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SUZAN VAN BORKUM grew up in Amsterdam and currently calls Paris her home, drawn to the city by the desire to immerse herself elsewhere. She studied art policy & management and has been working in the cultural industry for several years. She likes to spend her days reading, writing and meandering.


What if we could think without using language? I’m not a linguist, nor a neurologist or philosopher, but I do have a strong fascination when it comes to the boundaries of language and what it does to our thinking. Language is a very useful tool in our everyday lives, both in the exchange of information and understanding of the world. Even though language provides us with an immense symbolic and semantic resource we, without even noticing it, can’t move around the vocabulary we were given in our perception of the world. A simple example is the struggle of not being able to put into words how you feel, or when you find the words too late to make that ingenious statement you knew you could have made. The French have an expression for this: ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’.

Let’s dive into the link between thinking and language for a moment to get a somewhat better grip on the possibility of them existing separately. Does the thought come before the language or do the two coincide? Meaning: do we translate a thought into words because we need to communicate it (to ourselves or to another) or do we need the words to build up a thought, the so-called ‘language-first model’? If the second were true, we might constantly be busy with minimizing our own brain because we need to simplify thoughts to make them fit into the vocabulary we possess. Think of all the creativity that might be lost doing so – the imperfect translation of thoughts.

The all-time favorite example of the principle of linguistic relativity – the idea that language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world – is color naming. The idea that words literally ‘color’ your world. The assumption is that the color perception of a person is influenced by the way that colors are classified in their language. Many languages for example do not make a linguistic difference between blue and green and studies have shown that those speakers are less likely to memorize them differently. There is much critique on these color terminology researches, but I do tend to believe in the claim that language influences my worldview. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” And it is exactly this idea of my language enslaving me that bugs me.

Neuroscientists have examined language-less individuals, like deaf people or people who were brought up in isolation. Their thinking was more intuitive and automatic then our linguistic variant, a form that can be compared with animal-like cognition. Sadly, not much was learned from their experience, because these examples tend to lose the memory of how they thought as soon as they are introduced to language. So I went to look for examples that illustrate my hope that there are cases of people bypassing language by turning to other symbolic and associative processes. Please bear in mind that I will be the first to admit that these might be a bit shaky due to the lack of an actual definition of cognition and thinking.

Take for instance people with synesthesia, who have a cognitive pathway in which objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names are joined with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor. A well-known case that pops into my mind is Daniel Tammat, who famously recited 22,514 digits of the number pi. Tammat, born with the savant syndrome, claimed that for him all numbers have a specific color, texture and shape. This visual output made him capable of this inhuman task, not by memorizing each number by heart and order (or by word) but by creating a visual landscape in his mind through which he ‘walked’ while chanting the numbers that he came across. Tammat is an extreme case, but I am eager to think that similar associations happen in the minds of artists in their creative process. Ways in which reality can be captured into thoughts without deducing them into words. Thoughts as music through the brain.

Another illustration that gives me an even bigger thrill of possible non-linguistic cognition starts from a beautiful Zen koan used in practicing Buddhism: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” A philosophical riddle that is intended to break through the logic of words. It is an exercise that can help prepare the mind for enlightenment. I can only guess how this awakening must feel, but I am pretty certain that in this moment it is no longer words that explain the world you live in, it is an understanding that derives from another level. It is an observation of reality in its purest form. A form in which there is no categorization and therefore distinction of where the self ends and the rest of the world begins. Would be a pretty sweet experience, don’t you think? The same sensation I think happens to scientists who stumble upon a moment of eureka – the instant when all falls into place. An exact moment of sudden understanding that goes beyond words.

I have not tried to give you a scientific explanation of the language-thought debate, nor do I provide you with tools to dismiss language in thinking. I regrettably conclude that language is so intertwined with my thinking that there is a long way to go. But what I did want is to create some awareness of the constraints of words. I will eagerly continue to try to find alternative routes in my brain to reach language-less cognition.

What if there are routes that make me perceive the world differently? What if these routes help me to reach new levels of sensitivity? And what if that makes me taste a hundred different shades of blue?

What if?

Published: November 12th, 2015

Previous in this series:

A Cosmic Creative Symphony

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