Chicken (Ideas) Or Egg (Words): Which One Came First? (a.k.a. The Grand Debate of the Linguists)

Here’s an invitation to one of the most contested preposition in the study of language: whether or not human minds are capable of producing thoughts had there been no supporting vocabularies to express them. Say: 1) would our eyes be able to differentiate the color ‘turquoise’ from generic ‘blue’ had fashion given less crap about it? 2) would any adult be able to understand the number of chocolate in a box had English decided to delete numbers from dictionary? and 3) would these questions have even the slightest chance to pop in my head had my parents chosen to forbid me from learning language?


A number of scholars confidently nods to that possibility. Steven Pinker, taking sides with Noam Chomsky in The Language Instinct, argues that yes, even without the words to describe so: 1) we would still have the biological capacity to strike a line in the color spectrum of green-blue for ‘turquoise’, 2) we would know if some of our sweets are missing, and 3) I would regardless be curious about how language shapes the way we think. They both believe that humans are born with the innate talent to communicate with one another, and that the Eskimos’ ambitious naming of ice only affirms that tribes will eventually come up with specific terminologies when there’s a necessity for it.

This has been a strong rebuttal to George Orwell, whose 1984 depicts the scary scenario where language becomes a means for extreme thought control. In that dystopian world, the Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) modifies English into a much simpler language called Newspeak, whereby the word ‘freedom’ as well as other value-giving adjectives have no rooms for existence. Orwell basically proposes the idea that inventing a language (or in this case destroying one) is a very (if not the most) effective way to disallow thoughts and take over people’s heads. He contends that, not having the word ‘independence’ will profoundly limit a nation’s cognitive ability to understand the concept from the first place, let alone to actually desire it.

So which one actually came first—chicken (ideas) or egg (words)?

Earlier this afternoon a friend tweeted me this article about how a Brazilian indigenous group of 700 people are anumerate for their language’s lack of words for numbers, confirming Orwell’s proposition. A couple of months earlier, however, I bumped into a New York Times post quoted otherwise:

If different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Interpreting bahasa Indonesia into English, for example, will enforce you to be a lot more time-sensitive, while entering French requires you to be significantly more gender-sensitive. These aspects of language do not particularly permit or ban you from thinking in a certain way, they just push you to pay more attention to certain details.

Just last week, the same friend introduced me to Ngram, Google’s not-so-new yet very fascinating webtool. Also dubbed as ‘the language time machine‘, this feature lets users identify the frequency of word usage over time, using Google’s storage of thousands of electronic books as a database.

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Quite interestingly, upon entering the words ‘colonialism’, ‘imperialism’, ‘exploitation’, ‘communism’, and ‘capitalism’, a similar rise-and-fall fashion can be observed (see graphic above). Looking retrospectively, of course, it is apparent that a link between history and such vocabula-trend does exist, although a deeper research must be taken before coming up with any conclusion at all. If anything: Ngram shows us that words are invented and consequently expire when a new, more suitable word replaces it.

Quite related to that: I have spent the last few months assisting a senior on a research about Indonesia’s foreign policy during Soekarno’s era using a discourse analysis approach. The analysis (partly out on The Establishment Post) includes an identification of keywords that we assess as the late president’s building blocs to establish Indonesia’s position as the leader of Third World countries, collecting countries’ favor to vote for us on the West Irian issue. It was an entirely different dimension in doing an International Relations research, and I am quite grateful to have been involved in it (yes, Yere, that’s my thank you note right there).

As usual, in addition to my being too coward to draw any conclusion, I believe you will have more fun figuring out the truth by yourself. So yeah, the chicken-or-egg rhetoric will sit there for a while. In case you haven’t been interested in language, think about how its affects are truly profound in shaping civilization (thus ideas traveling through time).

P.S. Apology to the fact that a classic clock makes no relations whatsoever to the topic being discussed; I just found the picture very pretty. Hope you had a great Sunday.