Can You Think Complex Thoughts Without Language? | 1984 - George Orwell

If you can hear what I’m saying right now and understand me, you can probably speak English. It’s also very likely that you think in English as well, right? For example, you might be saying to yourself, “when is this guy going to get to the point?” But, if I took all of those words out of the English language, would you still be able to think that thought? After all, you probably think to yourself in language all of the time. If you know less words, can you think less thoughts? More importantly, can you think complex thoughts?


George Orwell explores this theme in his classic novel 1984. Winston Smith - the protagonist - lives in the superstate of Oceania, in the province Airstrip One, in the city of London. The state is governed by a totalitarian party led by a figure known as Big Brother. The Party seeks complete and total control over the entire state and its citizens. They use tactics typical of totalitarian governments such as constant surveillance, strict disapproval of independent thought, and controlling access to information. But, I want to focus on one tactic in particular. 


The Party has invented a new language called Newspeak which is meant to replace Oldspeak. Oldspeak is the English we all currently use. Newspeak is a heavily modified version of English with a much smaller vocabulary. Over several decades, the Party hopes to pare down the language to take out any words that don’t serve their ideological mission. 

Borrowing a direct example from Orwell, words like warm would not exist. Instead, it would be referred to as uncold. The root word cold would still exist. Pluscold would mean very cold, and doubleplus-cold would be very very cold [1]. In essence, one could revolve any discussion about temperature around one word: cold. In Orwell’s own words,

Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.
— George Orwell [1]

The Party believed that by limiting the language available to the citizens, they could limit their ability to think. More importantly, they believed that they could limit a persons ability to think thoughts that were in opposition to the Party’s ideology: concepts like political or intellectual freedom would be non-existent. 

But, does this hypothesis hold any weight? Could a totalitarian government actually limit our ability to think of the concept of freedom by removing the word from our collective vocabulary? 

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

According to the theory of linguistic determinism, the answer would be yes. Linguistic determinism is one-half of a greater theory referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The other half is linguistic influence which we may touch on in a separate video. 

Edward Sapir

Edward Sapir wrote that

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. [4] 

He also wrote that

The world in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. [4]

Sapir believed that language did, indeed, have an effect on our thinking. 

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf - Sapir’s student - developed this line of reasoning further. He claimed that upon studying the Hopi language, he found that they had no words that referred to time [2]. This discovery led Whorf to believe that, because they did not have any way to refer to it, Hopi speakers experienced time differently. 

In this Hopi view, time disappears and space is altered, so that it is no longer the homogenous and instantaneous timeless space of our supposed intuitions or of classical Newtonian mechanics. At the same time, new concepts and abstractions flow into the picture, taking up the task of describing the universe without reference to such time or space - abstractions for which our language lacks adequate terms.
— Benjamin Lee Whorf [2]

In English, our verbs contain tenses that explain the time during which an action occurred. For example, if I said that it snowed, you know that I’m referring to the past. If I say that it is snowing, then you know that it’s happening in the present.  In English, we divide time and split it up into past, present, future, minutes, hours, days, weeks and experience it as such.

Is it true? Do the Hopi experience time in a fundamentally different way than we do because they lack the words for dividing it? Well, no. It turns out that Whorf’s analysis of the Hopi language simply turned out to be inadequate and that they do in fact have ways of referring to time [3]. So, they don’t actually experience time any differently than we do. But, the theory is not dead yet. 

The Color Test

The Dani people of New Guinea have only two words for describing color: mili and mola. Mili is representative of cold or dark colors and mola represents warm or light colors. If linguistic determinism holds true, then it’s reasonable to think that the Dani people will not be able to make detailed distinctions between colors like we do. They should only be able to distinguish them as dark or light, right? Well, the studies show that the Dani people can make distinctions between different colors just fine, despite not having terms for them  [3, 5, 6].  So, what’s going on here? If they can make distinctions between these colors just fine, why do they not have different words for them? 

Culture, Language, and Thought

It seems that there is a complex and interdependent relationship between language, thought, and culture [6]. Let me put forth a simplified thought experiment that may help clarify our dilemma. Consider two hypothetical cultures: Culture A and Culture B. Culture A’s flag is made up of various shades of green and they live in a forest. Culture B’s flag is made up of various shades of blue and they live near the ocean. Now, let’s say that I show both cultures a lighter green and a darker green. 

Culture A is far more likely to make a distinction between the two colours because they value making that distinction. Since they live in a forest, they see a lot of green and value making a distinction between lighter shades and darker shades in their language. They need to make that distinction to communicate with one another.

On the other hand, when Culture B is asked what colors they see, they may just refer to them in the singular: green. They don’t value making that distinction because they don’t need to. 

So, to the extent that we see different languages lacking words for things it’s more likely a reflection of their culture; they don’t necessarily see the world differently, but they value different things. So, what does all of this mean in the context of 1984? Would Newspeak be effective in limiting thought?

The Language of Thought

The complex relationship between language, thought, and culture is not fully understood: scientists are still doing lots of hard work to figure it out. But, the language of Newspeak is a reflection of linguistic determinism or the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. As we have seen, this theory seems very unlikely. Just because a language may lack words for time or colours it doesn’t mean its speakers can’t experience that phenomenon or create a new word for it.

In his book The Language Instinct, psychologist, linguist, and author Steven Pinker puts forth an interesting concept: he believes that all humans have an innate language of thought or mentalese. He states that,

knowing a language, then is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words, and vice versa.
— Steven Pinker [3]

According to this theory, you and I are not thinking in English. Rather, we are thinking in mentalese and translating that into our respective languages so that we can communicate with others. 

So, if a totalitarian government came to power and started cutting out words like freedom and democracy would we lose our ability to think about those concepts? It’s unlikely. To the extent that me or you could still feel oppression, we would be able to think about oppression in our language of thought. Thus, a new word would likely emerge so that we could communicate this abstract thought that we are both thinking and feeling; thought comes first and language comes after [3, 7].

When you look at language from this perspective, I think there’s something beautiful about all of them. In some sense, we can look at one language and see a reflection of the values and thoughts that people in that culture share based on the words that they have chosen to create.