Human Thought Before Language

I have always thought that a person can truly be said to “know” a language when he or she can think in that language. But I wonder how someone could think if he or she “knows” no language. For example, very early humans or perhaps animals did not have words to express their thoughts. That is, before any recognizable verbal communication was developed, they could not communicate to others. So how could they communicate to themselves, i.e. think?

Try to think to yourself without using words. I can't do it. The only thing I can come up with is that early, early humans and animals think in images. Nouns are mental pictures of those nouns, and verbs are mental pictures of something or perhaps a certain noun performing that action. Etc. Thank you, I hope this or my other recent post haven't been asked before, I am getting zilch accomplished with the search engine.

I was born with severe ear infections(media otitis) in both ears. They were filled with fluid and the eardrum wouldn’t vibrate. I was deaf until they made an incision in the eardrum and released the fluid.

I had the operation when I was about two and a half. Until then, I used to point at things I wanted, be it a ball, cookie, SuzukiGSXR750, and make a grunting sound. My sister, who is two years older, would translate whatever I wanted or thought.

She would also try to get me to say things like “Rubber baby buggy bumpers”. And I would reply, “Blub, blub ,blub, blub.” This would anger my sister and I knew it. Every time she tried I would mock her to make her mad, laughing hysterically all the while.

So while I knew of no verbal or signed language, I still had the ability(instinct?) to mock and torment. The pointing and grunting was based on necessity: thirst hunger, sleep,etc. So was I until the age of two totally without thought, relying only on instincts? I don’t think so.

*Originally posted by JFMichael *
** I have always thought that a person can truly be said to “know” a language when he or she can think in that language. But I wonder how someone could think if he or she “knows” no language.

Probably the same way your dog or an ape “thinks.” Or the way our hominid anscestors “thunk.”

Thinking (reasoning) involves appreciating relationships between perceptions of physical objects and phenomena. For example: I am standing at the edge of a cliff. If I take another step, I will fall down and probably hurt myself. This requires an experience of gravity, but there is some indication (i.e. “visual cliff” experiments with young animals) that the knowledge is inately pre-programmed.\

In my opinion, language evolved along with manipulative ability and tool use. Language may be seen as the symbolic representation of actions and specifically manipulations. All languages contain nouns (objects) and verbs (actions), and their grammars describe the logical relationships between the two.

The sentence,“I shoot an arrow at the bear,” is the “thought equivalent” of the act itself. Animals capable of this symbolic representation of object manipulation must be capable of the physical manipulation itself. It is no accident that human language evolved along with human tool manipulation. The key is the ability to use a tool, which is not a part of the body (jaws, paws, elephant trunk, etc)to project a force upon the environment.

That’s why no other terrestrial animals except man have any real language…they don’t use tools.

Humans are not the only animals that use tools. For
example, some birds are known to use tools - these birds
use a stick to catch worms living in holes. I saw it on

I don’t understand the original post. If I do a spatial
puzzle, like the Rubik’s cube, or play a game like chess,
I don’t say to myself in words everyhting I am thinking.
In fact, I think it would be quite tedious to have to
verbalize my thought process in these instances.

My response is along a similar vein.

I have distinct memories of lucid thinking when I was a baby.

For example, even before I learned to talk, I remember that I was sitting in a high chair without being strapped in. I remember steadily sinking down lower & lower in the high chair and panicking that my head would soon be caught in the “noose” between the high chair tray & chair-back. So, I was definitely communicating to myself a lucid thought. The thought was: “HELP! My head will soon be caught if someone doesn’t rescue me soon.”

I have other such baby-hood memories of thought, but that suffices for now.

I’m a very serious person and that may be why I retain baby-hood memories more than other people might. Maybe because I always took everything more seriously.

I can’t with certainty speak for others, though. I once read a book which said that people usually remember things from childhood that were different than the usual routine. So, for example, if someone was subject to constant abuse, they might have blocked it all out, but if someone was only abused, say, once in a while, then that would stand out in their memories. Or if something truly exciting happened once in a while, that would also be retained, since it made an impression.

That’s why I remember my childhood visits to my cousins’ house, but I don’t remember their visits to my house (which they remember more than me).

True. (finches in your example?) You’ll also see some tool use among some primates. For example, chimps that fashion a blade of grass (or was it a stick?) to pull out termites from their mounds. I also recall seeing a documentary where primates (chimps?) were using sticks and stones to kill a potential predator. There are also birds that will impale their prey on things like cactus needles in order to get at the good stuff inside. Certainly, these are “primitive” tools compare to what humans make & use, but it counts, IMHO.

How are you defining “real language”? By complexity? Even simple verbal and body signals among other animal species can count as a language. If a certain call has a certain meaning among a group of animals, then that is essentially a “word” in their language.

And why “terrestrial”? By this, are you saying that dolphins & whales have language (even though they don’t use tools)?

My younger brother was born deaf. He did not learn how to use sign language until about 4 years old. Obviously, he could not speak (words) or read at that age either. But before then, we communicated through simple pointing, body language, etc. So, obviously, the human brain has some capacity to think without our common words of language.

Perhaps once a language is learned, the brain becomes biased (hard-wired) toward thinking that way…although not for all cases (such as curiousgeorgeordeadcat’s examples of Rubik’s Cube or playing games).

Well dang if I can find it, but I distinctly recall reading a sidebar in an old college textbook about a feral boy (close to full adulthood, actually) who was discovered in a European forest sometime in the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century. It was widely thought that the fellow was lost or abandoned in the woods as a small child and learned to survive on his own.

When captured and brought to “civilization”, the “wild man” became a servant to an early behavioral observer. He had trouble learning more than a couple hundred spoken words, and had very serious memory problems (i.e., when given an instruction, he had to perform it right then or risk forgetting it completely. I think he improved over time.

Yeah, I know, it sounds like Tarzan, sounds improbable, could have been just a nutbag, but I swear I read it in a reputable source. If anyone can help me with the citation, I’ll appreciate it.

Why am I so willing to recount a half-remembered source and expect you to believe it? Well, as a child, I lived for a summer in an orphanage with two people who had a similar upbringing. These two brothers were about ages 9 and 11, had been locked in a single room and fed through a hole in the wall, with virtually no contact with any other people until they were discovered at least two years before I met them. I was about 11 myself, which is worth keeping in mind.

They, too, had serious language and memory problems, but they had no problems whatsoever communicating with one another at a subverbal level that I found fascinating as a kid but cannot easily explain. I recall that the two of them would work together, silently, piecing together puzzles and model airplanes, and playing with legos with a deftness that belied their apparent “retardation,” which is how the other kids described their problem. They were, however, very easily confused and distracted, which the other kids used to keep the two of them in a near-perpetual state of torment and agitation. Even when at their angriest, their expressions were only slightly more animated than what I would call stoic. They never smiled.

Nevertheless, my impression was that their biggest problem was verbal; cognitively they seemed to be brighter than the kids who picked on them, although I can’t give any specific examples other than the way they played with their toys.

I didn’t pick on them, dammit. I hope someone mentions that at my funeral, because it might wind up being the finest thing I ever did.

If you’re ready to do some heavy reading, try doing a web search on Noam Chomsky, language, and evolution. There are other prominent thinkers who have much to say about this idea, but I don’t know their names.
Have fun.

Phobos asked if the birds I referred to were finches.
All I remembered was the way the birds looked, and they
looked like crows to me. Then I found this website:
Apparently crows not only use tools, but they make them as
Notice that to think of which bird I was talking about I
started with an image, and the word “crow” only came later.
How is that for an example of nonverbal thinking?

Interesting opinions so far, thank you. Jally, I want to know how you could understand or communicate to yourself that you were in distress. How could you think, “HELP! My head will soon be caught if someone doesn’t rescue me soon” if you could not use any of those words? Or any words at all?

I guess what I am really asking is whether we need words to think. The answer appears to be “no.” So, if we don’t use words to think, what do we use? Images? Some sort of instinctive feeling? Also, I can slow my thinking down and verbalize it to myself. I always thought this was called “concentration.”

Oh and the link I provide above also gives quotes by
some experts related to the original question.

I am not an expert in this area, but to answer the
question of JFMichael:
"So, if we don’t use words to think, what do we use? Images?
Some sort of instinctive feeling? "
I would say that we can think without words by imagining
a sequence of sensorial impressions (not just sight,
perhaps also taste, smell, etc.), and assigning certain
emotions (like frustration, excitement, anger, etc.)
to them. Then we can choose to actually carry out the
course of action with the most desirable emotions attached
to it.
This is just one possibility, and perhaps it is not
completely worked out, but I provide it as a suggestion.

I really find it surprising when people question that we
can think without words. I guess the best way to show them
is to observe them doing some task, and when they are done
ask them “Why did you do this that way? etc.” I think they
would soon realize that they need to go to great lengths
to verbally communicte to me what they did, and that they
couldn’t have thought all of that to themselves when they
were doing it (i.e. it took them a lot less time than it
would have had they had to explain each step to themselves).

So JFMichael: make a peanut butter and jelly sandwhich.
Then sit down and write out in words how you did it, and
why you made the choices you made in doing so.

*Originally posted by JFMichael *

Y’know, I was once riffling thru a New Age magazine in the library, and I remember reading about a guy who specialized as an archeological psychic (I think it may be called psychometry). He would touch ancient stones from the days of the Aztecs or Incas, down in South America, and from touching them, he was able to hear voices from the ancient times. Thus he was able to bring a broader dimension into play, than merely “dry” archeology.

Now, getting to the point:

This psychometrist mentioned that he had a strong capacity to read peoples’ minds. BUT that he wished he didn’t have that ability, since he’d get the creeps when he’d be in the vicinity of evil people, and also:

It bugged him when he was in the vicinity of young kids, since he’d start hearing a bunch of white noise which was very disconcerting to him.

In other words, what “thoughts” were going thru those kids’ minds? Nothing! just a bunch of screechy noise…

So, could be that indeed many kids don’t even think, and the process of language helps those kids sort things out. But then there’s also the concept of reincarnation. Reincarnated people can have old souls as babies, and so maybe their thought processes are based on prior practice (in a former life). So they might not need language, but rather just logic and feelings based on circumstances that happen to them as a baby. That might explain my own experience.

I once read that researchers performed autopsies on two brains. One was that of an Occidental who’d been raised in the Orient (I think Japan). The other was a Japanese who was raised in America.

Anyway, upon examination, the language center of the Occidental person resembled that of the Japanese, and the language center of the Japanese person resembled that of Americans.

Thank you curiousgeorgeordeadcat!!! From your link, this was incredibly relevant:
"‘I think a lot of people get so hung up on language that they can’t see beyond it,’ said Heinrich. ‘In some ways, words get in the way and slow down your thinking,’ he commented. We all frequently think symbolically and visually without the use of either internal or external language, Heinrich noted. Nonhuman animals may do the same.

Heinrich has studied the crows’ first cousins, ravens, extensively. With ravens, ‘my impression is they basically respond to emotions,’ he said. ‘In this case I don’t see you necessarily need to evoke cognition.’"
Also, you said that, “I would say that we can think without words by imagining a sequence of sensorial impressions (not just sight, perhaps also taste, smell, etc.), and assigning certain emotions (like frustration, excitement, anger, etc.) to them. Then we can choose to actually carry out the course of action with the most desirable emotions attached
to it.” This is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you everyone, I know that my question was a bit unclear, but I knew the SDMB would get the job done.

So, it appears that there is a universal decision making methods based on senses, emotions, and images. This makes me wonder whether we make better decisions when thinking slowly and with words, verbalizing our thought processes or the other, faster way, using the previously stated method. Plus, it pleases me to know that there is a HUGE difference between regular thought and communication, since I have never been much of a verbalizer.

There are other alternative explanations for the psychometrist’s experiences:

  1. He’s a nutjob;
  2. He’s a fake.

Either are much more valid explanations than that kids don’t think, because people cannot read other people’s minds.


It would come in handy for me if SDMB would implement this:

There might also be less clutter on board.

And, apparently, more ignorance. Post a link to a scientific study supporting what you say or take it to Great Debates.

From “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” by Richard Feynman, W.W. Norton (1988)