Language and Thinking

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When Helen Keller, a born dumb, deaf and blind, first discovered the connection between 'WATER' spelled out on her finger and 'That cool wonderful thing gushing over my hand', her long journey of learning language began.

This story is a very symbolic one, often quoted for explaining what language is. Similarly, some time in its infancy, a child 'suddenly' realizes what words exists for. This finding is a very inspirational one, but inherent in every child. It is evident that every child has a latent capacity to learn a language, and this is genetically equipped in his brain.

No matter how hard you try to instruct a chimpanzee to learn words, he will learn not more than 50 words, though he is, to be sure, aware of the connection between words and the substances. This means that man can learn a language, of course, but apes are also capable of learning words at very, very rudimentary stage.

The very connection I have just referred to here is indispensable to understanding the complicated process of thinking; man can manipulate symbols in reference to the reality of outer world. He can distinguish what he perceives through his sensory organs from what he produces in his mind, thus he tries to mentally relate to each other.

What is impenetrable to us is something that links between substances outside and symbols. I will name this BLACK BOX. It is something like a cloud, a sensation Helen Keller once felt when she put her hand in the gushing water. The black box process is thought to be common to all animals, even to amoebas in the most primitive form. Since they don't have any effective way to symbolize their sensation, they end up with shouting or cooing or else, according to the anatomical characteristics of their vocal or some other demonstrative organs.

Only when Home sapiens evolved could they establish effective ways to put their sensation into some definite symbols, thanks to their elaborate structure of larynx, which enabled them to make various vocal distinction. In this way, we can trace back to the beginning of language. The very appearance of language, with its strict grammatical structure, seems in turn to have stimulated, or in other words, to have created thinking ;process through the black box. This interplay of language and thinking has caused enlargement of brain size, and more reliable means of communication among them.

The black box process, which has been rapidly unveiled by neuro- physiology, is the one that enabled him to sense MEANING. When someone says, 'Oh, I've got it' or I can make out what she is saying', he has sensed some meaning, but has not yet put them into words appropriately. Meaning is readily waiting for him to pick up and to be changed into words any time. For example, a seasoned speaker, filled with what he is eager to say in his mind, which may be picked out as a few key words, will stand on the pulpit; he never has an elaborate manuscript learned by heart in advance.

Meaning is like a cloud and condensed into drops of water any time. It doesn't have to be arranged systematically. It is not until it is translated into words that it has a definite form. Otherwise, his brain would burst into pieces for too much burden. The room for vocabulary storage is not so spacious. Meaning is different from sensation in complexity and logic, which means they are at different evolutionary stage. It may be said that black box process has evolved out of sensation into meaning.

We can see this relation between meaning and language in learning a foreign language. A beginner will translate his mother tongue into another language word by word. But in due course, he will directly speak the language out of what he means to say. At this stage, he is called a fluent speaker. Meaning is universal, because all the languages in the world can be possibly translated. This means, even if people speak different languages, 'what they mean' stands on the essentially common ground. In this way, language is connected with thinking process through meaning.

Then, what is the characteristics of human thinking? There are two trends. Needless to say, thinking is a kind of behavioral adaptation without actual trial and error. Put into a maze, a mouse will bump against the wall, be lost, run about again and again, and finally reach its goal. Human beings (and some bright apes and dogs, too) can solve some problems without so much as bothering to stand up.

A chimpanzee, given a long stick, will reach the bananas hanging from the ceiling, along with a stool. He can grasp the situation as a whole and the SIMPLIFY the process by discarding unnecessary steps. This may be the beginning of induction. On the other hand, picking up a stool and a stick, which are no more than ordinary objects, represents constructive behavior towards an end, thus COMPLICATEs the situation. In it deduction is burgeoning.

These two capacities, simplifying and complicating, seem to work hand in hand in the process of thinking. Then let's see the language side of these two. Man, in his black box, picks up only the useful words in the cloud of meaning through imaginary trial and error. This corresponds to simplification process. What a chess player is doing is a typical example of this. And 'He struck on an idea' shows the moment of picking up something important or 'cue'. This may be said to be a process of making a principle.

Once he hits upon it, he begins to add something around it, or in other words, change the combination; words are imaginary sticks and stools. Materials are floating in the sea of meaning. He will pick some up, discard others and finally build up a definite form in a sentence according to grammatical rules. This may be said to be a process of creative thinking.


In a human brain, the function of thinking and language is inseparable. In the near future, the role language plays must be completely unveiled physiologically. Only then will it become clear that this miraculous relationship between language and thinking is a product of evolution which dates back to the beginning of life. And above all, all the languages on the earth has a single, universal feature that all human beings have in common. So far it remains a black box.

February, 1986

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