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Do thoughts have a language of their own? The language of thought hypothesis

                                      The language of thought drawing by Robert Horvitz

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare the observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds-and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds.”

Benjamin Lee Whorf, American linguist (1897-1941), 1956, p. 213, cited in Does language determine thought? Boroditsky’s (2001) research on Chinese speakers’ conception of time (pdf)

"The mind thinks its thoughts in ‘Mentalese,’ codes them in the localnatural language, and then transmits them (say, by speaking them out loud) to the hearer. The hearer has a Cryptographer in his head too, of course, who thereupon proceeds to decode the ‘message.’ In this picture, natural language, far from being essential to thought, is merely a vehicle for the communication of thought.”

Hilary Putnam, American philosopher, mathematician and computer scientist, Representation and reality, A Bradford Book, 1991, p. 10-11.

"According to one school of philosophy, our thoughts have a language-like structure that is independent of natural language: this is what students of language call the language of thought (LOT) hypothesis. According to the LOT hypothesis, it is because human thoughts already have a linguistic structure that the emergence of common, natural languages was possible in the first place. (…)

Many - perhaps most - psychologists end up concluding that ordinary people do not use the rules of logic in everyday life.

There is an alternative way of seeing this: that there is a language of thought, and that it has a more logical form than ordinary natural language. This view has an added bonus: it tells us that, if you want to express yourself more clearly and more effectively in natural language, then you should express yourself in a form that is closer to computational logic - and therefore closer to the language of thought. Dry legalese never looked so good.”

Robert Kowalski, British logician and computer scientist, Do thoughts have a language of their own?, New Scientist, 8 Dec 2011

"In philosophy of mind, the language of thought hypothesis (LOTH) put forward by American philosopher Jerry Fodor describes thoughts as represented in a “language” (sometimes known as mentalese) that allows complex thoughts to be built up by combining simpler thoughts in various ways. In its most basic form the theory states that thought follows the same rules as language: thought has syntax.

Using empirical data drawn from linguistics and cognitive science to describe mental representation from a philosophical vantage-point, the hypothesis states that thinking takes place in a language of thought (LOT): cognition and cognitive processes are only ‘remotely plausible’ when expressed as a system of representations that is “tokened” by a linguistic or semantic structure and operated upon by means of a combinatorial syntax. Linguistic tokens used in mental language describe elementary concepts which are operated upon by logical rules establishing causal connections to allow for complex thought. Syntax as well as semantics have a causal effect on the properties of this system of mental representations.

These mental representations are not present in the brain in the same way as symbols are present on paper; rather, the LOT is supposed to exist at the cognitive level, the level of thoughts and concepts. LOTH has wide-ranging significance for a number of domains in cognitive science. It relies on a version of functionalist materialism, which holds that mental representations are actualized and modified by the individual holding the propositional attitude, and it challenges eliminative materialism and connectionism. It implies a strongly rationalist model of cognition in which many of the fundamentals of cognition are innate. (…)

Some philosophers have argued that our public language is our mental language, that a person who speaks English thinks in English. Others contend that people who do not know a public language (e.g. babies, aphasics) can think, and that therefore some form of mentalese must be present innately. (…)

Tim Crane, in his book The Mechanical Mind, states that, while he agrees with Fodor, his reason is very different. A logical objection challenges LOTH’s explanation of how sentences in natural languages get their meaning. That is the view that “Snow is white” is TRUE if and only if P is TRUE in the LOT, where P means the same thing in LOT as “Snow is white” means in the natural language. Any symbol manipulation is in need of some way of deriving what those symbols mean. If the meaning of sentences is explained in terms of sentences in the LOT, then the meaning of sentences in LOT must get their meaning from somewhere else. There seems to be an infinite regress of sentences getting their meaning. Sentences in natural languages get their meaning from their users (speakers, writers).  Therefore sentences in mentalese must get their meaning from the way in which they are used by thinkers and so on ad infinitum. This regress is often called the homunculus regress.

Daniel Dennett accepts that homunculi may be explained by other homunculi and denies that this would yield an infinite regress of homunculi. Each explanatory homunculus is “stupider” or more basic than the homunculus it explains but this regress is not infinite but bottoms out at a basic level that is so simple that it does not need interpretation. John Searle points out that it still follows that the bottom-level homunculi are manipulating some sorts of symbols.

LOTH implies that the mind has some tacit knowledge of the logical rules of inference and the linguistic rules of syntax (sentence structure) and semantics (concept or word meaning). If LOTH cannot show that the mind knows that it is following the particular set of rules in question then the mind is not computational because it is not governed by computational rules. Also, the apparent incompleteness of this set of rules in explaining behavior is pointed out. Many conscious beings behave in ways that are contrary to the rules of logic. Yet this irrational behavior is not accounted for by any rules, showing that there is at least some behavior that does not act in accordance with this set of rules.”


Inner Speech as a Language

"A definition of language is always, implicitly or explicitly, a definition of human beings in the world."

Raymond Williams, Welsh academic, novelist and critic (1921-1988)

"A set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements."

Noam Chomsky, American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist

"People often talk silently to themselves, engaging in what is called inner speech, internal conversation, inner dialogue, self talk and so on. This seems to be an inherent characteristic of human beings, commented on as early as Plato, who regarded thought as inner speech. The American pragmatists thought the inner dialogue was the defining feature of the self. For them the self is an internal community or network, communicating within itself in a field of meaning.

The idea that ordinary language is the language of thought however is not the only linquistic theory of thought. Since Saint Augustine there has been the idea that thought is itself a language of pure abstractions. This “mental language” as it was called differs from ordinary language by consisting solely of meanings, i.e. as signifieds without signifiers to use Saussure’s language (Ashworth 2003). This hypothesis peaked in the writings of William of Occam and declined when Hobbes introduced a purely computational, hedonistic theory of thought (Normore 2005).

A second competitor to the ordinary language theory of thought is the “mentalese” hypothesis of Noam Chomsky (1968) and Jerry Fodor (1975). This approach, which sometimes uses the computer as a metaphor for the mind, resembles the Scholastic’s theory in envisioning a purely abstract language of thought. Whatever processes of ordinary language might accompany it are viewed as epiphenomenal, gloss or what might be called “fluff.” Ordinary language, according to this view, is a pale shadow of the actual language of thought. In addition mentalese is regarded as both innate and unconscious. It is a faculty that is claimed to be present at birth and one which operates below the awareness of the mind.

There are then three language of thought hypotheses, the ordinary language or inner speech version, the now marginalized Augustine-Occam mental language and the computer-based, Chomsky-Fodor theory of mentalese. There seem to be no comparisons of the Scholastic and the mentalese theories except in Panaccio (1992, pp. 267–272). However there is a vigorous debate between the ordinary language theory and that of mentalese (for two collections see Carruthers and Boucher 1998 and Preston 1997). A major weak spot of mentalese is that, being unconscious, there is no empirical way of verifying it. The weak spot of the inner speech approach is that there are several examples of non-linguistic thought, e.g. in infants, animals, brain damaged people and ordinary people under conditions of high speed thought.

Still, all three of these language of thought hypotheses are alive and under
discussion in contemporary thought. (…) [p.319]

I will argue that inner speech is even more referential than outer speech in some respects, but also even more differential in other respects. In other words its semantic system is polarized between the differential and the referential.

Considering the peculiarities of inner speech, I think its vocabulary would be more differentially defined, i.e. more “structural”, than outer speech. First let me recall the special qualities of inner speech as silent, elliptical, embedded and egocentric. These qualities make it relatively private, both in the words and their meanings. And these privacy walls push things together, creating links and dependencies among the words.

Let us take the analogy of an intimate relationship, one that has some degree of deviance, with consequent secrecy. The mini culture of the relationship tends, due to secrecy, to be cut off from society at large. This culture gets isolated. There is the relationship time, the place, the transportation, the talk, the rituals, etc. The relationship elements are cut off from the outside world, and they inevitably share in that “relationship” feeling. They also imply each other, causally, sequentially, symbolically, etc. The relationship meanings are defined more differentially than, perhaps, items in a less deviant relationship. It is the privacy that melds things

This internal language though is not only solitary and private, it is also much more self styled than outer language. Ordinary language has a smoothed over or idealized version, which Saussure refered to as language or “langue.” And it also has a more stylized, idiosyncratic version. This is its spoken variety, which Saussure referred to as parole or speech. Parole is more heterogeneous than langue, given that the speaking process reflects the unique mentalities of individuals and sub-cultures.

But by the same logic inner speech is even more individualized and heterogeneous than outer speech. Your spoken or outer speech is somewhat different from mine, and both are different from purified or formalized language. But your inner speech, given its elliptical, embedded and egocentric qualities, is even more different from mine, and both are quite different from the outer langue. In other words the gap between outer langue and inner speech is greater than that between outer langue and outer speech.

The peculiarities of inner speech are so stitched into the psyche, so personalitydependent, that they differ considerably from person to person. This does not seem to be primarily a reference-driven variation, for everyone’s inner speech has roughly the same, generic world of reference. The variation in the internal dialogue is largely due to the personal qualities of the speaker, to that person’s particular ego needs and short cuts.

We are little gods in the world of inner speech. We are the only ones, we run the show, we are the boss. This world is almost a little insane, for it lacks the usual social controls, and we can be as bad or as goofy as we want. On the other hand inner speech does have a job to do, it has to steer us through the world. That function sets up outer limits, even though within those limits we have a free rein to construct this language as we like.

There are similarities to the idealist world view in inner speech. The philosophical idealists, especially Berkeley, reduced the outer world to some version of an inner world. They internalized the external, each doing it somewhat differently, as though it were all a dream. For them all speech would be inner, since there is no outer. And since everything would be radiating from the self, everything would be connected via the self.

The Saussurean theory of linguistic differences [pdf], whether Saussure actually held it or not, is very much like idealistic metaphysics. In both cases everything is dangling from the same string. And some kind of self is pulling the string. The late l9th century British idealists thought all of reality was in relationship, and given that they had only an inner world, they referred to these as “internal relations.”

Saussure used this same phrase, internal relations, to refer to the differences among signifiers and signifieds. And whether he was aligning himself with the idealists or not, there is a similarity between his self-enclosed linguistic world and that of the idealists. It is the denial of reference, of an external world, that underlies this similarity. For Saussure this denial is merely a theoretical move, an “as if ” assumption, and not an assertion about the real world. The idealists said there actually was no external world, and Saussure said he would pretend, for methodological reasons, that there was no external world. But regardless of how they get there, they end up in the same place.

If there is no reference, no external world, then the only way language can be defined is internally, by a system of differences. Saussure’s purely differential theory of meaning follows from the loss of the referential. But if there is an external world, even for inner speech, then we are back to the dualistic semantic theory, i.e. to some sort of balance between referential and differential streams.

Although inner speech is not idealism, in some ways it seems to be a more differentially defined universe than outer speech. Linguistic context is even more important than in outer speech. One reason is that meaning is so condensed on the two axes. But a second is that inner language is so pervaded with emotion. We censor our emotions in ordinary interpersonal speech, hiding our fear, our shame, our jealousy, our gloating. It takes a while for little children to learn this, but when they grow up they are all, men and women alike, pretty good at it. Inner speech is another matter, for it is brutally honest. And its emotional life is anything goes. We can scream, whoop and holler to ourselves. Or we can sob on a wailing wall. In fact we probably emote more in inner speech to compensate for the restrictions on outer speech. Emotions pervade large stretches of inner speech, and they heighten the importance of internal relations.

The determinants of meaning in inner speech seem much more stark and unarguable than in outer speech. Inner speech is enclosed within us, and this seems to make it a more dense set of internal relations, both because of the intense privacy and the more spontaneous emotions. In these respects inner speech gives a rich example of Saussure’s differential meaning system.

On the other hand inner speech is also more obviously referential than outer speech. Ordinary speech is quite conventional or arbitrary, and when we say dog or apple pie, the sign has no resemblance to its object. In inner speech, though, the signs are often images of their objects, bearing an iconic or mirroring relation to them. In other words, as mentioned before, there can be a heavy dependency on sensory imagery in forming an internal sentence. (…)

In conclusion Saussure’s theory of semantics works well for some aspects of inner speech and quite poorly for others, i.e. the more referential ones. [signs of external objects, color coordination] (…) On the other hand inner speech is quite different from outer speech, and the Saussurean issues must be handled in special ways. Inner speech is only partially fitting to Saussure’s theories. And new ideas are needed to resolve Saussure’s questions. (…)

Saussure’s binaries were meant to simplify the study of language. The paradigmatic-syntagmatic distinction showed two axes of meaning, and it prepared the way for his differential theory of meaning. The history-systematics distinction was meant to justify the exclusion of history. The speech-language distinction was meant to get rid of speech. And the differential-referential distinction was meant to exclude reference. Saussure’s approach then is largely a pruning device which chopped off many traditional parts of linguistics.

My analysis suggests that this pruning apparatus does not work for inner speech. The two axes are useful but they do not prepare the way for the differential theory of meaning. History cannot be excluded, for it is too important for inner speech. Speech should be restored, and in fact langue applies only weakly to inner speech. And that capstone of Saussure and cultural studies, the differential theory of meaning, does not seem adequate for inner speech. Referential theory is also needed to make sense of its meaning system.


Inner speech then is a distinct variation or dialect of ordinary language, and the characteristics I have pointed out seem to be central to its structure. (…)

Inner speech is quite similar to ethnomethodology in its use of short cuts and normalizing practices. Garfinkel (1967) and Cicourel (1974) discovered ethnomethodology by examining interpersonal or intersubjective communication. A great many economies and condensations of interpersonal conversation are similar to ones we use when we talk to ourselves. If I say to myself “shop on the way home,” this is a condensation of the fairly elaborate shopping list I mentioned earlier, but if I say to my wife “I’ll shop on the way home” she may understand something much like that same, implicit shopping list. In other words we are constantly using “etcetera clauses” to speed up our internal conversations. And, being both communicator and communicatee, we may understand these references even more accurately than we do in social conversations. (…)

The self is also a sort of family gathering with similar problems of maintaining and restoring solidarity. Much inner speech is a kind of Durkheimian self soothing ritual where we try to convince ourselves that everything’s fine, even when it is not. In this way we can comfort ourselves when we are frightened, restore some pride when we are ashamed, or find a silver lining when we are disappointed. Such expressions as “you can do it,” “you’re doing great,” and “this looks harder than it is” give us confidence and energy when the going is tough.

In sum inner speech helps one see the importance of ethnomethods. The fact that we engage in these practices in our deepest privacy shows they are rooted in our psychology as well as in our social life. And the fact that they run parallel in intra- and inter-subjective communication shows them to be a feature of communication as such.


In philosophy Wittgenstein provoked a widespread and complex discussion of private language. By this he meant a language that is not only de facto but also inherently private. No one but the private language user would be able to fully understand it, even if the meanings were publically available. To constitute a private language such a tongue would not need to be completely private. If only a single word or sentence were inherently private, it would qualify as a private language in Wittgenstein’s sense.

It seems to me inner speech is clearly a private language, at least in some of its utterances. This language is so rooted in the unique self that an eavesdropper, could there be one, would not fully understand it. It has so much of one’s person in it, a listener would have to be another you to follow it. And if someone invented a window into consciousness, a mind-reading machine, that could invade one’s privacy, would they be able to understand the, now revealed, inner speech? I think not. They might be able to understand most of the words, but the non-linguistic or imagistic elements would be too much a personal script to follow. If this eavesdropper watched you, including your consciousness, for your whole life, had access to your memory and knew your way of combining non-linguistic representations with words, they might have your code, but this is another way of saying they would be another you. In practical terms inner speech would be inaccessible in its meaning even if it were accessible in its signifying forms.

Of course this semantic privacy does not prevent one from describing one’s own inner speech to another, at least to a substantial extent. Something is lost all right in the translation from first to third person representations. When, in footnote 2, I talked about the inner speech cluster I called “Tom,” I obviously left out some of the affect and all of the sensory imagery. But I was still able to communicate the gist of it, in other words to transform first to third person meanings. So even though this is a private language it can to some extent be made public and used for research purposes.

The importance of private language is that it sheds light on what a human being is. We are inherently private animals, and we become more so the more self-aware and internally communicative we are. This zone of privacy may well be the foundation for the moral (and legal) need people have for privacy. In any case the hidden individuality or uniqueness of each human being is closely related to the what the person says to him or her self.


One of the thorniest problems of the humanities and social sciences is human agency. Humans are the authors of their actions to a great extent, but the way this process works is difficult to understand. I would suggest that inner speech is both the locus and platform for agency.

Charles Sanders Peirce was under the impression that we guide our lives with inner speech. We choose internally in the zone of inner speech, and then we choose externally in the zone of practical action and the outer world. The first choice leads to the second choice. Peirce even thought we could make and break habits by first modelling them in our internal theater. Here we could visualize the performance of a particular action and also choose to perform this action. The visualization and the choice could give the energy for designing and moulding one’s life. (…)

More generally the self directing process, including planning, anticipating, rehearsing, etc. seems to be largely a product of inner speech. This includes both what one will do and how one will do it. Picturing one’s preferred action as the lesser evil or greater good, even if one fudges a bit on the facts, is probably also a powerful way of producing a given action, and possibly even a new habit. (…)

I showed that inner speech does not qualify as a public language, though it has a distinct structural profile as a semi-private language or perhaps as a dialect. This structure suggests the access points or research approaches that this language is amenable to. As examples of how this research might proceed I took a quick look at three issues: ethnomethodology, privacy and agency.”

Norbert Wiley, professor emeritus of Sociology at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkley. He is a prize-winning sociologist who has published on both the history and systematics of theory, to read full essay click Inner Speech as a Language: A Saussurean Inquiry (pdf), Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 36:3 0021–8308, 2006.

See also:

The Language of Thought Hypothesis, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Private language argument, Wiki
Private Language, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
☞ Jerry A. Fodor, Why there still has to be a language of thought?
Robert Kowalski, British logician and computer scientist, Do thoughts have a language of their own?, New Scientist, 8 Dec 2011
☞ Jerry A. Fodor, The language of thoughtHarvard University Press, 1975
☞ Ned Block, The Mind as the Software of the Brain, New York University 
Antony, Louise M, What are you thinking? Character and content in the language of thought (pdf)
Ansgar Beckermann, Can there be a language of thought? (pdf) In G. White, B. Smith & R. Casati (eds.), Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences. Proceedings of the 16th International Wittgenstein Symposium. Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky.
Edouard Machery, You don’t know how you think: Introspection and language of thought, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 56 (3): 469-485, (2005)
☞ Christopher Bartel, Musical Thought and Compositionality (pdf), King’s College London
Psycholinguistics/Language and Thought, Wikiversity
MindPapers: The Language of Thought - A Bibliography of the Philosophy of Mind and the Science of Consciousness, links Compiled by David Chalmers (Editor) & David Bourget (Assistant Editor), Australian National University

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on Human Language—Human Consciousness. A personal narrative arises through the vehicle of language, Lapidarium notes
The time machine in our mind. The imagistic mental machinery that allows us to travel through time, Lapidarium notes