An interesting and persistent controversy in the study of language behaviour has been the relationship between thought and speech.
The issue involved here may be stated as follows:
Is it possible to think without acquiring language? Are thought processes possible without words and other forms of verbal elements? Is it that all our thought processes are dependent on acquisition of language and that thought processes are impossible without language symbols of some sort or the other?
Arguments are very strong on either side, even today. The classical view in psychology, emanating from early experimental psychology identified image as one of the fundamental elements of consciousness and constituting the contents of thinking. In the light of this, thinking was regarded as a primary ability found even in very young children and language was regarded as secondary.
Some subsequent experiments carried out by Kulpe, Marbe and others on the issue of image and thought went a step further, and held that even images, let alone verbal images are not necessary for thought processes to occur. Evidence from experiments on chimpanzees like ‘the delayed reactions experiment’ of Hunter and even Kohlers experiments on ‘insight learning’ in a way uphold the primacy of thought over language.
More recently a group of psychologists hold that thought being primary, language is only an agency for organising, encoding and decoding our thoughts. They hold that language is determined and controlled by our thought processes.
A leading advocate’ of such a view is J.S. Burner, who argues that language behaviour or speech is possible only because of the existence of a topic common in structure in different languages, pre-lingual processes and mechanisms, and language only helps to encode and receive these structures.
Further support to this view advocating the primacy of thought over language comes from certain experiments on colour experience. In an interesting experiment Berlin IC employed an array of 329 colours which were presented to people speaking 20 different languages. In the first instance the investigator ascertained the basic colour terms in each language.
After ascertaining the basic colours, the authors put on a clear piece of acetate over the colours. The subjects were required to map out the areas of each colour term and also put a cross mark against the best representation of each colour form marked by them.
Some of the findings were as follows:
1. It was found that in almost all the languages, the number of basic terms or vocabulary related to colour are very limited.
2. The focal or best example of colour terms is the same across the twenty languages. If for example, one language has four basic terms for colour and another language more, four focal colours chosen for the first language are found to overlap very much with the basics for the second language. Thus, there appears to be a common factor of description of colour experiences in all languages.
3. It was further found that there is a common and standard order when terms distinguishing colour are added. For example, there are two terms, related to black bright colours. If there is a third term, then it is red and yellow, green or green and yellow, and the sixth blue.
The implication of this is that no matter what the language involved is, there seems to be a basic sequence of the ordering of the emergence of colour forms showing that there is no unlimited freedom exercised or possible in any language to describe or define colour experiences in its own peculiar way, showing that experiences or perception of colour is more primary compared to words.