The Language in Language and Thinking

Vivian Cook, Newcastle University

VIAL Vigo International Journal of Applied Linguistics  (2021) ‘, 35-58


Note: this was first intended as an epilogue to Cook & (2011) but not published as it seemed too negative. After various unpublished incarnations, it ended up in VIAL 2021. However the version here was marginally updated in May 2020 to provide some later references.



The relationship of language and thinking is starting to receive considerable attention in the field of SLA research under the name of Bilingual Cognition. This paper argues that it needs to be underpinned by a proper foundation in the language side of the relationship: it is dangerous to take language for granted. It argues for researchers to clearly spell out what they mean by language, whether as the general property of human beings, as an external reality, as mental knowledge, as social community or as action, each of which has different implications for the relationship of language and cognition. This requires a Language Commitment to an adequate theory and description of language as a basis for research. Current emphasis is too much on isolate semantic categories rather than syntactic categories and on word-referent mapping rather than the full complexity of lexical meaning.

Key words

Language and thinking, linguistic relativity SLA research, Linguistic Commitment, thinking for language, bilingual cognition


The 1990s heralded a renaissance of research into the relationship between language and thinking, alias linguistic relativity, basically establishing that speakers of different first languages behave differently on a variety of cognitive tasks such as spatial orientation (Levinson 1996), classification of objects (Lucy 1992) and perception of colours (Davidoff, Davies & Roberson 1999). The effect on second language acquisition (SLA) research came to be called bilingual cognition through a spate of books (De Groot 2010; Han & Cadierno 2010; Pavlenko 2011; Cook & Bassetti 2011). The current paper looks at some of the underlying issues of the relationship between language and thinking in the context of second language acquisition. Surveys of the bilingual cognition research are available in Bassetti and Cook (2011) and Murahata, Murahata & Cook (2016).

The nature of the relationship between language and thinking inevitably depends on what the words language and thinking are taken to mean. There are doubtless as many linguistic models of language as there are psychological theories of thinking. Investigating the relationship between language and thinking therefore means being explicit about the natures of both language and thinking and being aware of alternative versions. Any piece of language and thinking research in effect tests whether an aspect of cognition relative to a particular psychological theory correlates with an aspect of language relative to a particular linguistic theory, whether explicitly or implicitly.

But such marriages of convenience have obvious dangers. The two partners need enough in common to form a relationship: the theory and description of cognition and the theory and description of language have to be compatible; the research has to choose relevant cross-disciplinary aspects of language and cognition out of the many possibilities that present themselves. Psychological theories that do not have a distinctive role for language, for instance, have little relevance as they deny in advance any relationship between language and thinking. Equally, linguistic theories that place impermeable barriers between language and cognition have little to contribute.

Linguists and psychologists are both primarily responsible for their own side of the garden fence and may deny any duty to look at their neighbours’ side. Both linguists’ views of thinking and psychologists’ views of language are undoubtedly regarded as naïve by their counterparts in the other discipline. Yet research into language and cognition depends on balancing both sides. To be credible, the language and thinking debate has to be couched in terms that are acceptable to both. Evans (2011, 71) talks of the Cognitive Commitment to use ‘a characterization of language that accords with what is known about the mind and brain from other disciplines’. This paper argues for a parallel need to pin down the language side of the relationship, called the Language Commitment in Cook (2011). Though particularly important to the structure-centred approach to language and thinking (Lucy 1997; 2011), a working concept of language is nevertheless still necessary whichever approach is adopted.

The paper tries to make two simple points: language is many things to many people; research connecting language to thinking should use an adequate analysis of language.

1. meanings of language

The English word language is virtually taken for granted in most discussion. Yet language does not have a single unambiguous interpretation: its definition is theory-specific. Nor are the meanings of the English word language necessarily found in other languages: compare say the French three-way distinction between langue, langage and parole (de Saussure 1916/1976) with the two-way language and speech in English. Similar problems occur with the English word cognition, which has no equivalent in Polish (Wierzbicka 2011). A fatal trap is to assume that English can be the neutral language for describing cognition, prevalent for example in Whorf’s habit of translating Hopi notions into English (Whorf 1941a/1956).

Cook (2007; 2010; 2020) distinguished different meanings of language in English, seen in the table below, which will organise the discussion here. These should be taken as working definitions rather than watertight boxes and doubtless overlap and contradict each other in various ways; they are discussed more fully in Cook (2010; 2021).

Lang1: a representation system known by human beings – ‘human language’

Lang2: an abstract entity – ‘the English language’

Lang3: a set of sentences – everything that has or could be said – ‘the language of the Bible’

Lang4: the possession of a community – ‘the language of French people’

Lang5: the knowledge in the mind of an individual – ‘I have learnt French as a foreign language for eight years’

Lang6: a form of action – ‘I sentence you to twenty years imprisonment’

Figure 1. Meanings of language (Cook 2010)

– The Lang1 sense of language as a representation system treats it as ‘a species-unique format for cognitive representation’ (Tomasello 2003, 13). In this sense, human beings themselves are incapable of examining the links between their language and their thinking: only a non-human or artificial intelligence not constrained by human language and thinking might be able to detect them. In the multi-competence perspective, most of the human race are seen as possessing languages, not language; all human beings have the initial potential to acquire more than one language (Cook 2016). It cannot be assumed that a typical human being knows only a single language with a single grammar, a single mental lexicon, and so forth. The question is not so much how knowing a single language relates to our thinking as how knowing two or more languages relates to our thinking. Perhaps the general links of Lang1 to thinking occur regardless of how many languages the person knows; perhaps, however, the second language (L2) user connects language to thinking in ways unavailable to monolinguals.

The Lang2 sense ‘an abstract external entity’ sees language as existing in the world of abstractions; it is described in rulebooks such as the dictionary and the grammar. Hence the question can be asked whether users of Lang2 A think differently from users of Lang2 B, just as it might be asked whether people in countries with Common Law legal systems behave differently from those in countries with the Napoleonic Code. This is a matter of correspondence between an idealised language object and idealised thinking, typical of early suggestions from Whorf about Hopi and Algonkian languages (Whorf 1941a/1956).

The prime source of insights for one type of Lang2 analysis is the mind of the investigator, supplemented by observations of people, texts or experiments, as in the great English grammars of Jespersen (1933) and Zandvoort (1957), rather than large corpora of texts. An outstanding modern exponent is the psychologist Leonard Talmy, whose analyses of language deal with an ideal object and usually with more than one language; the evidence in Talmy (2005) consists of thought experiments describing boards lying across streams and personal communications about Dutch and Makah rather than descriptive grammars or sentences collected in a corpus. Such analysis depends on the brilliance of its instigator, as in Talmy’s (1985) seminal observation of verb-framed languages like Spanish that express path and motion separately (Cook 2015). This has become a pillar in the language/thinking debate, as we see from many of the papers in Pavlenko (2011) and Bylund & Athanasopoulos (2015). It is clearly an insight about a Lang2 abstract entity.

Lang2 entities have always been identified with single languages rather than ‘in-between’ languages like pidgins, and since the eighteenth century often with a nation-state (Anderson 1983). Corpora and grammars are now starting to emerge for varieties of English such as English as Lingua Franca (ELF) that do not have native speakers (Seidlhofer 2004). However these are descriptions of native-speaker-less languages, not authoritative statements of the Lang2 of a multilingual nation or group, and have indeed been attacked for undermining the ‘standards’ of such national communities. The Lang2 sense is equally remote from the L2 user; an individual L2 user no more knows a Lang2 in either language than a monolingual.

Lang3 is language as ‘a set of actual or potential sentences’: ‘the totality of utterances that can be made in a speech-community’ (Bloomfield 1926/1957, 26): a language is a corpus of sentences that have been spoken or written. Lang3 descriptive grammars such as Biber et al (1999) reflect the properties of actual corpora; the COBUILD dictionary (1995) reports meanings from usage rather than the complete definitions found in the OED. The question of whether the set of sentences constituting language A goes with different cognition from the set constituting language B is, however, virtually unanswerable as language is being treated as a objective external object, not as an internal mental reality, and so the possibility of thinking as such does not arise without involving other senses.

The Lang4 sense is language as ‘the possession of a community’: ‘The mental individuality of a people and the shape of its language are so intimately fused with one another, that if one were given, the other would have to be completely derivable from it’ (Humboldt 1836/1999: 46). Lan­g4 is shared among a group of speakers such as ‘the English-speaking world’ or ‘native speakers of Chinese’. A language community is often equated with a nation – people born in Japan tend to speak Japanese. Nevertheless Sapir (1921, 179) insists ‘It is impossible to show that the form of a language has the slightest connection with national temperament’. A language community can also be a virtual community unconstrained by political borders (Anderson 1983): Kurdish is spoken in Iraq, Turkey and Iran despite the lack of a country of Kurdistan.

The question for thinking and language research is then whether the social interaction of Lang4 and the sense of identity it promotes in its speakers link in some way to their thinking: languages reflect cultural preoccupations and ecological interests that are a direct and important part of the adaptive character of language and culture’ (Evans & Levinson 2009). Take social interaction. The terms of respect in Japanese or the alternative pronouns for social status in Thai undoubtedly go with particular social values. Language is bound to mirror the way the society functions. But does language lead or follow? The disappearance of the Old English word sweostersunu (‘sister’s son’, i.e. nephew) attests to the decreased importance of the uncle/nephew bond but is hardly responsible for it.

Extending Lang4 to L2 users raises a long-contested issue of how community goes with language, discussed in Cook (2021; t.a.). Does the individual L2 user effectively belong to two communities or do they belong to a different community specifically of L2 users, as in the case of ELF? The Lang4 link between language and thinking needs to take multilingual communities into account, not just those which employ a single language.

– The Lang5 sense of language refers to an individual’s mental knowledge: ‘a language is a state of the faculty of language, an I‑language, in technical usage’ (Chomsky 2005, 2). The crucial connection is between individual mental knowledge of language and individuals’ thinking, as in say ‘adult L2 acquisition is a process of establishing form-meaning connections’ (Ekiert 2010: 125). A description of Lang5 individual knowledge is neither the same as the general rules of the language described in Lang2 nor as the pattern regularities in the individual’s Lang3. The valid relationship is that between the individual’s linguistic competence and the individual’s thinking.

There is often therefore a tension between language as an abstract codified system, as a community possession and as knowledge in an individual mind. Many see the community Lang4 and the individual Lang5 meanings as two sides of the same coin: ‘although languages are thus the work of nations … they still remain the self-creations of individuals ’ (Humboldt 1836/1999, 44). The slogan of interactionist psychology was B=f(P, E) (Lewin 1935; Cook 1981) – behaviour is a function of Person and Environment, translatable into ‘language is both internal Lang5 and external Lang4’. Yet whole theories of linguistics have based themselves exclusively on the internal Lang5 meaning, just as whole theories of psychology have based themselves on the external Lang3 sense, whether behaviourism, connectionism or emergentism.

The importance for the language-cognition debate is the relationship between the two language systems in the same mind. Cook (2003; 2016) talked of an integration continuum between the poles of total separation and total integration of the two languages. Neither pole is completely achievable: total separation is impossible since the two languages coexist in the same mind; total integration is impossible as the speaker would be unable to control which language they were speaking. The point on the continuum at a given moment varies according to the aspect of language involved, say phonology, syntax or semantics, and the choice of bilingual or monolingual mode (Grosjean 1998). So, establishing the Lang5 of an individual may be trickier when the more complex language system of the L2 user is involved. While it would be attractive to take the well-known Chomskyan metaphor that we need to study the pure water of monolingualism rather than sample the polluted waters of the River Charles of bilingualism, this does not apply if bilingualism is everyone’s potential state and if bilingual minds are more common and more typical of human beings than monolingual ones.

Lang6 is ‘language as action’, long part of the British school of linguistics (Malinowski 1923; Halliday 1978) and an important constituent of Vygotskyan theory (Vygotsky 1934/62). One interpretation of Lang6 for language/thinking research would be to see how different ways of speaking linked with different ways of acting, corresponding to the behaviour-centred approach (Lucy 1997).

The relevance of L2 users for the language/thinking debate again concerns whether we think monolingual action or L2 user action is the norm. Businessmen like the Arab and Danish L2 users of English described in Firth (2009) are not using English in the same way as their monolingual colleagues; they are carrying out L2 speech acts that do not necessarily have monolingual counterparts and which they might well be incapable of doing in their first language. Similarly codeswitching is a resource available to L2 users that enables them to make subtle points about social status and topic by changing language. Before linking L2 users’ language to their actions and their thinking, we need to know the distinctive elements that are lacking from those of monolinguals.

To sum up, the links between language and thinking vary according to the sense of language being used. A claim about abstract standard Lang2 is not the same as one about social community Lang4 or individual mental Lang5, particularly if L2 users and their communities are taken into account. For example, Sapir says ‘we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation’ (Sapir, cited in Whorf (1941a/1956, 134)). Perhaps language/thinking research needs to take all of these aspects of language into account; perhaps it needs to concentrate on one or two. But it cannot duck the responsibility to specify the exact meaning or meanings of language it is utilizing and whether one language is involved or more than one.

Take the idea of grammar. The grammar of the Lang2 grammar book is not actually known to individual speakers. Firstly it is a generalization, based either on large numbers of sentences and people or on the insights of gifted grammarians; secondly it includes all the rules of ‘the language’ rather than the subset of the rules any individual might possess or use; thirdly it is unlikely to be in a form that actually corresponds to the mental Lang5 knowledge of syntax in an individual’s mind; fourthly, being based on monolinguals, it does not include complex language systems known and used by L2 users. Many examples over the years have shown how out of step these different ‘grammar’s can be; the Lang2 book grammar of English will insist on the object case in non-subject positions yet a recent UK Foreign Secretary said people like you and I; such crucial Chomskyan test-cases of syntax as the differences between eager/easy to please and the subjacency principle in *Who is that she met worrying? turn out not to apply to many of the native English-speaking population: the standard institutional Lang2 grammar reflects the Lang5 knowledge of individual speakers imperfectly. Any syntactic property that is tested for fit against one person’s thinking needs to come out of the Lang5 mental grammar of that person, not out of a general Lang2  abstract grammar.

2. Aspects of language in relationship to thinking

The word language has many facets, spread across the linguistic disciplines from phonology to syntax to sociolinguistics, and a dozen more. None of these specialities boast an uncontested unified theory or an agreed set of descriptive terms and categories. Phonology encompasses theories as diverse as optimality theory and lexical phonology, some relying on terms such as phoneme, distinctive feature or constraint ranking, some rejecting them out of hand. The relationship of language to thinking depends not only upon the meaning of language employed but also on the specific aspect of language involved and the methods of analyzing it. The links between optimality phonology and thinking are likely to be different from those between componential semantics and thinking for instance. Out of many possible aspects of language, one or two are bound to favour or deny a link to some equally arbitrary aspect of thinking by chance, unless the choice is severely constrained by the theory or area of language. Research into language and thinking needs careful specification of the aspects of language that are used.

Syntactic categories and grammar

According to Whorf, the categories of noun and verb force Standard Average European (SAE) thinking to divide the world into things and actions, unlike the thinking of Hopi speakers; ‘English and similar tongues lead us to think of the universe as a collection of rather distinct objects and events corresponding to words… as goes our segmentation of the face of nature, so goes our Physics of the Cosmos’ (Whorf, 1941b/1956: 241). His nouns and verbs are defined in almost the traditional terms of school grammar, represented, say, by Cobbett (1819, 12-15), ‘Nouns are the names of persons and things ... Verbs express all the different actions and movements of all creatures and of all things, whether alive or dead’.

Linguists used to inveigh against such semantic definitions of parts of speech on the grounds of their woolliness – the noun fire is hardly an object, the verb seem hardly an action – and their overlap – request is both a noun and a verb, up a preposition up the hill, a noun ups and downs and a verb Up the grant!. No two people would agree on whether many words were nouns or verbs by these subjective definitions; at best there is a statistical tendency that a noun will refer to an object, a verb to an action (Lyons 1966). Instead linguists have preferred to define syntactic categories in terms of formal structural properties. Fries (1952) defines words that can be inflected for number and can be preceded by a determiner as Word Class 1; i.e. nouns are defined structurally rather than notionally. Other linguists have treated noun and verb as primitive terms – ‘certain fixed categories (Noun, Verb, etc) can be found in the syntactic representation of the sentences of any language’ (Chomsky 1965, 28); these are then substantive universals – ‘items of a particular kind in any language must be drawn from a fixed class of items’ (Chomsky 1965, 28) – a built-in aspect of the human mind. Even Sapir (1921, 96) has a universal leaning: ‘There must be something to talk about and something must be said about this subject of discourse… No language wholly fails to distinguish noun and verb, though in particular cases the nature of the distinction may be an elusive one’. Oddly enough, many of those who reject the Chomskyan innate universals are happy to use nouns and verbs (and indeed words) as self-evident universal categories. But even Chomsky’s definition refers to syntactic properties: it is an empirical issue whether there are two groups of word-classes that can be isolated in all languages on the grounds of syntactic properties (Robins 1952).

 The view that nouns and verbs relate to things and actions respectively derives more from the semantics-based school tradition of grammar-teaching than from the linguistics tradition, in which the connection between parts of speech, i.e. syntactic categories, and thinking starts from their syntactic nature. As Sapir puts it, ‘A part of speech outside of the limitations of syntactic form is but a will o’ the wisp’ (Sapir 1921, 96). Linking syntactic categories to thinking would involve first demonstrating that categories such as noun and verb are not universal, as implied say in Chomskyan theory but refuted by their absence in Straits Salish (Jelinek 1995), cited in Evans & Levinson (2009)) or in Nootka studied by Sapir himself (Robins 1952), and secondly correlating thinking with syntactically defined categories: what does syntactic rather than semantic nouniness correspond to in thinking? Researching the relationship of a syntactic category to thinking is not the same as investigating the effects of a semantic feature of a group of nouns. When Evans & Levinson (2009) say ‘each word class we add to the purported universal inventory would then need its own accompanying set of syntactic constraints’, they are putting the cart before the horse: to most linguists, a word class is precisely the label for a set of words that have the same syntactic constraints, not a Pirandellian concept in search of some syntactic characteristics.

Much language/thinking research with nouns has concentrated on the article system, alias determiners. In English the written and spoken forms of the articles are: the /DI~D/, a~an /eI~~Qn~n/, and Ø (zero article, i.e. the lack of an article), which precede the noun. Put simply, the main English article system is a complex intertwining of:

- definite/indefinite the cat/a cat (singular), Ø/cats/the cats (plural),

- countable/uncountable a cat/Ø cat,

- singular/plural a cat/the cat/the cats/Ø cats

- first/second mention a cat came in/the cat purred.

Some uncountables can be quantified with classifier-like phrases, a cup of tea or a pile of sugar. Subtle everyday uses abound, say the function/place difference between he went to hospital and he went to the hospital, or the Ø article before certain professions; he’s professor of English at UCL. Phonology also enters in through the meaning difference between stressed and unstressed forms; John is the /D/ man to watch versus John is the /Di:/ man to watch. This brief outline of articles is of course more a thumb-nail sketch than a full linguistics account. A more extensive discussion of English articles in a language and cognition context can be found in Ekiert (2010), an up-to date account of L2 acquisition in Snape (2019).

The English article system is notoriously hard for speakers of Chinese and Japanese to acquire; examples include mistakes such as a research and an evidence familiar to all university teachers. But it is not just mass versus count nouns that give students problems nor the absence of articles from their first languages so much as the sheer complexity of the English article system, attested by the vast literature on the L2 acquisition of English articles, say Butler (2002), Master (1994) and Cho (2017). Evans (2011) makes a three-way distinction between a introducing ‘a referent which the hearer is held to be unable to readily identify’, a designating ‘a unitary instantiation of the referent’ and the introducing ‘a referent which the hearer is held to be able to readily identify’. This takes in the discourse context but does not mention the zero article, equally part of the article system, i.e. the plural form of a with unidentifiable nouns is zero, a man came in/Ø men came in. And it does not include the other characteristic uses of a.

In any language and cognition research, the linguistic elements need to be properly described. In a typical example, Imai and Gentner (1997) looked at how speakers of classifier languages like Japanese classify objects differently from speakers of non-classifier languages like English. The crucial point is ‘the grammatical distinction between count nouns and mass nouns’, i.e. countability, which exists in English but not in Japanese. This distinction is signalled by the presence of a before book, a book, and its absence before sand, *a sand, and the plural form books but not *sands. Syntactically this analysis reduces a complex syntactic meaning-related formal system to an either/or semantic choice. The Linguistic Commitment requires full syntactic analyses for the determiner systems of both languages, as is for instance carried out in Lucy (1992). A similar reduction of complex syntactic matters to an either/or choice is seen in Talmy’s satellite/verb-framed distinction, which appears to be a matter of frequency of occurrence within a language rather than an either/or distinction across languages (Croft 2010).

So the analysis in language/thinking research usually establishes two classes of nouns, count and mass, on semantic grounds rather than as syntactic features of nouns that vary continuously (Bollinger 1969). It is always possible to create countable forms for mass nouns with specialised meanings, the sands of time, the waters of the Nile, or uncountable forms for count nouns, there is too much book in primary school. Most language and cognition research uses the meanings associated with nouns rather than their formal syntactic properties. Where Imai & Gentner (1997) claim to be talking about ‘count/mass syntax’, they are actually talking about count/mass semantics: the syntax is far more complex – whatever syntactic model is used.

Nor are nouns the only syntactic category to be treated semantically rather than syntactically in this research. Coventry et al (2011) for example explored how English/Spanish bilinguals express spatial relationships through prepositions such as in glossed as ‘containment’ and on glossed as ‘having support’. The linguists Leech and Svartvik (1975, 83-85) talk, not of a pair of prepositions in/on, but of ‘in-type’ prepositions that include into, in, out of, through involving an area or volume, and ‘on-type’ prepositions such as onto, on, off, across, along involving a line or a surface; volume and surface contrast in He was living on a desert island and He was born in Cuba. As with nouns, the linguist sees a complex network of meanings, usually finding it difficult to make hard and fast divisions between pairs such as in and on. Testing out the meanings of pairs of prepositions against thinking reduces prepositions to isolated atoms of meaning rather than complex molecules; prepositions contrast with many other prepositions not just with one, in a plane, on a plane, inside a plane, with a plane, into a plane, by plane, and so on, each with a meaning that contrasts with the others to a greater or lesser extent. Most uses of in and on are probably temporal, in the afternoon and on Tuesday, not spatial, or directional, arrive in and on your left. The containment/support distinction is thus one small facet of the use of in and on. Our knowledge of in and on is many-facetted; even beginners in the language need to know multiple meanings for in and on. Do ‘container in’ and ‘surface on’ stand out sufficiently from this web of meanings to be testable cross-linguistically? Levinson (2003: 38) feels ‘in general it is hard to find any pair of spatial descriptors with the same denotation across languages’.

To most linguists, preposition is primarily a structural category, like noun, defined by its appearance before noun phrases – in a moment, on the train; ‘Typically, prepositions function as the first constituent of a prepositional phrase’ (Greenbaum 1996, 159). Comparing two languages is not just taking in certain core meanings of the prepositions but also looking at how they behave syntactically, at the extreme with the postpositions of Japanese that occur after the noun phrase nihon ni (Japan in) rather than before in Japan. Prepositions have a complex set of syntactic behaviours in English, going with particular verbs, come on/come in, and adjectives, dependent on/disappointed in. Prepositions are not independent units in the same way as content words but have a syntactic function like articles; they are partly like closed-class function words, partly like open-class content words. Unless cross-linguistic comparison takes such basic information on board, research results may be skewed by the other syntactic and semantic features of preposition oppositions like in and on across languages. Once again language and cognition research tends to deal with them as semantic units rather than syntactic categories.

The major syntactic differences between languages have, oddly enough, seldom featured in the language/thinking debate, for example the contrast between configurational languages which have phrase structure and non-configurational languages which don’t (Hale 1983) and the preposition/postposition word order difference between English and Japanese. Whorf made the interesting claim that ‘Hopi can and does have verbs without subjects, a fact which may give that tongue potentialities, probably never to be developed, as a logical system for understanding some aspects of the universe’ (Whorf 1941b/1956, 243). Since Chomsky (1981), this has been known as the pro‑drop or null subject parameter; 97% of languages allegedly have verbs without surface Subjects, the well-known exceptions being English, German and modern written French. Yet no-one appears to have correlated such a well-attested syntactic difference with differences in thinking. One exception where a syntactic difference per se was indeed correlated with a thinking difference was Bloom (1981)’s controversial attempt to link the presence of if-clauses in English such as If he had not gone to the forum that day, Caesar would have lived longer with the ability to reason counterfactually. And indeed, crucially for the Linguistic Commitment, we need to establish an overall syntactic theory within which the languages can be compared on an equal footing (Stringer 2010), rather than using English as an unacknowledged universal system into which other languages can be converted (Wierzbicka 2011).

The relationship between language and thinking has then often been conceived in terms of semantics, not of syntax, and of the meanings of words and sentences, not of their form, as if syntax were an unimportant appendix to language. Syntax is not treated in its own right as having syntactic form and meaning but as a vehicle conveying a basic set of semantic meanings; gender for instance is not seen as syntactic agreement between elements in the sentence but as semantic and arbitrary meanings attached to nouns. Yet the way that we think could be as influenced by the way we construct our sentences as by what we mean by our words, as the writing-direction research of Tversky et al (1991) suggests. It is one thing to deduce a relationship between syntax and thinking based on a formal feature of syntax, whether the effects of SVO, the syntactic categories of noun and verb or the presence or absence of articles; it is another to deduce a relationship from a semantic idea incorporated in a complex web of syntactic devices, such as gender and mass/count. What is being asked for is then in the spirit of Brown (1986: 482): ‘Relativity is the view that the cognitive processes of a human being – perception, memory, inference, deduction – vary with the structural characteristics – lexicon, morphology, syntax – of the language he speaks’. This is not the same as saying that semantic notions expressed in syntax correlate with concepts in cognition – of course they do, or language would be impossible.

Lexical items and sets

The bridge between language and thinking has usually been perceived as the lexicon. Famously Whorf (1940/1956, 216) based arguments for linguistic relativity on the many words for snow in Inuit, the scarcity of ‘snow’ words in English, and the reduction of ‘cold’, ‘ice’ and ‘snow’ to one word in Aztec. Yet Sapir (1921: 181) pointed out ‘the linguistic student should never make the mistake of identifying a language with a dictionary’.

The area of colour research investigates how the set of colour terms in the lexicon of a language relates to ‘objective’ measures of colour such as hue and saturation, as seen in Athanasopoulos (2011). As with grammar, the tools for handling lexis and its importance vary according to one’s theory. For instance, while Chomsky’s theory is often seen as syntactic, its instantiation in the Minimalist Program treats syntactic structure as a projection from the properties of lexical items, which are then Merged (Chomsky 1995).

Overall, however, there is a major slippage between the way that many psychologists see vocabulary and that adopted by most linguists. One preliminary difference is already seen in the term lexical item used in the heading. The category of word prevalent in psychology is extremely hard to define except in the writing-dependent sense of letters surrounded by spaces; Illujuaraalummuulaursimannginamalittauq (‘But also, because I never went to the really big house’) is for instance a word in the Inuktitut language (Dorais 1988, 8, cited in Genesee 2003). The unit preferred by linguists is more often lexical item or lexical entry, which may well be more than one word look up, say, or in front of, or lemma in which the various alternate forms of the word are reduced to one; a lexical entry contains far more information than a word’s reference, such as argument structure and collocability. Mental Lang5 lexicons are organised in lexical items or entries, not in the words typically found in Lang2 dictionaries.

Psychologists by and large regard words as having single core meanings: dog meansõ, not ‘to follow someone closely’ or ‘a complete flop’: one word, one meaning. Levinson (2003: 35) sums this up as the assumption that ‘corresponding to a lexical item is a single holistic concept’. Red and blue are taken to refer to particular colours/hues/saturation on some visual scale or field rather than, say, to the Labour and Conservative parties, snooker balls or York City Football Club. Evans (2011, 75) for instance distinguishes red ink from red squirrel. This tells us rather little about the wider set of colour terms that red belongs to: in the case of squirrels, the opposition is between red and grey, in ink probably between red, blue, black and green, in roulette between red and black, in traffic lights between red, green and amber, and so on. A word has many meanings in different contexts and relates to the meanings of many other words.

More crucially, treating red as a unique visual perception only covers its denotative reference to physical colour rather than its many other uses; it assumes that there is a core aspect of the physical world denoted by the colour term however much this may vary cross-linguistically. Defining the language component of language and thinking is taken to mean enumerating which physical shade on the colour or hue scales etc the words actually refer to before relating them to different thinking. The central belief is that the purpose of words is to refer to things and actions; hence the emphasis in psychologists’ research on content nouns with clear (and usually drawable, or at least visible) physical reference, as opposed to structure words like to with syntactic meaning or words with abstract meanings like nation. Imai and Gentner (1997) for example frequently refer to ‘names’ and ‘nouns’ as if they were the same – ‘substance names and object names’, ‘children initially learn object names rather than names for relations of properties’, ‘extending their names on the basis of shape’; discussions of colours frequently talk of ‘colour naming’ (Regier & Kay 2009); Malt and Ameel (2010, 175) talk of naming patterns as ‘patterns of application of words to objects’, Pavlenko (2011, 200) of ‘word-to-referent mapping’. To most linguists, the word-object link is only one of the many aspects of meaning that go with a word; there is no simple bond between an object in the world and the noun that refers to it: most nouns are not names; most nouns have multiple meanings; most meanings do not have clear denotations in the physical world; most meanings relate to other meanings rather than being independent – the basic structuralist claim summarised as ‘lexical concepts are defined relative to other items in the lexicon’ (Stringer 2010, 102). Indeed in English actual names have their own distinctive grammar with no determiners, London, apart from rare exceptions like The Hague, and their own spelling conventions such as Cooke, Hogg and Smythe, not to mention Cholmondeley.

To linguists, not only do words with unambiguous visual referents form a small subset of the lexicon but also reference is only one aspect of meaning. Take the word blue. One aspect of blue is indeed the peculiar physical shade it refers to. But blue exists in a network of other information. For an English person, its five most common associations are sky, black, green, red, white, sea, colour, yellow, eyes, aristocracy (Edinburgh Word Association Thesaurus 2011). While this confirms a relationship with other colours on the physical scale, it also relates blue to the superordinate levelcolour in Roschian terms (Rosch 1977) and to adjective-noun collocations, blue sky/sea/eyes/blood, the syntagmatic level of association (Deese 1966). Blue is not only an adjective but also a noun, as in Klein blue or Oxford Blue, or, in the plural, a kind of music, the blues, or the nick-name of Birmingham City and Chelsea football teams. Meanings can be deconstructed into features – blue has the feature [+colour] etc; looked at in networks (Cruse 1986) – blue is the opposite of red in political talk; studied in collocations – blue joke, blue funk, turn blue, black and blue; and counted – blue is 7987th in frequency on the British National Corpus, red 11605th.

Doubtless the counter-argument is that blue has a central meaning from which all the others derive: see how people relate this meaning to thinking and that’s all that needs to be done. But some linguists precisely deny that words have central meanings: polysemy is the norm. Many of the everyday meanings of blue do not relate to its supposedly core referential meaning; why should a joke be blue (it’s yellow in Chinese)? An intellectual woman a blue stocking? Rather the word blue has multiple meanings and connections, of which its denotative link to a quality in the physical world forms a small part. Relating referential meanings of limited sets like colour words to thinking takes in one small aspect of the multitude of possible relationships between language and thinking. It is far from unusual or untypical of words to have such a range of senses: cognitive blends are the norm (Fauconnier 2003). Perhaps only the simulated situations psychological model encompasses the many aspects of a single word: ‘perceptual symbols are multimodal, originating in all modes of perceived experience, and they are distributed widely throughout the modality-specific areas of the brain’ (Barsalou 1999, 583). The overall point once again is that any attempt to relate words to cognition needs to be grounded on a rich model of words, not just on single denotative meanings.


The aim here was to point out that, despite much exciting and novel work into language and thinking, we are getting nowhere until we have spelled out what language and thinking mean in the context of each piece of research. This is not to say that one interpretation of language or one descriptive view of syntax should be preferred; many alternative avenues can be explored. But it is dangerous to take language for granted; lack of explicitness in the discussion often means it falls back by default on folklore and common-sense rather than the scientific study of language practiced in the twenty-first century.


Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities. New York: Verso

Athanasopoulos, P. (2011) Colour and bilingual cognition. In Cook & Bassetti (eds.), 241-262.

Barsalou, L.W. (1999) Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22-660

Bassetti, B. & Cook, V. J. (2011) Relating language and cognition: the second language user. In Cook & Bassetti (eds.), 143-190.

Biber, D., Finegan, E., Johansson, S., Conrad, S. & Leech, G. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Longman.

Bloom, A H. (1981) The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: a Study in the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Bloomfield, L. (1926/1957) A set of postulates for the science of language. Language 2, 153‑64. Reprinted in M. Joos (ed.), Readings in Linguistics I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1957).

Bollinger, D. (1969) Categories, features, attributes. Brno Studies in English, 8, 37-41.

Brown, R. (1986) Social Psychology. New York: Free Press. 2nd edition.

Brutt-Griffler, J. (2002) World English: a Study of its Development. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Butler, Y.G. (2002) Second language learners’ theories on use of English articles. Studies in second language acquisition, 24, 451-480.

Bylund, E. & Athanasopoulos, P. (2015) Cognition, motion events and SLA. Modern Language Journal, 99, Supplement 1.

Canagarajah, S. (2007) Lingua Franca English, multilingual communities and language acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 91, 923-939.

Carroll, J.B. (Ed.) (1956) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cho, J. (2017) The acquisition of different types of definite noun phrases in L2-English. International Journal of Bilingualism, 21(3), 367-382.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Boston, Mass.: MIT Press.

____ (1981) Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

____ (1995) The Minimalist Program. Boston, Mass.: MIT Press.

____ (2005) Three factors in language design. Linguistic Inquiry, 36, 1, 1-22.

Cobbett, W. (1819) A Grammar of the English Language. Reprinted Oxford University Press (1984).

COBUILD dictionary (1995) Collins COBUILD English Dictionary. Harper Collins.

Cook, V.J. (1981) Second language acquisition from an interactionist viewpoint. Interlanguage Studies Bulletin–Utrecht, 6, 93-111.

____ (2003) Introduction: the changing L1 in the L2 user's mind. In Cook, V.J. (ed.), Effects of the Second Language on the First. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1-18.

____ 2007. The nature of the L2 user. In L. Roberts, A. Gurel & L. Marti (eds.) EUROSLA Yearbook, 7, 205-220. Reprinted in L. Wei (ed.) (2011), The Routledge Applied Linguistics Reader, Routledge, 77-89.

____ (2009) Multilingual Universal Grammar as the norm. In I. Leung (ed.), Third Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 55-70.

____ (2010) Prolegomena to second language learning. In P. Seedhouse & S. Walsh (eds), Conceptualising Language Learning. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

____ (2011) Relating language and cognition: the speaker of one language. In Cook & Bassetti (eds.), 3-22.

____ (2015). Discussing the language and thought of motion in second language speakers. The Modern Language Journal, 99, Supplement, 154-164.

____ (2016) Premises of multi-competence. In V. J. Cook and Li Wei (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multi-competence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-25.

____ (2021) Language in multi-competence and translanguaging. In J. MacSwan (ed.) (to appear).

____ (t.a. ) The Language of the English Street. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Cook, V.J. & Bassetti, B. (eds.) (2011) Language and Bilingual Cognition. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Coventry, K., Guijaro-Fuentes, P. & Valdes, B. (2011) Spatial language and second language acquisition research. In Cook & Bassetti (eds.), 315-340.

Croft, W. (2010) Relativity, linguistic variation and language universals. Cognitextes, 5

Cruse, D.A. (1986) Lexical Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davidoff, J., Davies, I. & Roberson, D. (1999) Color categories in a stone-age tribe. Nature, 398, 203-204.

Deese, J. (1966) The Structure of Associations in Language and Thought. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

De Groot, A.M.B. (2010) Bilingual Cognition: an Introduction. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

de Saussure, F. (1916/1976) Cours de linguistique générale. Bally, C. & A. Sechehaye (eds.) 1915. Critical edition by T. de Maurio. Paris: Payothèque, Payot.

Dorais, L.-J. (1988) Tukilik: an Inuktitut Grammar for all. Quebec, QC: Association Inuksiutiit Katimajiit. Cited in Genesee (2003).

Edinburgh Word Association Thesaurus (2011)

Ekiert, M. (2010) The linguistic effects on thinking for writing: the case of articles in L2 English. In Han & Cadierno (eds.) (2010), 125-153.

Evans, N. & Levinson, S. (2009) The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32, 429-448.

Evans, V. (2011) Language and cognition; the view from cognitive linguistics. In Cook & Bassetti (eds.), 69-108.

Fauconnier, G. (2003) The Way We Think. New York: Basic Books.

Firth, A. (2009) Doing not being a foreign language learner: English as a lingua franca in the workplace and (some) implications for SLA. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 47, 127-156.

Fries, C.C. (1952) The Structure of English. Harcourt Brace.

Genesee, F. (2003) Portrait of the bilingual child. In V.J. Cook (ed.), Portraits of the L2 User. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Gentner, D. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (eds.) (2003) Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Goldin-Meadow, S., So, W.-C., Ozyurek, A., & Mylander, C. (2008) The natural order of events: How speakers of different languages represent events nonverbally. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 9163-9168.

Greenbaum, S. (1996) Oxford English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grosjean, F. (1998) Transfer and language mode. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1, 3, 175-176.

Hale, K. (1983) Warlipiri and the grammar of non-configurational languages. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 1, 5-47.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Han, Z. & Cadierno, T. (eds.) (2010) Linguistic Relativity in SLA: Thinking for Speaking. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Humboldt, W. von (1836/1999) On Language. Translated by P. Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Imai, M. & Gentner, D. (1997) A cross-linguistic study of early word meaning: universal ontology and linguistic influence. Cognition, 62, 169-200.

Jarvis, S. & Pavlenko, A. (2009) Crosslinguistic Influence in Language and Cognition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Jelinek, E. (1995) Quantification in Straits Salish. In E. Bach, E. Jelinek, A. Kratzer & B. Partee (eds.) Quantification in Natural Languages. Kluwer, 487-540.

Jespersen, O. (1933) Essentials of English Grammar. London: Allen & Unwin.

Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. (1975) A Communicative Grammar of English. London: Longman.

Levinson, S. (1996) Relativity in spatial conception and description. In J.J. Gumperz & S.C. Levinson (eds.) Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 177‑202.

Levinson, S.C. (2003) Language and mind: let’s get the issue right. In Gentner and Goldin-Meadow (eds.), Language in Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 25-46.

Lewin, K. (1935) A Dynamic Theory of Personality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Lucy, J.A. (1992) Grammatical Categories and Cognition: a Case Study of the Linguistic relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

____ (1997) Linguistic relativity. Annual Review of Anthropology, 26, 291-392.

____ (2011) Language and cognition: the view from anthropology. In Cook & Bassetti (eds.) (2011).

Lyons, J. (1966) Towards a “notional” theory of the “parts of speech”. Journal of Linguistics, 2, 2, 209-236.

Mackey, W.F. (1972) The description of bilingualism. In Fishman, J.A. (ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Language. The Hague: Mouton, 554-584.

Malinowski, B. (1923) The problem of meaning in primitive languages. In C.K. Ogden & I.A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 296-336.

Malt, B.C. & Ameel, E. (2011) The art and science of bilingual object naming. In Pavlenko (ed.), 170-197.

Master, P. (1994) The effect of systematic instruction on learning the English article system. In T. Odlin (ed.), Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 229-252.

Murahata, G., Murahata, Y. & Cook, V.J. (2016) Research questions and methodology of multi-competence. In Cook & Li Wei (eds.) (2016).

Oxford English Dictionary (1997) 2nd revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Online at

Pavlenko, A. (ed.) (2011) Thinking and Speaking in Two Languages. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. (1972) A Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman.

Regier, T. & Kay, P. (2009) Language, thought and colour: Whorf was half right. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13, 10, 439-446.

Robins, R.H. (1952) Noun and verb in universal grammar. Language, 28, 289-298

Rosch, E. (1972) Human categorisation. In N. Warren (ed.), Studies in Cross-cultural Psychology, 1, 1‑72, Academic Press.

Sapir, E. (1921) Language: an introduction to the study of speech. Reprinted no date by: Harcourt Brace and Co, New York.

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239.

Sera, M.D., Forbes, J., Burch, M C. & Rodriquez, W. (2002) When language affects cognition and when it does not: An analysis of grammatical gender and classification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 131, 377-397.

Slobin, D.I. (2004) The many ways to search for a frog: linguistic typology and the expression of motion events. In Strömqvist, S. & Verhoeven, L. (eds.), Relating Events in Narrative Vol 2, Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2119-257.

Snape, N. (2019) The acquisition of articles: the story so far. Second Language, 18.

Stringer, D. (2010) The gloss trap. In Han & Cadierno (eds.), 102-124.

Talmy, L. (1985) Lexicalization patterns: Semantic structure in lexical form. In T. Shopen (ed.), Language Typology and Lexical Description: Vol. 3. Grammatical Categories and the Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 36-149.

____ (2005) The fundamental system of spatial schemas in language. In B. Hamp (ed.), From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics. Mouton de Gruyter.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Tversky, B., Kugelmass, S. & Winter, A. (1991) Cross-cultural and developmental trends in graphic productions. Cognitive Psychology, 23, 515-557.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1934/1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Weinreich, U. (1953) Languages in Contact. The Hague: Mouton.

Whorf, B.L. (1940/1956) Science and linguistics. Technology Review, 42, 8, 229-231, 247-248. Reprinted in Carroll (ed.) (1956), 207-219.

____ (1941a/1956) The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language. In L. Spier (ed.), Language, Culture and Personality. Reprinted in Carroll (1956), 134-159.

____ (1941b/1956) Languages and logic. Reprinted in Carroll (1956), 233-245.

Wierzbicka, A. (1996) Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford: Oxford University Press

____ (2011) Bilingualism and cognition: the perspective from semantics. In Cook & Bassetti (eds.), 191-218.

Zandvoort, R.W. (1957) A Handbook of English Grammar. London: Longman.