Do we think in words? Part II

The trouble with being a linguist is that you can’t get away from your object of study. Every time anyone opens his or her mouth you are liable to hear something of significance for understanding how language works.

The late University of Chicago linguistics professor, Jim McCawley who, if they gave Nobel prizes in linguistics, would have gotten one of the first ones, used to carry a pad of paper in his pocket to make note of interesting examples he noticed in actual use. He would occasionally unnerve his interlocutors by whipping it out in the middle of a conversation, even a one-on-one conversation, and scribble down the crucial wording, all without missing a beat.

Well, I had one of those McCawley moments about a week ago. Those of you who have been watching sports recently have indubitably been subjected to this Lowe’s commercial.

And that’s the point. Our thoughts are not words. Something has to happen in our minds to connect our thoughts to words. Even the most articulate of us have been struck by anomia at the most inconvenient moments. Having anomia doesn’t mean that we have fuzzy thinking. After all, we know exactly what we mean, and like the woman in the commercial, we know it when someone else gives us the right words. For this to occur it must be the case that thoughts and words are distinct.

These facts fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Even very smart people, especially smart people who can write well, make the mistake of thinking that words are thoughts. We all read Orwell’s famous essay, Politics and the English Language, in high school. Our English teachers all nodded approvingly as he argued that if people only made the effort to use English well, they wouldn’t think bad political thoughts.


While it is true that one can’t speak clearly without thinking clearly, it doesn’t work the other way around. Like the lady in the ad, we may know exactly what we mean and simply be unable to articulate it. (And I’m sorry, Mr. Orwell, but people with the most outrageous political opinions can nonetheless speak quite clearly about them.)

In the Bible translation debate I read the formal equivalence folks arguing as if the words were the thoughts. They blanch at the thought of rewording a passage in English because they believe that that somehow changes the meaning. They reluctantly concede that some changes need to be allowed so the translation isn’t complete word salad, but, they say, to be close to the real meaning we must use an “essentially transparent” rendering in English.

However conversations like the one in the commercial above show us that you can be very precise in thought and use less than exact wording (with a suitably cooperative interlocutor) to communicate exactly what you intend. There is no value in trying to mimic the wording of the original language if that’s not the way English works.

This is what I tried to convey in my inaugural post in this blog when I said that the meaning is not in the words. We use words as tools to communicate, but they are, in the last analysis, only the tools, and not the meaning itself. We get into trouble arguing about translation when we forget this fact (or ignore it unawares).

The last time I asserted that the meaning is not in the words, I was taken to task, as if that claim were tantamount to saying that meaning apart from words is vague and ethereal. Of course, that is not the case at all. Meanings are almost always quite precise, at least the first order meanings. The deeper implications of those first order meanings can be vague or difficult, but the first order meanings are rarely imprecise. So when the Greek in Matt. 23:2 says: ἐπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν ‘they sit on the seat of Moses’ it means exactly ‘they bear Moses’ authority’. The argument isn’t about referential accuracy. Everyone agrees on that. The argument is whether the burden of getting to that meaning should be borne by the wording of the translation, or by teaching the churched to understand what an essentially transparent translation means. The supposed value of the second approach is that you don’t you miss literary allusions (which were noted for this passage in Lingamish’s comment in the discussion on the translation of this passage over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry).

For me, the cost of the second option is too high. If the connection of the wording to the first order meaning isn’t automatic, the communicative force of the allusions will be lost anyway. You’re better off with the dynamic equivalent translation and an indication of the allusions with a footnote.

14 thoughts on “Do we think in words? Part II

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Great posts, this one and the inaugural.

    Our thoughts are not words. (How then) Are our words thoughts?

    1. Rubbish, bunk, a ridiculous or preposterous proposition.
    2. a nice, upper-crust, slightly less obnoxious way of saying “bull****”
    3. A phrase commonly used to scoff at some one or something; disbelief; A condescending interjection.

    But who needs the dictionary, when your context gives readers your word’s meaning(s), the one(s) you give it?

    I’m amazed that you anticipated all the talk on καθέδρας this week way back in March 2006. Thanks for introducing “prototype” theory, and for saying that the prototypical chair for the first New Testament writers and readers was much different from ours today.

    Thanks even more for telling some of your own story. We were probably in Vietnam and in Vietnamese around the same time. How our experiences shape us. Yes, the trouble with being a linguist.

    Thanks Rich!

  2. John says:

    More than mere (mere?) literary allusions are at stake in this translation choice in Matthew 23:2.

    Co-textual relationships are at issue. In the immediate context, you have:

    The Lord said to my lord,
    sit at my right hand
    (Mathew 22:44)

    The only way to maintain the co-textual relationship, that is, the thread of the discourse, is, if one translates ‘bear the authority of [someone]’ in 23:2, to translate likewise in 22:44:

    bear my authority

    Which of course sounds awful. Presumably, however, one might find a like-sounding translation of the relevant phrases that preserves the thread.


    But the effort inevitably fails if one takes into consideration the larger thread of discourse that runs throughout the Bible whose continuity is embodied by a series of related metaphors.

    Matthew 23:2 is a bead on a long string that includes a ton of texts in which sitting and judging and pronouncing are connected.

    You can’t be going with a demetaphorized DE translation across the whole string. It doesn’t work. Which is why DE translations are infamous for not preserving concordance across distance.

    Which is the reductio ad absurdum of the entire DE approach, unless it admits of the necessity of translating a metaphor with a metaphor.

    Metaphors. Whenever you replace them with mere propositions, too much is lost in translation.

  3. Gary Zimmerli says:

    Words or thoughts? I’m certainly struggling with the whole idea, Rich.

    This thought came to me: the thought is like a soul, and words are like the body that clothe that soul.

  4. hook says:

    While I don’t disagree with your point about thoughts versus words, your example seems to make the case that a translation team ought to tread carefully before abandoning the words themselves. John made the case from one point of view. I would add that the idea of seat/chair conveying authority is also viable in English. And so we have chairperson, department chair, first chair, as well as (a bit more distant) box seats, cheap seats, and driver’s seat.

  5. Richard A. Rhodes says:


    You make a good point. I do not deny that the problem that you address is a real one, but I still have to disagree.

    I don’t see allusions as “mere” or metaphor as somehow more valued. (Remember I’m from the Lakoff school of metaphor which cuts the world of non-literal reference up in very different ways.)

    Where we disagree, I believe, regards whether we can translate effectively in such a way to highlight all the co-textual relationships at an acceptable cost. You don’t address the point I made that when you have to choose between intent of the communication and its co-textual relationships, then the intent of communication wins every time, (although between some languages/cultures compromises are sometimes possible, but always favoring the intent).

    Now we may also disagree about sitting in the Bible. I argue that English speakers don’t react to sitting as a sign of authority, and that means that any wording that focuses on the sitting/chairs, is an unsatisfactory translation, i.e., it costs too much. For me, when you can’t have both, it’s the intent that belongs in the translation and the co-textuality that belongs in the footnotes. I think it is upside down to insist on retaining the co-textuality in the translation and relegating the speaker’s intent to the footnotes.

    Notice also (cf. hook’s comment) that while we can certainly point to places in which people in authority in our culture sit, that’s not the same as saying that 21st century English speakers naturally associate authority with chairs and sitting, which is what would be required to translate the sitting literally at an acceptable cost.

    There is one further issue here. I’d argue that in the case of sitting and chairs the connections, whether you call them metaphorical or allusive, are made at the level of meaning and not at the level of wordings in the original languages. This has some significant implications for how one handles intertextuality in translation, but that argument is too long to make here. I’ll have to come back to it in a future post.

  6. flute4jc says:

    Ok, maybe I misunderstood you, but what do you mean we don’t think in words? I do all the time. I didn’t know it was possible to NOT think in words. I’m confused…

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    I’m confused…

    What kind of meaning (or thoughts) are you experiencing when you are confused? Did you have any meaning to your feelings/thoughts before you could verbalize your confusion (if you could)?

  8. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    Dear flute,

    You are confusing your inner dialogue with thoughts. They’re different, which is what I’m using the commercial to show.

    Your inner dialogue is based on your thoughts, but it is not the thinking process itself. If you read my first post on this topic, I have an example in which I show that you do a lot of wordless thinking while reading a text.

    I should also point out that artists, musicians, and athletes all think wordlessly to accomplish what they accomplish. They may have some inner dialogue about it, but that’s just a commentary on the actual thinking and/or problem solving.

    Furthermore, the inner dialogue is just the tip of the iceberg of thought. Only the very most introspective among us can dig into those layers of thought and articulate them.

  9. Sam Norton says:

    Would it be possible to focus in on a passage that doesn’t have such an easy relationship to an English equivalent? (That is, we can be fairly comfortable with talking about sitting in Moses’ seat being about authority because our language/ thoughts are similar).

    A long time ago I was told by a tutor that there was a socio-political reference to Gerasa, as a seen of domestic insurrection or terrorism (I’m afraid I forget the details) and that this was hovering in the background of the story about the Gerasene Demoniac. I remember the point because the tutor used the word ‘Enniskillen’ to convey that we would not be able to hear the word without automatically being reminded of what happened in a place. How can a translation bear that level of meaning? And given that it almost certainly can’t do so, aren’t we best off with as strictly accurate a translation as we can get, but annotated and taught within a community so that the community as a whole can digest it?

    A different way to put that point would be to say that the meaning is established by the community not by the text; and so we can sit lightly to the text being the essential carrier of meaning. Another Wittgenstein quote (sorry): “God has four people recount the life of his incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies. Is this not just in order that the literal word is not taken too seriously, and that the spirit may be given its due? In other words a mediocre account is to be preferred”.

  10. eclexia says:

    This is a good dialogue, even though I only understand “the tip of the iceberg” of your words, which are expressing the tip of the iceberg of your inner dialogue, which…… 🙂

    Actually, sometimes I feel like I catch the heart of the inner dialogue even though I don’t understand all the words in the individual arguments (but maybe that is arrogant presumption on my part….)

    “Only the very most introspective among us can dig into those layers of thought and articulate them.” And, I would guess that is part of why the most introspective among us (the introverts) are so often quiet. An introvert, I think, is acutely (and often painfully) aware of how incompletely and inaccurately any words they could come up with would express what they are really thinking and feeling–what is really going on in their inner dialogue.

    I am not, however, ready to negate the possibility of people thinking primarly (even if not exclusively or purely) in words. I used to find it incomprehensible that people could think in pictures. That way of thinking seemed limited and stilted, although I had a very good and very brilliant friend who swore he thought that way. I read the book The Gift Of Dyslexia and an amazing description of what it means to think in 3-D, moving pictures. It seemed, well, weird, to me. But when I read it to my friend, his comment was, “You mean not everybody thinks that way?”

    So, I hear what you are saying and it makes a lot of sense to me (The Lowe’s commercial made me laugh at my introverted battle for words–instead of going silent, I tend to overcompensate using too many words to drag my thoughts out into communicable form.) But, I’m not sure I can go so far as to say people don’t think in words. Maybe some people do, even though I can’t comprehend how that could be. Or maybe it’s like the chicken and the egg–which comes first? Well, it sort of depends. And an argument from either end would be sort of accurate.

    Maybe it depends–maybe there are degrees of thinking in words vs. thinking in…I’m not sure what. Thinking in feelings. Thinking in concepts. Thinking in….Couldn’t words be one of the ways that inner dialogue happens? More so for some people than for others? Or, at least, could some of that inner dialogue be more word-dependent for some people than for others? I’m not very confident of this, but neither am I confident that it is true that “our thoughts are not words” would be true for everyone.

  11. Tim says:

    Saying that we do not think in words is hyperbole, the exaggeration is that some of our thinking IS in words, the point is not that NONE of our thinking is in words, but that this is only the presenting layer of thought, either just before we present the thinking to others, or to make it clearer to ourselves. The processing (thinking) behind or below the words was non-verbal.

    But then the: “we think in words / no we don’t” debate is much like the DE / FE debate the truth is we need both!

    If we could only think in words everyday actions like throwing and catching, or driving a car would be impossible, if we never thought in words speech would be impossible!

    If we only had DE translations we would fail to “hear” the allusions and literary connections, but if we only had FE translations we would not be able to understand most of what we read without a Philip to explain for us 😉

  12. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    Tim said:

    Saying that we do not think in words is hyperbole, the exaggeration is that some of our thinking IS in words, the point is not that NONE of our thinking is in words, but that this is only the presenting layer of thought, either just before we present the thinking to others, or to make it clearer to ourselves. The processing (thinking) behind or below the words was non-verbal. (emphasis mine RAR)

    I suspect we don’t actually disagree. The basic insight is that thoughts are not the same as words. My claim is that all thinking is prior to words, which is what I understand you to be saying when you say: The processing (thinking) behind or below the words was non-verbal..

    We also seem to agree on the point that we may use words when we think — the anecdotal evidence is that most people do much of the time. We may give form to our thoughts using words. We may even refine our thoughts by putting them into words. But the thinking is, in a logical sense, prior to the words. But the existence of verbal processing associated with thought doesn’t mean that thinking is in words. It’s not a hyperbole. The fact that there is mental work associated with getting from the underlying processing (which is what I’m calling thinking) to words is prima facie evidence that thinking is not in words.

    Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher to whom we have often referred in this blog, noted that everything we utter is inaccurate to our intent. Our utterances mean things we don’t intend and they don’t mean things we do. (His phrasing was that language is both “exuberant and deficient”.) Again that means that thoughts and words are distinct.

  13. Tim says:

    Fairly close to agreement anyway (“good enough for government work” 😉

    Our definition of “thinking” seems to differ a little, and I am not quite sure what you would call the verbal component in what I call thinking – i.e. all the mental processing I do beyond the level of hard-wired responses – for some of this “thinking” is verbal, most of the last stages of writing this reply was verbal(ised) thinking.

    There is a difference in emphasis as well… the “we do not think in words” formulation has good shock value, to jerk us out of our naive assumption that we do all our thinking in words, but I suspect that in the end its exaggeration (or its restricted definition of thinking?) risk making its continued use counter productive…

  14. Jeremy Pierce says:

    I’d be extremely hesitant to accept first-order meaning as always precise. What about “Curly is bald”, which can be true if Curly has quite a few hairs left on his head, but there’s no precise number below which he’s bald. Any predicate involving a gradation without a strict boundary line will be like this. Aren’t those first-order meanings? But maybe you mean something different by first-order meaning that I’m not getting.

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