Life without language

Thought without symbols — life without language — it’s a cognitive reality that is virtually impossible for most modern humans to fathom. For the vast majority of us, our thought processes have been profoundly shaped by the introjection of language into our cognitive worlds, the taking on board of a massive intellectual prosthesis, the collective product of countless generations. Human thought, for the majority, is not simply the individual outcome of our evolved neural architecture, but also the result of our borrowing of the immense symbolic and intellectual resources available in language. What would human thought be like without language?

Author Susan Schaller

The question of the relationship between language and ‘mind’ (a word I hate using), or between symbolic resources and cognitive abilities (there, that’s equally vague!), is philosophically intriguing, but hard to address in anything other than the hypothetical.

Herodotus tells the story of the Pharoah Psammetichus (Psamtik I), who allegedly gave two newborn children to a shepherd to raise without language, taking care of them and paying close attention to their first words. Psammethicus hoped to learn which language was the oldest, which one infant allegedly revealed by calling for ‘bekos,’ the Phrygian word for ‘bread.’ In fact, most historically recorded cases of feral children, however, suggest that they do not develop any language ability at all, perhaps even failing to develop symbolic abilities (or maybe not enough researchers speak Phrygian).

We might try to imagine thinking without language, but, of course, we’d be doing that with language itself. In my own work, I’m interested in thought — or maybe I should say perception and action — that is only partially rendered into language (high speed, perceptually-driven decision making and action in sports). But what would thought be like for those without language?

The rare case of individuals without language offers some potential window in on life across the intellectual Rubicon, if we had developed mentally without immersing ourselves in the shared symbols and communicative reality of language. Although we tend to think that only those who are profoundly intellectually disabled, criminally neglected or raised by non-humans fail to learn language, in fact, adolescents and adults without language may not be as rare as we think. Author Susan Schaller has written about the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who grew up in a house with hearing parents who could not teach him sign language in her book, Man without Words.

The website, Works and Conversations, has a discussion of Schaller’s story, how she became interested in sign language through a fluke accident, but especially her work with Ildefonso, who had grown up without learning sign language or any other form of communication. The piece, Leap of Faith, the Story of a Contemporary Miracle, was written by Richard Whittaker in 2009 (although I only recently came across it). It’s a fascinating interview, and, although I may disagree with Schaller in certain ways, I think her story of trying to teach Ildefonso, not merely sign language, but the symbolic process itself, is absolutely fascinating.

Schaller meets Ildefonso

In the interview, Schaller describes how she originally became fascinated with sign language, when she happened into the very first lectures held in sign language by Lou Fant in 1972 in a course called ‘Visual Poetry.’ Hit by a catering truck near the end of high school, Schaller had been excused from her classes so she took the opportunity to sneak into college classes that sounded interesting at Cal State Northridge. She was so moved by what she saw that she wound up joining a volunteer signing drama group even though, as she puts it, she knew three signs when she signed up.

If you want more of Schaller’s story, I suggest you go to the original interview, or better yet, her book, but Schaller eventually wound up quite committed to signing. Asked to work as a sign interpreter, Schaller found herself in a class for ‘Reading skills’ that was little more than a warehouse for all the deaf students, no matter what their educational needs. In the midst of a swarm of signing and movement, she spotted an individual, clearly deaf, who was also clearly unable to sign:

I went to the door to walk out and was actually turning the handle to leave, when I see this man who looked so frightened. He was holding himself as if he were wearing a straightjacket. He was backed up in a corner, protecting himself. I saw that he was studying mouths, he was studying people. Even though he was frightened, he was still watching: what is happening, what is happening?

She observed as another aide, one who couldn’t sign very well, tried to reach the frightened man. When the other assistant gave up, Schaller tried to engage the man and his true situation started to dawn on her:

I walked up to him and signed, “Hello. My name is Susan.” He tried to copy that and did a sloppy rendition of “Hello, my name is Susan.” Obviously he didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t language. And I was shocked.

He looked Mayan and I thought, well, if he knew Mexican sign language, he wouldn’t try to copy. That’s not a normal thing to do, even if you don’t know the language. I couldn’t walk away. I slowly figured out that this man had no language. As I said, I could see that he was very intelligent. I could see he was trying very hard. I was twenty-two years old. I had no idea of what I was doing. I was faced with how to communicate the idea of language to someone without language.

The man she would call, ‘Ildefonso,’ had figured out how to survive, in part by simply copying those around him, but he had no idea what language was. Schaller found that he observed people’s lips and mouth moving, unaware that they were making sound, unaware that there was sound, trying to figure out what was happening from the movements of the mouths. She felt that he was frustrated because he thought everyone else could figure things out from looking at each others’ moving mouths.

One problem for Schaller’s efforts was that Ildefonso’s survival strategy, imitation, actually got in the way of him learning how to sign because it short-circuited the possibility of conversation. As she puts it, Ildefonso acted as if he had a kind of visual echolalia (we sometimes call it ‘echopraxia’), simply copying the actions he saw:

He’d just try to form signs and copy what I was doing. But his facial expression was always, is this what I’m supposed to do?

That question was on his face all of the time. It was terribly frustrating. It went on hour after hour, for days and days and days. Then I had an idea. If I died tonight, I may have had only one truly brilliant thought in my life. What was it that attracted me to this man? His intelligence and his studiousness, the fact he was still trying to figure things out-those two things.

I decided to stop talking to him. Instead, I taught an invisible student. I set up a chair, and I started being the teacher to an invisible student in an empty chair. Then I became the student. I would get into the other chair and the student would answer the teacher. I did this over and over and over. And I ignored him. I stopped looking at him.

Even with the ‘brilliant idea,’ the road ahead was hard, and Schaller talks about wondering when one of them was going to give up. Finally, they had a breakthrough moment which I want to quote at length because it really is a remarkable story (I got goosebumps from reading it):

What happened is that I saw a movement. I stopped. I was talking to an empty chair, but out of my peripheral vision I saw something move. I look at Ildefonso and he had just become rigid! He actually sat up in his chair and became rigid. His hands were flat on the table and his eyes were wide. His facial expression was different from any I’d seen. It was just wide with amazement!

And then he started-it was the most emotional moment with another human being, I think, in my life so that even now, after all these years, I’m choking up [pauses]-he started pointing to everything in the room, and this is amazing to me! I’ve thought about this for years. It’s not having language that separates us from other animals, it’s because we love it! All of a sudden, this twenty-seven-year-old man-who, of course, had seen a wall and a door and a window before-started pointing to everything. He pointed to the table. He wanted me to sign table. He wanted the symbol. He wanted the name for table. And he wanted the symbol, the sign, for window.

The amazing thing is that the look on his face was as if he had never seen a window before. The window became a different thing with a symbol attached to it. [emphasis added, GD] But it’s not just a symbol. It’s a shared symbol. He can say “window” to someone else tomorrow who he hasn’t even met yet! And they will know what a window is. There’s something magical that happens between humans and symbols and the sharing of symbols.

That was his first “Aha!” He just went crazy for a few seconds, pointing to everything in the room and signing whatever I signed. Then he collapsed and started crying, and I don’t mean just a few tears. He cradled his head in his arms on the table and the table was shaking loudly from his sobbing. Of course, I don’t know what was in his head, but I’m just guessing he saw what he had missed for twenty-seven years.

Schaller argues that this is the ‘first breakthrough about what language is’: “Oh, everything has a name!” (from her account).

The account is powerful and moving, I find, and Schaller says that it changed both of their lives. For Ildefonso, he didn’t just learn that ‘things have names’ (at least in a given linguistic community), he simultaneously changed the way he thought and joined a community of people who can think in ways that are intimately tied to each other. The breakthrough was both internal and external, simultaneously cognitive and social.

For Schaller, the experience stuck with her, and she eventually sought out work on language-less adults. She couldn’t find anything, so she sent a letter to Oliver Sachs, who much eventually undergo apotheosis as the patron saint of the quirky and well-written account of psychopathology and neurological injury. Sachs wanted to meet her and told her, ‘You must write this down! In DETAIL!’ Sachs eventually wrote the preface to her book about Ildefonso.

The plight of the language-less

How many people are language-less? I have no idea, but Schaller does some hypothetical estimates that I found pretty shocking:

The first book is about one languageless person I met. But many people have treated him as a freak, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And I knew this happens all the time. About 10% of the population in the world, on average, is born with some sort of hearing impairment. Out of that ten percent, one percent is profoundly deaf. That’s a basic statistic, but the really sad statistic is that 92% of all profoundly deaf people are born to hearing parents. Only 8% are lucky enough to be born to signing parents. So they have no handicap!

I doubt very much that her last point is accurate, but the key to this paragraph is to think about the numbers. Even if you start adjusting down the numbers she’s using — for example, suggesting that more than 8% of profoundly deaf children have parents who might be willing to learn sign language — you still have a very significant irreducible number of people who are likely to be language-less substantially into adolescence or beyond. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of this field, but I’d be fascinated to hear from someone who works in the area, for instance, with recently immigrated deaf individuals coming from developing countries where they might not have sign language communities.

In the absence of a sign-supporting community, deaf individuals likely can only develop rudimentary sign systems if they’re isolated from other deaf people; since no one else will be using the deaf person’s signs as a first language, it will likely have a reduced grammar and simple structure, at best. That is, if anyone is willing to sign to the unfortunate isolated individual at all – the tragic and disturbing fact is, as Schaller highlights, some groups are ideological opposed to making concessions, demanding that deaf individuals try to adapt to an unmoved (and unmoving) hearing population.

There are examples of communities of deaf people spontaneously inventing new sign languages, but the case of a profoundly deaf individual in a hearing community, isolated from other individuals struggling to communicate visually, would offer little opportunity for this kind of innovation (see, for example, the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language, discussed here and here). Deprived of communication and symbolic interaction, it’s unclear how a personal language could really develop the stability or systematicity it would need to become a true language (Wittgenstein, for example, says that the idea of a private language is incoherent).

What is it like to live without language? Unfortunately, Ildefonso doesn’t help us too much with that:

It’s another frustration that Ildefonso doesn’t want to talk about it. For him, that was the dark time. Whenever I ask him, and I’ve asked him many, many times over the years, he always starts out with the visual representation of an imbecile: his mouth drops, his lower lip drops, and he looks stupid. He does something nonsensical with his hands like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” He always goes back to “I was stupid.”

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell him, no, you weren’t exposed to language and… The closest I’ve ever gotten is he’ll say, “Why does anyone want to know about this? This is the bad time.” What he wants to talk about is learning language.

Schaller is also passionate about the human rights of the deaf, and deeply critical of the movement to mainstream deaf children to the detriment of sign language learning. For example, the use of cochlear implants with deaf children can be seen as directly undermining the possibility that deaf kids will find a place in a signing community although it increases their chances of getting by in the majority hearing community. With the implants, children’s language development can be significantly delayed from what it would be with sign; it’s particularly ironic because kids can learn to sign quicker and earlier than they can learn to speak.

The use of cochlear implants and speech-only teaching methods, forcing children to, as much as possible, learn to lip read or build upon whatever artificially-enhanced hearing they might be able to get, is especially controversial in the deaf community. I had an MAA (Master of Applied Anthropology) student who did fascinating research on the deaf community in Australia, and she found that many members felt that their community was dying at the hands of these technologies and teaching ideologies (this is all particularly ironic because my home university, Macquarie, is a centre for research on cochlear implants).

In fact, I can see both sides of this argument although I favour the use of sign language; I worked as a teaching aide in a school for the deaf, and once upon a time, could hold my own in sign. For parents of deaf children, however, it must seem terrifying to have a child who will fundamentally live in a different community, within a deaf subculture, perhaps with diminished opportunities, justifying virtually any intervention. Schaller calls these interventions human rights violations: ‘What I see more and more is that the hearing world has completely medicalized this situation [being deaf]. I’m not saying parents are bad, but they are being influenced by the “experts,” and they are blind.’

In fact, she’s right on a number of levels, and fear of another person’s marginalization never justifies attempting to eradicate what makes them different: the same logic can lead to repression of children’s non-normal sexuality, suppression of minority languages or cultures and a host of other ‘interventions’ that just seek to make people ‘normal’ for their own good. But before I start down this road (and in to material I teach in my human rights classes), I want to get back to the question of cognition.

The role of language in cognition

There’s really no way to discuss the long and complicated philosophical tradition of discussing the relation between language and cognition without being glib and superficial, but, happily, I’m pretty adept at glib and superficial, so that won’t stop us. A number of philosophers, including Michael Dummet, have offered ‘strong’ theories of language’s role in thought. Their ‘language-first’ approaches argue to varying degrees that certain kinds of thought, or even reflective thought as a whole, is only possible once a community-wide practice of communication through language occurs. We can find strong and weak variants in the work of theorists like William Calvin, Merlin Donald and Daniel Dennett.

Language-first models predict that thought is more or less limited by the absence of language, the strongest suggesting that most of thought would be disrupted, and posit a definitive break in the forms of cognition available once human had produced language. The language-first approach also generally suggests that cognitive capacities vary with one’s language ability, meaning that not all linguistic communities likely have the same cognitive capacities. One noteworthy example is work on the Pirahã, a Brazilian Native American group whose language lacks numbers according to many researchers (see Frank et al. 2008, or a popular press version at The Independent or see the collection of Pirahã-related links at Language Log).

In contrast, opposing ‘thought-first’ arguments suggest that language expresses thought rather than being a precondition for thought occurring. For example, Jerry Fodor has argued that a prior ‘language-of-thought,’ sometimes referred to as ‘mentalese,’ underlies language ability, and partially explains similarities among languages. The thought-first model, however, can develop a problem of infinite regress, as it’s unclear how the ‘language-of-thought’ itself arises except from a prior set of symbols.

In the corner of the ‘thought-first’ argument, we could site a range of empirical evidence, such as the work of psychologists Susan Hespos and Elizabeth Spelke. Hespos and Spelke (2004), for example, found that five-month-old infants born to English-speaking parents perceived object relations concepts that were not highlighted in English, and that their parents did not see as perceptually salient (a relationship of ‘tight-’ and ‘loose-fitting’ that their research had shown to be salient to Korean speakers, whose language does highlight this distinction). That is, the infants in the English-language environment seemed to develop a pre-linguistic concept that was not supported by their first language, and thus the distinction atrophied and disappeared from their perceptions (much as sounds that are not featured in one’s language become less perceptually vivid after six months of age, eventually becoming hard to perceive).

In anthropology, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf are frequently credited with bringing into sharp focus the role of language in shaping perception and cognition, although they arguably offered a less deterministic account of the relationship than some language-first philosophers (see our posts, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right… sort of? and Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was right… about adults, for more of a discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). Their approach suggests that language biases perception, affecting how people are capable of perceiving, making some ideas or even qualities of the phenomenal world, more or less difficult to perceive. Coupled with work like that of Hespos and Spelke, the work on language biasing perception suggests that pre-linguistic perception is actually more attuned to sensory discrimination that may later disappear if not buttressed by language; that is, the pre-linguistic conceptual world is perhaps more attuned to certain gradations, less likely to overlook intermediate or uncategorized sensations.

When we actually look at the evidence in Schaller’s account, we find that neither a ‘language-first’ nor a ‘thought-first’ model seems to capture the inconsistency of Ildefonso’s conceptual capacities. Schaller suggests that his ‘brain was kept alive with problem solving,’ figuring out how to get money, whether by begging or working, find food and shelter, and interact with people who were unable to communicate with him.

Ironically, he seemed to understand certain sorts of symbolic processes, such as performative identity. Schaller says he apparently understood, for example, ‘macho behavior’ because he ‘could see that.’ But other sorts of processes – she says things Ildefonso ‘couldn’t see’ – they remained a mystery; she offers ‘history’ and immigration patrols in the US as two examples. In fact, of course, the division is not really visible-invisible (after all, border police are quite visible when they arrest a person), nor is it symbolic-non-symbolic (macho behaviour, after all, is a symbolically rich performance). Rather, Ildefonso’s difficulties and his successful abilities suggest to me that our own category of ‘symbol’ glosses cognitive capacities that are not all identically difficult, nor are they all dependent upon either shared symbol or language. That is, our concept of ‘symbol’ may, in fact, blind us to the very divisions that Ildefonso’s disability sketches out; not all symbols are equally symbolic, we might say. The degree of arbitrariness, for example, or the hierarchical nature of some symbols — premised on other symbols — might make them particularly opaque to the language-less.

For example, Schaller had the hardest time communicating to Ildefonso the concept of ‘idea’ itself. She discusses her attempt to mime ‘having an idea’:

How could a languageless man have any idea of what is happening in the head? But I was just hoping that there were enough cultural clues, and he was an observant man. I was grasping at straws. So I would mime having this idea in my head with my fists close to my head and then I would throw it out at your head, as my hands opened. Then I’d become the student and I’d catch it [laughs] and put it in my head.

I did as many variations as I could, again, over and over-hours, days, hours, days. Frustrating-the most frustrating task in my life! I’d look at him every once in a while and sometimes he looked tired, sometimes he looked frustrated, sometimes he looked as if I were crazy.

Of course, from some perspectives, she was crazy. She was miming a particularly obtuse embedded metaphor in English usage: that ideas are a substance in the head that can pop into existence and then be passed to other people’s heads, which is really experienced in the other person as an idea. On so many levels, the ‘idea-is-an-object-in-head-can-be-passed-to-another-head’ is pretty absurd, yet she was trying to use it to get a languageless man to understand the very possibility of language.

If it doesn’t sound absurd to you, think about it for a second; the very fact that Schaller was struggling so hard to get Ildefonso to perceive this demonstrates how long the chain of metaphoric assumptions is to get to this cultural common sense. Schaller wasn’t just asking Ildefonso to learn a name for a thing, she was asking him to recognize he had ‘ideas,’ conceive of ideas as things, locate ideas in his head, understand that ideas were different from every other kind of thing (popping into existence, for example), imagine that ideas could be thrown… You get the ‘idea.’ Damn weird thing, language. Makes you think all kind o’ crazy things.

Even after language, however, some ways of seeing the world were difficult to grasp. Schaller catches up with Ildefonso much later, visiting him as he’s working as a gardener, and likes to tease him by asking questions about when things happened.

However, there are a few things he doesn’t think differently about. I try to meet him once a year and I always ask him, “When was the last time we saw each other?” I ask him a “when” question because it tickles me. Time was the hardest thing for him to learn. And he always prefers to say “the winter season” or “the Christmas time.” He wants to point to a season or to a holiday. It’s not a cognitive problem. To this day, he thinks it’s weird that we count time the way we do. He can do it, but he doesn’t like it. Think about it. For twenty-seven years, he followed the sun. He followed cows. He followed the seasons. It’s that rain-time of the year.

As the interviewer points out, many languages do not treat time as an abstract, spatialized, undifferentiated flow but highlight differentiation, seasonality and sequence. Some conceptualize time as necessarily sequential (today is not like tomorrow) or as inherently differentiated (summer is fundamentally not like winter). Time is a classic example discussed by Whorf (1956) to highlight the links between culture, language and perception, and even though his account of time has been criticized on a number of grounds, anthropologists still tend to agree that understandings of time can differ, and that Western treatment of time as a kind of flow through undifferentiated, measurable durations is just one version or inflection of the sense of time with its own distinctive emphases.

My own feeling, and I have not worked with a population that has a non-Western sense of time, is that it’s likely a softer form of the Whorfian argument, that language and culture affect the perceptual qualities of different sensory channels to varying degrees (perhaps more in some phenomenal qualities than in others) is the most defensible (and arguably, this is what Whorf was arguing all along). Time, for example, may be difficult to perceive in certain ways if you are not culturally trained to habitually conducting yourself in relation to time appropriately: certainly, there is deep cultural difference in the degree to which people orient themselves by the clock, and varying emphases that societies place on recurrence or irreversibility of time. This isn’t to say that language is a perceptual world, but rather than languages can induce certain perceptual biases that may be more or less difficult to overcome. But what about those without language?

Language-less thought

As part of her discussion of the human rights of the deaf, Schaller makes the argument, familiar also from Benjamin Whorf (and also brought up in the commentary on Henrich’s WEIRD article) that language diversity itself is an insight into human cognitive diversity: ‘Every language is an outcome of how the human brain works. We don’t know how much we can do with our one brain, even, and each language has used the brain in a slightly different way.’ However, there’s an even deeper and more profound cognitive diversity in her discussion of Ildefonso: the possibility of language-less human thought, something that theorists like Merlin Donald have attempted to discuss.

In contrast to the absolute inability Idefenso had getting the idea of ‘idea,’ or his struggles with points in time, he clearly was capable of all sorts of tasks that suggest he was not mentally inert or completely vacant. He had survived into adulthood, crossed into the US, kept himself from being mowed down in traffic or starving to death. Moreover, he and other languageless individuals had apparently figured out ways to communicate without a shared language, which I find both phenomenally intriguing and difficult to even imagine (putting aside the definitional problem of distinguishing human communication from ‘language’ broadly construed).

Schaller highlights that learning language isolated Ildefonso from other languageless individuals. Schaller explains:

The only thing he said, which I think is fascinating and raises more questions than answers, is that he used to be able to talk to his other languageless friends. They found each other over the years. He said to me, “I think differently. I can’t remember how I thought.” I think that’s phenomenal!

I agree with Schaller, and I suspect that Ildefonso might be suggesting a way in which certain cognitive skills and communicative channels had actually atrophied with the incursion of language into his life, or even become impossible once language had intruded upon them. Language was not simply an addition to his cognitive repertoire; it may have displaced or disrupted other forms of thought and interaction.

From the perspective of a language-saturated world this seems improbable; we tend to think of ourselves as cognitively complete, profoundly abled, without limit. But clearly Ildefonso and other languageless individuals had to find some way to compensate for their deficits, whether it was through mimetic thinking (which is one possibility) or through some other constellation of adaptations. This languageless cognition would not be simply prelinguistic, childlike thought because adult languageless individuals function much more adeptly than four-year-olds. But how this non-linguistic, adult cognition might operate, what it might include, is a bit of a mystery and seems fragile in the face of language learning. I don’t think it’s purely mimetic, even though imitation was Ildefonso’s strategy in social learning, because there are many situations in which there’s simply no role model to imitate. Likewise, we find other primates who are non-linguistic are often good problem solvers without imitating (or imitating much less adeptly than humans).

A neuroanthropological perspective

So can people have thought without words? Well, the evidence-based answer would seem to be, yes, but it’s not the same sort of thought. Some things appear to be easier to ‘get’ without language (such as imitation of action), other things appear to be a kind of ‘all-at-once’ intuition (such as suddenly realizing all things have names), and other ideas are difficult without language being deeply enmeshed with cognitive development over long periods of time (like an English-based understanding of time as quantitative and spatialized). In other words, language is not simply an either/or proposition, but part of a cognitive developmental niche that shapes both our abilities and (unperceived) disabilities relative to the fully cognitively matured language-less individual.

The case of Ildefonso suggests that not all ‘thought’ is either neurologically or practically similar. Ildefonso had managed to survive, and clearly had thoughts, but he was also obviously confused by some basic qualities of the language-saturated world in which he had to live, not least of which was social interaction. Even without very basic capacities – like, apparently, naming itself, the seemingly first act of applying a symbolic icon to a recurring element in perceptually reality – he managed in day-to-day life and was emphatically ‘human,’ although operating with unusual cognitive capacities.

The evidence that Schaller presents on the relationship of language to different cognitive skills correlates also with the evidence from child development, widely recognized as demonstrating a progression through skills of varying complexity. For example, Western children seem to understand the concept of ‘pretending’ or ‘imagining’ a couple of years before they understand the concept of ‘believing,’ although to an adult, the concepts might seem to be logically linked. These concepts are not pre-established in a ‘language of thought,’ nor are they just the result of language socialization shaping cognition as, in both cases, we would not expect them to emerge at staggered time intervals. Not all words are equally easy to learn, nor is every cognitive ability equally dependent upon language (although some functions might be accomplished both pre-linguistically and post-linguistically using different mechanisms, so that continuity of function masks discontinuity of means).

To be honest, I wish I could write something deeper and more interesting about the case. I find myself pondering without much success what life would be like without language, how I might learn to compensate or develop other ways of accomplishing the same tasks, but I’m stopped short by the realization that language has been knit into my neurological functioning to such a significant degree that words are my constant inner companion. Even when I find that I have not been engaged in an inner dialogue, it is like waking from a sleep, unable to recall a dream that fast slips away. Perhaps like Ildefonso, I cannot talk about a languageless ‘dark’ once in the linguistic ‘light,’ even though there is a rich potential for action and perception in the dark.

For more information:

Keep Talking, James Castle, by Susan Schaller — a piece about a deaf man from Idaho who, in spite of attending a school for the deaf, did not learn to read, write, sign, speak, or lip-read, ‘perhaps by choice.’ He was, however, a fascinating artist who appeared to create a visual language of his own.

Recursion and Human Thought: Why the Pirahã don’t have numbers. A Talk With Daniel L. Everett on Edge: The Third Culture.

Stumble It!

Image of Susan Schaller from her website.


Frank, Michael C., Daniel L. Everett, Evelina Fedorenko, and Edward Gibson. 2008. Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition 108 (3): 819-.824 doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.04.007

Hespos, Susan J., and Elizabeth S. Spelke. 2004. Conceptual precursors to language. Nature 430: 453-456. doi:10.1038/nature02634

Schaller, Susan. 1995. A Man Without Words. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Whorf, Benjamin. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. John B. Carroll, ed. MIT Press

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States, and look forward to a new project in New Zealand. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-edited several books, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

64 thoughts on “Life without language

  1. It reminds me of the Darmok episode on Star Trek. The story centers on Captain Picard and Captain Dathon of the Tamarian race. The Tamarian language is unintelligible to Starfleet’s universal translators because it is too deeply rooted in local metaphor, so its sentences do not have any meaning to other civilizations. The language barrier prevents anyone on the Enterprise from understanding what the Tamarians are talking about (even though they can understand the actual words). Federation Universal Translators, although they successfully translate the words, present the syntax as almost nonsensical, because the Tamarians speak entirely by metaphor, referencing mythological and historical people and events from their culture. Thus, instead of asking for cooperation, they would use a phrase such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”, because their culture’s stories include a tale of two Tamarians, Darmok and Jalad, who fought a common foe together on an island called Tanagra. The problem with communicating in this fashion is that without knowing the meaning of the reference, the metaphor becomes meaningless. *(I stole this from Wiki)
    I have worked with lots of severely Autistic and mentally retarded individuals with little or no languge. One of the best indicators for progress in Autism is language ability. In some individuals I have wondered if the mental retardation causes the language deficits of if a damaged or limited language center creates the presentation of mental retardation. I have seen mute kids who had excellent symbolic language ability who could make it in a regular classroom but never said a word for years. Conversely I have seen severely autistic kids just sit and rock, completely oblivious to the world around them even though their vision and hearing was ok. They would sit and howl for hours so they made noise, but had virtually no concept of language and symbolic communication. So I agree: It is the symbols that make us human not our speech.

    1. I remember that episode! A fascinating premise, though probably it shouldn’t have presented as much difficulty as it did. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being on the “outside” of inside jokes, and there was nothing syntactically strange about Tamarian constructions.

      “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell is a novel about a linguist studying an alien race with unusual symbolic categories. The drama is deeply reliant on the intricacies of theory of language. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in linguistics. (It was recommended to me by a linguist; Russell herself is an anthropologist.)

    2. I i came to this after a conversation i came across and not really being able to convey why complexity seemingly requires language and that hits the nail. It is languege through which thought complexity comes about, but languege is the symbolism for any concept. Eureka! So deaf people process in visual simbols of words or letters, i wonder what that is like?

    3. My 23 year old son is somewhere in between your two descriptions of autistic people. He has some language. He’s able to express a few wants and needs in his own way. He also does quite a lot of stimming and may do some nonsensical movement for hours if I let him. I would say that his symbolic world (i’m a former speech-language pathologist and have also worked with many autistic individuals) is limited but he’s human. He matters.

      The people you saw sitting and howling for hours just hadn’t been reached in a way that made sense to them. I am sure they enjoy something. My son, though limited, likes to take long walks, absolutely loves listening to music. His interests are very limited. If you give birth to someone without language, you still see them as human. I guess I am lucky because my son smiles at us and with his eyes he connects. He always has.

      The people you saw sitting and howling may have been very different at home with their parents. You may have seen their human side if you’d visited their homes. That said, I remember being a young speech-language pathologist before I had my son and seeing the most severely and profoundly impaired children and adults and pretty much thinking the same thing you were thinking. Time and experience have changed my mind about what makes us human.

  2. I must say, fantastic post, and very moving.

    Regarding the idea of entering into the language-less zone, have you ever considered psychedelic experiences? I have experienced moments of languagelessness, which were also moments of conceptlessness. It became hard to interact with things because they have no names or purposes. And yet I could take care of my self and follow people around.

    As a neuroscience grad student I manage sometimes to turn on the scientist even in (or around!) such states. It strikes me that language is a grid that invisibly overlays action and perception, helping us navigate, but is nonlinear in that it enhances certain aspects of the world and diminishes others. Some of these changes are cultural and/or arbitrary, but nevertheless feel real by the time we’re adults.

  3. very, very interesting from many points of view – most interesting and moving for me, however, because my younger sister is profoundly deaf. in the 60s in germany, where we grew up, sign language was strongly discouraged. to this day, it brings tears to my eyes that we bowed to this and as a family, never learned sign language. fortunately, however, my family is a very expressive and artistic family, so we found ways to communicate – gestures, pictures, a rudimentary finger alphabet and the mysterious reading and displaying of tiny facial and body movements. it still wasn’t enough, of course, and my sister grew up quite lonely inside. thank god she is married to a wonderful man who is also deaf and extremely active in the deaf community.

  4. I enjoyed this, thanks. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and do not think in “language” very often, unless I am purposely rehearsing a conversation. Personally, I do not believe that words=thought. There are many thoughts beneath the words, before the words rise to the surface! But if you are born in a strange situation, as in ‘feral’ or completely deaf children, your mind does not develop properly, so the thoughts may remain constricted. It depends on the individual, and what the individual is able to construct as a world.

  5. I was struck by the similarity between Schaller’s description of the “breakthrough” when Ildefonso apparently made the naming connection to the experience of Helen Keller (though that is probably reconstructed in my mind from a reading of The Miracle Worker in my youth). Presumably everyone who acquires language has to have that insight at some point, but perhaps we don’t notice the transition as sharply when it happens in a very young child.

  6. This is a magnificent blog entry. Above and beyond the academic consideration of the role of symbols, words and linguistics in the development of human sentience, Ildefonso’s story was a moving account of the education of a human being. Thank you.

  7. Thank you for this fascinating blog.
    I had not been aware of Schaller’s book and am now keen to read it.
    A few thoughts that were sparked off:

    1. Hans Furth published a book in 1966 “Thinking without Language. Psychological Implications of Deafness”. As I remember, he gave children various matching tasks to try to work out what types of cognitive operation they could and could not do,and found that those who were profoundly were unable to master the final stages of Piagetian operations. What I don’t remember is whether he took signing into account: the work was done at a time when signing was discouraged so I suspect few of the children he studied had an alternative language.

    2. People who object to cochlear implants often argue that a child with a CI will be isolated from the deaf community. But sign and speech are not either/or. There’s no evidence that signing interferes with oral language acquisition – as is evidenced by bilingual hearing children of deaf parents. In one study I did with profoundly deaf children, those who understood sign well had better oral comprehension than those who didn’t.

    3. I was v interested to read the comment by NearlyAHuman about thinking without language. There is a fascinating literature on people who think more in images than in speech, which queries the tendency of many people to assume that thinking in words is the only way to do it. See e.g. Hurlburt RT, Happe F, Frith U (1994 ) Sampling the form of inner experience in three adults with Asperger syndrome Psychological Medicine 24: 385-395.

  8. Very interesting. Thank you

    RE: “Languageless” people

    I’ve worked with many “languageless” people – non-verbal autistic individuals who have been said were communicatively impaired because they lacked “language”. I’d say they lack ‘verbal language’, not ‘language’. Let me explain,
    Language is typically defined as a system of symbols/signs and methods (rules) of combination of these symbols used by a section or group of people (e.g., a nation) that serves as a means of communication and formulating and expressing thoughts. It is conventional to identify signs in this definition as words. The error of mistaking the acoustic/written manifestation of language (reflected in speech) for language itself leads to the misconception that the language is necessarily verbal. However, though conventional, verbal (linguistic) words are not the only signs that satisfy the criteria of language. It is logical, therefore, to distinguish two types of languages – verbal (consisting of words) and non-verbal (consisting of non-verbal symbols). From this perspective, the assumption (expressed by some professionals) that non-verbal children ‘lack inner language’ is incorrect. Autistic individuals emphasise that all autistic people have a form of inner language even if they cannot communicate through conventional systems, such as typing, writing or signing.
    What I’m trying to say is, that autistic children (or at least some of them) ‘speak’ (even those who are non-verbal) different languages, with their own concepts, categories, etc.
    Verbal language is sort of foreign to them.
    Autistic children, like non-autistic ones, learn through interactions with the world, but this interaction is qualitatively different. They learn their language(s) through interaction with objects and people on the sensory level. That is why, their ‘words’ have nothing to do with conventional names for things and events we use to describe the function of these things and events. Their ‘words’ are not ‘envelopes’ but templates – if something ‘feels’ the same they know what to do about it; if the ‘feeling’ is a little bit different – they do not understand this ‘word’ and may be confused. Their ‘words’ are literal (- stored sensations produced by objects through interaction) and they name them accordingly. One sense (sometimes several) becomes dominant for storing memories, developing ‘language’, and constructing thoughts.
    The most common type of perceptual thinking in autism is visual. For visual thinkers, the ideas are expressed as images that provide a concrete basis for understanding. Every thought is represented by a ‘picture’. Visual thinkers actually see their thoughts. For them, words are like a second language. In order to understand what is being said to them or what they are reading they have to translate it into images. Temple Grandin, probably the most famous ‘visual thinker’ in the world, describes how she has to translate both spoken and written words into full-colour movies with sound, which run ‘like a VCR tape’ in her head.
    Contrary to recent stereotype, not all autistic people think in pictures. In fact, those with severe visual perceptual problems have a great difficulty to easily retrieve mental pictures in response to words. Instead, they may use auditory, kinaesthetic or tactile images. Many may not actually be able to visualise and may be deprived of what could work for them and their intelligence is then wrongly judged by their inability to link visual images with words . Despite all the differences, the one thing in common for all these languages is that they are non-verbal and ‘sensory/perceptually-based’.
    Here we may distinguish several ‘sensory-based languages’:
    Visual language: They use visual images.
    Tactile language: Children ‘speaking’ tactile language recognise things by touching them, feeling textures and surfaces with their hands, bare feet, or their cheeks. Through touch they get the information about the size and form of things, but not about their function or purpose. They store the information for later reference and may find similar objects (e.g., a plastic cup and a glass cup) to be completely different ‘words’ in their vocabulary because they ‘feel’ different.
    Kinaesthetic language: Children learn about things through the physical movements of their body. Each thing or event is identified by certain pattern of body movements. They know places and distances by the amount and pattern of the movement of the body.
    Auditory language: Children remember objects and events by ‘sound pictures’. If the object is ‘silent’, they may tap it to recognise it by the sound it produces.
    Smell language: Objects and people are identified by smell.
    Taste language: Children lick objects and people to feel the taste they give on the tongue.
    No wonder, spoken words are often perceived as mere sounds. It is difficult to sense or feel a ball, for example, in the auditory frame BALL. They do not recognise the thing if given its verbal (conventional) name, however, they may identify it with the sound it produces while bouncing, the smell or the feel on the hand. Each child may use one or several ‘languages’ to make sense about the world. Given perceptual differences, including sensory perceptual problems (fragmentation, hyper- or hyposensitivities, etc.), one or several systems may become inconsistent and/or meaningless, and they have to use those that are reliable (different for different individuals) to check the information they are flooded with. Each child has unique sensory perceptual profile and has acquired (voluntarily or involuntarily) compensations and strategies to recognise things and make sense of the world. One and the same child may use different systems at different times depending on many factors that can influence the ‘perceptual quality’, such as stress, fatigue, ‘environmental sensory pollution’ (bright lights, noise), etc.
    Perceptual thinkers have trouble with words that cannot be translated into mental images (whether visual, kinaesthetic, tactile, etc.) and often have problems learning abstract things that cannot be imagined via perceptual mode – like ‘ideas’ in your example.

  9. Language-less thought:

    A few examples from Temple Grandin:

    “My experience as a visual thinker with autism makes it clear to me that thought does not have to be verbal… to be real.” (1996)

    “To understand the mind of a child or adult who is completely non-verbal, without oral, sign, or written language, you must leave the world of thinking in words. This can be quite challenging for many people. Our society functions through the spoken word. For the majority of people, words are their ‘native language’. It is difficult for them to step outside this very basic way of relating and imagine something else.” (2008)

  10. Thank you, this article is interesting, particularly the exploration of different kinds of thought and theories seeking to explain that experience.

    I’m surprised that either researcher would consider a purely (or even mostly) mimetic approach to understanding for individuals like Ildefonso who didn’t learn formalized language until later in life. I can see how the comparison is tempting, but it is altogether too limiting in my opinion and does not account for creative processes like adaptation and generation of new symbols, signed or otherwise. In the case of Iledefonso, this would have prevented him from being able to communicate with other language-less people he met prior to learning to sign, which he said he was able to do. Further, the phenomenon of home signs (shared signs for rudimentary communication among family and friends) is universal among deaf children who are not exposed to deaf communities or taught signed languages. Shcaller’s first interactions with Ildefonso were met with miming, but that doesn’t mean his primary system of thought or communication was mimetic.

    That said, I am equally as fascinated and perplexed by the deaf individuals I’ve met and worked with (all children) who live substantial parts of their lives without formal language. Not once had it entered my mind that they lived without thought, symbols, or communication prior to their access to signed language- and I don’t believe this to be true. The speed, enthusiasm, and agility with which they are able to learn sign language and the complexity of their expressions upon learning belie any such assumption. Indeed, experiencing this miraculous transformation firsthand is one of the primary motivations for my own research.

  11. Idly surfing while I should be working 🙂

    Anyway, thinking with words is not something I do and judging by some comments my paternal Grandfather once made I don’t think he does either. I’ve got vague memories of the realisation as a child that others ‘thought’ with words, but I still have trouble accepting that it works that way – are they really *certain* they don’t go from thought to words without realising it? Learning new languages after leaving my home country in my early twenties (I was monolingual English way back then) hasn’t helped either; a language is something I change at need and nothing fixed. I remember being confused by the question ‘what language do you think in?’ when I learned my second language (Swedish) – it simply did not compute for me.

    What’s it like one might ask? Hard to describe in words (what did you expect?) but one way I try to verbalise it is ‘collections of related information moved around in a multidimensional space at varying scales’. Chaos when it doesn’t work, highly effective when it does, but mostly somewhere between the two limits.

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  13. This article is superb. For the past two decades or so I’ve been struggling to get linguists to admit that people like Ildefonso exist, and/or to read this book. All to no avail, and the textbooks still insist that “all humans have language”.

    Another account of such an individual, including that breakthrough moment, is ‘Voyage to the Island”, by Raija Neiminen.

    1. “”… and the textbooks still insist that “all humans have language”. ”

      If authors of textbooks read this book, they would see that such individuals do exist. I, for one, did not know this was possible, but after reading “Man Without Words,” I believe they do. I grew up in Mexico and as I look back, people we thought were crazy might have been individuals that were completely sane, but deaf and lacked communication skills. The “crazy” part probably came out of frustration they could not communicate.

  14. I have a son (adopted from a country in South America) who had no language at all until we adopted him at age nine years. He is profoundly deaf and at 11.5 years is still struggling in learning ASL. Fascinating post…

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  16. Fascinating article. I have a hypothesis that all languages in their current forms exist primarily not to allow us to communicate with each other, but to rewire our brains so that we perceive the world through their lenses and alter our behavior in whatever fashion will maximize its propagation (like a virus). Language suppresses our instincts, making us feel “guilt” for behaviors (sex, self-defense, hoarding, etc.) that would have helped us to propagate our own genes, rather than memes in evolutionary prehistory. I believe that a number of individuals diagnosed with “pathological conditions” such as SOME Autistic Spectrum “disorders,” are actually individuals with natural immunity to language or at least behavior-altering memes (which was hinted at in the “Solitary Forager Hypothesis”) I postulate that the “neurotypical” majority are actually carriers of mutant genes that alter the brain to allow for the POSSIBILITY of language but do not cause it. Prior to the appearance of language (which likely occurred along with and was the cause of the upper Paleolithic explosion in tool making and art), modern doctors would probably have diagnosed all of humanity with some kind of pathological condition.

    Language makes me miserable. I do not have the ability to form real friendships, yet I yearn for them more than anything. It is THINKING about this with language that causes suffering and chronic depression. Pain is immediate, my body telling me that something is wrong and that I need to change something to alleviate it. But I cannot alleviate the pain, there is nothing I can do to change it. I think I would be much happier, even in bad situation that I can not change, if I could not think about it.

    I am a 27 year old subsistence hunting/primitive technology instructor, with an academic background in anthropology and applied linguistics. I propose an experiment to see if it is possible to deprive an adult human mind of language without social isolation or sensory deprivation, and without causing psychosis. I postulate that language deprivation (measured via brain imaging cognition tests) will result in markedly decreased levels of chronic stress an depression (monitor levels of neurotransmitters, resting heart rate, blood pressure, etc) I will be the test subject, as I have nothing to lose–I’ve already lost my sanity and have been in a state of chronic depression for years.

    While adults subjected to isolation via solitary confinement, etc, show a reduction in vocabulary and syntax, they do not forget how to speak. I hypothesize this is because they withdraw into themselves and the narrative within their minds actually is amplified.

    I have been in situations where I have been isolated for up to 3 weeks at a time with no human contact–BUT did not have the luxury of sitting around with time to think. I had to be out on the land, hunting for food and trying to stay alive. In this environment, I am drawn out from my inner dialogue, which goes silent for hours at a time, almost like being in a trance or on powerful drugs (a few of which I have tried but strongly dislike).

    I propose that a small group of volunteer subjects (myself included) be placed in an environment where we could forage for food and be completely isolated from spoken and written language for one year or more, during which time we would abstain from the use of vocal language. I suspect that a form of communication via signs would develop rapidly, the acquisition of which would draw our minds away from the first language, resulting in considerable loss (at least temporarily) of fluency in our first language.

    I have no interest in taking credit for the project–I want only to experience this for myself. If anyone is interested in facilitating the experiment, shoot me an email: texanforager (at) yahoo (dot) com


  17. Wonderful story. Reminded me of Helen Keller’s story and the spark that produced human speech. Her teacher Anne Sullivan wrote: ” I must write you a line this morning, because something very important has happened. Helen has taken the second great step in her education. She has learned that everything has a name and that the manual alphabet is the key to everything she wants to know.
    This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for “water.” When she wants to know the name of anything, she points to it, and pats my hand. I spelled w-a-t-e r and thought no more about it until after breakfast. . . . [Later on], we went out to the pump house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled w-a-t-e-r in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “water” several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name, and pointed to the pump and trellis and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “teacher.” All the way back to the house she was highly excited and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary. The next morning she got up like a radiant fairy. She has flitted from object to object asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness. Every thing must have a name now. Wherever we go she asks eagerly for the names of things she has not learned at home. She is anxious for her friends to spell, and eager to teach the letters to everyone she meets. She drops the signs and pantomime she used before, as soon as she has words to supply their place, and the acquirement of a new word affords her the liveliest pleasure. And we notice that her face grows more expressive each day.”

    We are fortunate the have Helen Keller’s own version of the same incident: “We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by all the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water, and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over my hand she spelled into the other the word “water,” first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free. There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that in time could be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange new sight that had come to me.”

    How very powerful and a wonderful story, thank you….

  18. But this poses a interesting question. Do deaf people (from birth) think in signs? Do they visually see themselves or others sign when they think?

    1. Yes. Sign in their dreams, ‘subvocalize’ with barely perceptible hand/body movements, talk to themselves, all the things you do with aural language. Provided they learned a signed language as first language before critical age.

      1. I am a trilingual. I cannot, either in dreams or mentally, communicate in English to someone who only signs or communicates in Spanish, and the same goes for the other languages.

  19. Thank you for your ability to bring these elements together – I think in pictures and bring a metaphor/analogy to everything I communicate. I work in early intervention services teaching sign language to children with communication delays. My son has Autism and used sign language as a transition back to verbal language. These topics sift through many of the challenges I work with families about language acquisition and their ability to develop relationships with their children. Your linking of these concepts have helped me to add in a new level of complexity to the work I do.

  20. How we can certainly know this example man was completely language-less? The fact that he was communicating with fellow “language-less” deaf people points to them having some type of language. Perhaps home sign or something like that. Just mimicking something is not an effective way of meaningful communication.

  21. Why did you doubt that Susan’s point was accurate? (“Only 8% are lucky enough to be born to signing parents. So they have no handicap.”) There’s no mystery to this, if she’s talking about hereditary deafness and Deaf children born to Deaf parents.

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