Works of Lev Vygotsky

The Connection Between Thought and the Development of Language in Primitive Society

We find that same path of development in another equally crucial sphere of the psychology of primitive man – language and thought. As in the case of memory, here again it becomes immediately apparent that primitive man is different from civilized man not only in that his language is poorer, cruder and less developed, as it unquestionably is. At the same time, however, the language of primitive nun impresses us with its vast wealth of vocabulary. Such languages are so very difficult to learn and understand primarily because they far surpass those of civilized peoples in terms of the wealth, abundance and luxuriance of various designations completely lacking in our language.

LÚvy-Bruhl and Pensch rightly point out that there is a close link between these dual characteristics of the language of primitive man and his extraordinary memory. The first thing that impresses about the language of primitive man is precisely the vast wealth of designations at his disposal. Concrete designations pervade such languages; concrete details are expressed by means of a vast quantity of words and expressions.

Gatschet writes, “We intend to speak precisely, whereas an Indian draws as he speaks; we classify, he individualizes.” [15] For these reasons, the speech of primitive man, in comparison with our language, truly resembles an endlessly complex, accurate, plastic and photographic description of an event, with the finest details.

The development of language is accordingly characterized by a gradual tendency for this enormous abundance of concrete terms to disappear. The languages of the Australian peoples, for example, have practically no word: denoting general concepts, whereas they are inundated with a huge number of specific terms, painstakingly distinguishing the features and the individuality of objects.

Ayer, referring to the Australians, says, “They have no general words, such as tree, fish, bird, and so on, but exclusively specific terms applicable to each species of tree, fish and bird."[16] The same absence of words for tree, fish and bird, accompanied by the use of proper nouns for all objects and creatures occurs in other primitive peoples.

Tasmanians have no word to designate such qualities as sweet, hot, hard cold, long, short or round. Instead of “hard” they say “like a stone”; instead of “high”, “high legs”; instead of “round”, “like a ball, like the moon”, adding an explanatory gesture. Similarly, on the Bismarck Archipelago there are no words for colors, which are designated in the same way, by naming an object that brings them to mind.

According to Powers, “In California, there are no species or breeds. Each oak, each pine, each kind of grass has its own special name."[17] All of this generates the huge wealth of vocabulary of primitive languages. The Australians have separate names for almost each small part of the human body; for example, instead of “hand” they have several separate words denoting the upper part of the hand, the front of the hand, the right hand, or the left hand etc.

The Maoris have an exceptionally thorough system of nomenclature for the flora of New Zealand, with special names for the male and female trees of certain species. They also have separate names for trees whose leaves change shape at various stages of growth. Coco or Tui birds have four names: two each for the male and the female, depending on the season; there are different word for the tail of a bird, the tail of an animal and that of a fish. There are three word for the call of the parrot, when at rest, angry or frightened.

The Bavenda tribe of South Africa has a special name for each kind of rain North American Indians also have a huge number of precise, almost scientific definitions for clouds of various shapes and for descriptions of the sky that are quite untranslatable.

LÚvy-Bruhl further notes that, “It would be futile to search for anything similar in the European languages.” One tribe, for example, has a special word to denote the sun shining between two clouds. It is almost impossible to count the number of nouns in such languages. One of the northern primitive people., for example, has a host of terms for the different species of reindeer. There is a special word for a reindeer aged 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 years; twenty words for ice, eleven for the cold, forty-one for snow in its various forms; and twenty-six verbs for freezing and thawing, etc. It is for this reason that they oppose the attempt to make them change from their own language to Norwegian, which they find too poor in this regard.” This also accounts for the vast number of proper nouns given to the most different objects.

Among the Maoris of New Zealand, each thing has its own proper noun. Their boats, houses, weapons, even their clothes – every single object is given its own name. All of their lands and roads have their own names, as do the shores around the islands, horses, cows, pigs, even trees, cliffs and springs. In southern Australia every mountain range and every mountain has its own name. The natives knows the precise name of each individual hill, so it would seem that the geography of primitive man is far richer than our own.

In the Zambezi region, each piece of higher ground, each hill, knoll and peak in a range, just as each spring, plain or meadow, and each area and place is known by a special name. As Livingston observed, it would take an entire lifetime to decipher the meaning of each of these names.

Such a wealth of vocabulary is directly dependent on the concreteness and preciseness of the language of primitive man. His language corresponds to his memory and his mentality. He photographs and reproduces all of his experience just as precisely as he memorizes it. He does not know how to express himself abstractly and conventionally, as does civilized man.

This means that where a European would use two or three words, primitive Tan sometimes uses ten. In the language of the Ponca Indian tribe, the sentence “a man killed a rabbit” is rendered literally, “man he one alive standing killed deliberately shoot arrow rabbit him one alive sitting.”

This precision is also evident in the definition of certain complex notions. For example, among the Botakud tribe the word “island"’ is rendered by four words, with the following literal meaning; “land water middle is here.” Werner compares this with Pidgin English, in which semi-primitive man renders the word “piano” by the term “box, when it is hit, it shouts.” [18]

Such detailed plastic description is both a big advantage and a serious shortcoming of primitive language. It is a big advantage because this type of language creates a sign almost for each specific object, and with remarkable accuracy gives primitive man virtual duplicates of all the objects he has to deal with. Understandably, therefore, bearing in mind the way of life of primitive man, shifting from such a language to a European language would mean being instantly deprived of a most powerful means of orientation in life.

At the. same time, however, such a language endlessly burdens thinking with a host of details; it does not process the data of experience; it reproduces them in an unabridged form, just as they are in real life. In order to convey the simple thought that a man killed a rabbit, the Indian has to describe the entire scene of the event in fine detail. This means that the words of primitive man have not yet become differentiated from things, and are still closely linked to immediate sensory impressions.

Wertheimer describes the case of a semi-primitive man who had been taught a European language but refused, during an exercise, to translate the sentence “The white man killed six bears”.[19] A white man is incapable of killing six bears, so the expression itself seemed impossible. For such a person, language is still understood and used exclusively as a means of reflecting reality, and is far from acquired an autonomous function.

Thurnwald reports a similar case. He once asked a primitive man to count; as one has inevitably to count something, the man started to count imaginary pigs. Having reached sixty he stopped and said that it was impossible to go any higher, because no one owner possesses more than sixty pigs.[20]

The operations of language and counting prove possible only to the extent that they are connected to those concrete situations that gave rise to them. The concrete and figurative nature of primitive language is instantly evident in its grammatical forms, whose purpose is to transmit the finest concrete details. Verb forms change according to subtle details of meaning. For example, in the language of one primitive people there are large numbers of separate specific expressions instead of “us": “me and you” (singular and plural), “me and two’ of you , me and him”, “me and them”, all of which may be further combined with the dual number, to produce “two of us and you (singular)"/"two of us and you (plural)” and then with the plural number, as in “me, you (singular) and him or them”. In the simple conjugation of the indicative present tense, there are more than seventy different forms, which show whether the object was alive or inanimate. In several languages, the singular and plural are replaced by dual, triple or even quadruple numbers. All of this is linked to the concrete nature of the language, as well as the concrete nature of primitive memory.

In these languages, individual prefixes serve to express the tiniest shades of distinction, which are always rendered concretely in words. The unusual abundance of verb forms in the languages of the North American Indians was described many years ago. Dobrizhoffer thought that the language of the Abipones was the most frightful maze imaginable. According to Benyaminov, the Aleutian language has more than 400 inflections, for tense., declension, and person, each of which corresponds to a particular and precise shade of meaning.

Many authors agree that it is a pictorial or graphic language, and emphasize its tendency to “speak to the eyes”, to draw and depict the meaning to be expressed. Different expressions are used to convey motion in a straight line, motion to the side, or along a curve, or some distance from the speaker. As LÚvy-Bruhl notes, “In a word, the spatial relationships that the Klamath language expresses so precisely may in particular be retained and reproduced by the visual and muscular memory.”

The prevalence of the spatial element reflects a tendency of many primitive languages. Gatschet found that considerations of space and distance prove to be exceedingly important in the representation of primitive peoples, and quite as fundamental as those of time and causality in our own thinking. Any phrase or sentence must express the relationship between objects in space.

In the words of LÚvy-Bruhl, “Primitive mentality does not demand alone that the relative positions of things and persons in space, as well as their distance from each other, be expressed. It is not satisfied unless the language also specifies explicitly, the details regarding the form of objects, their dimensions and way of moving about in the various circumstances in which they may be placed. To accomplish this, the most diverse forms are employed.”

These include prefixes and suffixes denoting the form and movement of form and size; the nature of the environment in which the movement occurs, the position, etc. The number of these additional linguistic particles is unlimited in the languages of primitive peoples. The language of one primitive tribe has ten thousand verbs, further augmented by the use of numerous prefixes and suffixes. The Abipones have a huge number of synonyms. They have separate words for injuring an animal or a person with one’s teeth, a knife, sword or arrow; separate words for fighting with a spear; to say that a man’s two wives are fighting over him; separate particles for different arrangements of objects – from above, from below, around, in the water, in the air, etc.

Livingstone has pointed out, with reference to South African tribes, that what travelers find most disconcerting is not a shortage of words, but rather their extraordinary abundance. “I heard twenty terms for various ways of walking; walking while leaning forward or backward; swaying from side to side; at a sluggish or brisk pace; with dignity; swinging both arms or just one – there was a special verb for each of these ways of walking.”

In addition to the plastic and eidetic memory of primitive man, our quest for an explanation of these linguistic features also discloses a second and extremely important reason: the language of primitive man conveys images of objects and transmits them exactly as they pr esent themselves to the eyes and ears. For such a language, accurate reproduction is the ultimate goal.

In the words of LÚvy-Bruhl, “These languages have a common tendency to describe not only the impression which the subject receives, but the shape and contour, position, movement, way of acting, of objects in space – in a word, all that can be perceived and delineated ... We may perhaps understand this need of theirs if we note that the same peoples, as a rule, speak another language as well, a language whose. characteristics necessarily react upon the minds of those who use it, influencing their way of thought and, as a consequence, their speech.”

While this second language, that of signs and gestures, is extremely common among primitive peoples, its usage varies according to circumstances, and it may be combined in various ways with verbal language. Geson, for example, reports that one tribe, in addition to its spoken language, also has a sign language. There are special individual signs for all animals, for the native people, for men and women, the sky, the earth, walking, sitting on a horse, jumping, stealing, swimming, eating and drinking, as well as hundreds of other objects and actions. An entire conversation can thus take place, without a single word being uttered.

Rather than considering how widely this gesture language is used and the circumstances in which it occurs, we need only point out the enormous influence of this language as a thinking tool, on the actual operations of thought. It also becomes obvious that the impact of this language and its various characteristics on the nature and structure of mental operations parallels that of the properties of implements on the structure and makeup of the different types of work done by humans.

LÚvy-Bruhl concludes that most primitive societies have a dual language: the spoken word and the gesture. He thus finds it inconceivable that they could exist without influencing each other. In a remarkable study entitled Manual Concepts, Cushing has analyzed the influence of the language of the hand on that of the spoken word, showing how in one of the primitive languages the order of the parts of a sentence, the method for conveying numerals, etc., had originated from motions of the hand.

As is well known, in order to study the mental life of primitive man, Cushing actually moved in with a primitive tribe, and tried to live, not as a European, but as one of the natives, taking part in their ceremonies and belonging to their various social groups. Through lengthy training he patiently instilled primitive functions in his hands, making them perform in all respects just as hands once had in prehistoric times. Moreover he did so with the same materials, and in the same conditions as had prevailed in the age when the hands were so closely united with the intellect that they became an integral part of it.

LÚvy-Bruhl observes that “the progress of civilization is due to the mutual influence of hand and mind. In order to study the mental life of primitive man we must rediscover those motions of the hands from which their language and thinking are inseparable. Primitives who cannot speak without their hands also cannot think without them.”

Cushing has shown the extent to which the specialization of verbs that we find in the language of primitive man is a natural consequence of the role played by hand motion in the development of primitive mental activity. In his words, “This is a matter of grammatical necessity. In the mind of primitive man, complex yet mechanically systematized thought-expressions and expression-concepts must have arisen quite as rapidly as the equivalent verbal expression.”

LÚvy-Bruhl has this to say, “Speaking with the hands is literally thinking with the hands, to a certain extent, therefore the features of these “manual concepts” will necessarily be reproduced in the verbal expression of thought. The two languages, based on such widely differing symbols as gestures and articulate sounds, are affiliated by their structure and their method of interpreting objects, actions and states. If verbal language, therefore, describes and delineates in detail positions, motions, distances, forms and contours, it is because gesture language uses exactly the same means of expression.”

Research has shown that these two languages were originally not isolated and divided; rather, each phrase represented a complex form combining gestures and sounds. These gestures reproduced motion, accurately delineating and describing objects and actions.

In order to say “water”, this ideogram showed how a native drinks, by scooping water in his hands. The word “weapon” was conveyed by the threatening gestures that people make when using one. “In short, the man who speaks this language” in the words of LÚvy-Bruhl, “has at his disposal a great number of fully formed visual motor associations” between objects and movements. “We may say that he imagines them at the moment he describes them. His verbal language, therefore, can but be descriptive also.”

Mallory has remarked that in one Indian language words resemble gestures and that primitive language cannot be explained without a study of those gestures. He has found that one language explains the other, and neither can be studied separately. The vocabulary of the sign language compiled by Mallory sheds light on the mental operations of speakers of that language, and explains why primitive speech is of necessity descriptive.

German scholars have used the term “sound pictures” as a name for this urge to depict. In the language of one primitive tribe, LÚvy-Bruhl has counted thirty-three verbs for various ways of walking; he has also pointed out that this number does not include the diversity of all the adverbs which, when used in conjunction with the verb, serve to describe various subtle distinctions in the way people walk.

Junod has remarked that anyone listening to a conversation between Negroes might be inclined to say that theirs is a childish way of speaking, whereas the truth is the exact opposite, as words in such a colorful language convey shades of meaning that the higher languages would be incapable of expressing. Without a doubt, this aspect of the language of primitive man leaves a deep imprint on the whole structure of his thinking.

Thinking that uses this language, just like the language itself, is thoroughly concrete, graphic and pictorial and full of details; it also functions on the basis of directly reproduced real-life situations. LÚvy-Bruhl refers to the inadequate power of abstraction involved in such use of language, and also to the peculiar “internal pictures” or “image-concepts” which are the material for such thinking.

We can safely say that the thinking of primitive man, using such a language, is eidetic – a conclusion also reached by Pensch on the basis of his own research material. In his opinion this language points to a sensory memory which has at its disposal truly vast numbers of visual and auditory impressions, and this pictorial function of primitive language is direct evidence of the eidetic nature of. primitive man. As the cultural development of language and thought progresses, the eidetic propensity recedes, taking with it any interest in using the language to convey separate concrete peculiarities.

Humboldt has rightly observed that when using these languages, one feels transported into another, very different world, as the perception and interpretation of the world that they suggest really is profoundly different from the mode of thinking of a civilized European.

Thurnwald, who fully concurs with these findings, notes that by virtue of its lexical abundance, the language of primitive man cannot be described as poor in expressions. In concreteness of expression it surpasses the language of civilized man. “It is, however, too closely tied to narrow activity in a small space, and with the circumstances in which the small group speaking that language lives. The language of primitive man is a mirror image of the special traits of the life of that group.”

The language of a group engaged in agriculture will contain a vast number of terms for coconut in the various stages of its growth, or for the different strains of corn. The nomads of Central Asia distinguish between their horses by sex and color. The Bedouin use similar designations for camels, and other peoples for dogs, while having no generic name for these species of animals. Thurnwald sees the concreteness of primitive language as a manifestation of vigor and expressive power, but also as evidence of its bonds to the particular, and its inability to express anything separate or general, or to define a relationship to other things. In the absence of abstraction, the language is dominated by a numerative listing of objects.

The reverse influence of thought on speech, noted by Thurnwald, is very important. We have already seen the extent to which the structure of mental operations depends on the resources of the language. Thurnwald has shown that when a language is borrowed by another people, or when two languages merge, the vocabulary itself is easily transferred from one tribe to another; but the grammatical structure is altered by the “thinking technique” of the people taking over the language. The thinking processes themselves are also closely dependent on such thinking resources.

Primitive man has no concepts, and finds abstract generic names completely alien. Primitive and civilized man use words in quite different ways. Words can be put to different functional uses. The mental operations performed with the aid of a word will also depend on how it is used.

A word can be used as a proper name, or a sound linked by association with this or that individual object. In this case, it is a proper noun helping the memory’ to perform a simple associative operation. As we have seen, to a significant extent, primitive language is situated precisely at that level of development.

As we have seen, the language of primitive man contains large numbers of proper names and tends to specify to the maximum extent each individual property and object. In this case the actual way words are used also determines the mode of thinking. This is why, in primitive man, the operation of memory takes precedence over thinking.

The second stage in the development of the use of words occurs when they function as an associative symbol not of an individual object, but of a set or group of objects. Here the word becomes a sort of family or group name. Besides its associative function, it also performs a mental operation by helping classify different individual objects, placing them together in a set.

The resulting new combination, however, still remains a group of separate concrete objects, each of which, on joining it, retains all its individuality and uniqueness. In this phase, words are a means for the formation of sets. Our family names are a typical example of this function. When I talk about a family name, say, Petrov, I use that word to designate a certain group of actual people, not because they share some common feature, but because they belong to a certain common group.

A set differs from a concept by virtue of the relationship between the individual object and the group name. By looking at an object I can say with full objectivity whether it is a tree or a dog, because ‘tree’ and ‘dog’ serve as the signations of concepts – in other words, generic groups to which, by virtue of substantive features various individual objects belong. I cannot, by looking at a man, tell whether or not he is a Petrov, because in order to do so it is simply necessary to know, as a matter of fact, whether he goes by such a name. The individual thus remains, as such, in the set, but the set comprises different elements, united not by some inherent, substantial connection, but by an actual, concrete affinity which exists as a matter of fact.

To a large extent primitive man is at this stage of set-based thinking. His words are proper names or family names, that is, signs for separate objects or signs for sets. Primitive man thinks not in concepts but in sets. This is the most substantial difference between his thinking and ours.

When LÚvy-Bruhl characterized the thinking of primitive man as “prelogical”, and simultaneously capable of making the most divergent connections, he saw the basic feature of that thinking in what he called the “law of participation”. This law holds that primitive thinking is not governed by the laws of our logic, but has its own special primitive logic, based on quite different representational links. This special type of connection, characteristic of primitive logic, permits the same object to participate in different sets, and to form an integral part of wholly different connections.

This means that the law of the excluded middle is not valid for primitive man. For him, the fact a man belongs to the set “man” still does not mean that he is not a parrot; he can belong at the same time to the set “man” and to the set “parrot”. The Indians of the Bororo tribe, for example, used to claim that they were red parrots. They did not thereby mean that after death they became parrots, or that parrots were transformed Indians, but that Indians really were parrots. A connection of this sort is impossible in logic based on concepts, where the mere fact that a man is a man ipso facto means that he is not a parrot.

Such thinking and such logic, as we have seen, are based on sets, which in turn are based on concrete connections. The same object, of course, may have vast numbers of such concrete connections. The same man may belong to different family groups; his family may make him a Petrov, and his place of residence may make him a Muscovite, etc.

All the peculiarities of primitive thinking may ultimately be reduced to one basic fact: primitive man thinks in sets, not concepts. As Werner has put it, “Any primitive concept is at the same time a visual picture.”

Leroi has rightly warned against basing judgements about the abstractness or concreteness of primitive thinking on the external structure and character of language. He has argued that, instead of merely considering the tool, we should also study the manner of its potential or actual use. For example, an abundance of special terms is not exclusively a primitive trait, as it also occurs in our own technology. It reflects the need for precision in the technical operations of fishermen and hunters. In his language, primitive man distinguishes between different types of snow because he is obliged to do so, in real life. In this case, a wealth of vocabulary merely reflects a wealth of experience, which in turn is caused by the need to adapt or perish. In the view of that same author, primitive man cannot decide, for example, to exchange his language for Norwegian, in which “contact with things would become very distant.”

The real reason for these special features of primitive language therefore lies in technical requirements and vital necessity. As Leroi has shown, the language of gestures arises in certain economic and geographical circumstances, and is born of necessity (relocation among alien tribes, hunting game, war, long-distance communication across plains). It would therefore be wrong to view all the peculiarities of such language and thinking in absolute terms and to consider them as primary. While some tribes lack generic terms for tree, fish and bird, others, such as the tribes of Queensland, have generic terms for fish, bird and snake. Such designations are often different from ours. For example, in the language of the Pitta-Pitta tribe the root ni occurs in all words meaning “things that move through the air”, including birds, boomerang, the moon, stars, lightning and hawks.

A parallel with our technical language, which tends to introduce large numbers of concrete terms instead of a few, abstract ones, and with our widespread habit of naming objects after colors (tobacco-colored, strawcolored, cherry, coral, etc.) strongly suggests that many of the features of primitive language may be attributed not only to the peculiarities of primitive thought, including its primary characteristics, but also to the need for “direct contact with things” and the requirements of technical activity.”

We can thus see that primitive thinking, linked to primitive language, exhibits the same kind of special development as memory. We should recall that the development of memory consists of a transition from the enhancement of organic memory to the development and enhancement of the mnemotechnical signs used by memory. Similarly, the development of primitive thinking lies not in the accumulation or the increasingly subtle reproduction of details, or in the expansion of vocabulary. In essence, it undergoes a fundamental change, shifting to the development and enhancement or language and the ways it is used – to the development of that basic resource by means of which thinking takes place.

Fundamental progress in the development of thinking manifests itself in the transition from the first method of using words as proper names to a second method, whereby words serve as symbols for sets, and lastly to a third, involving the use of words as tools or means for the elaboration of concepts. Just as the cultural development of memory is closely linked to the history of the development of writing, so also the cultural development of thinking is quite as closely tied to the history of the development of human language.