memory assessed in 3 modes verbal, photo, action.
• Children remembered …