Language and the Way We Think

Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.

The following is an update of a paper written specifically in the area of "psycholinguistics and psychoanalysis", originally titled "An Idiosyncratic Approach Toward Language, the Professions, and Therapeutic Discourse" (Fenichel, 1984, Unpublished). Updated 1997.

As Labov (1977) noted, "One of the most human things that human beings do is talk to one another. We can refer to this activity as conversation, discourse, or spoken interaction." As "one of the most human things" which we do, it stands to reason that meaning is often assumed to be shared during verbal interaction. However, we know that words are laden with symbolic meaning in addition to being tools for the simple sharing of information or experience. A critical point is that each of us differs in terms of our information and experience, and despite the ideal of having a "standard language"-- even among people speaking the same dialect of the same language, or being truly "bilingual"--the fact is that each of us on this planet adds our own nuance to words, or phrases, or intonation, or some combination thereof.1

Sociologists, social psychologists, and others study the effects of such ubiquitous experience as exposure to the language of television, of political campaigns, and of newspaper headlines2. Advertisers know that many people suspend their "truth filters" for 30-second segments at a time. Psychoanalysts routinely explore "distortion" of communication, in expressing and receiving facts, fantasies, and associated experiences which carry a mutually-understood "meaning". Those reading this paper online will surely recognize that one may well get quizzical responses to comments made about one's "mouse" or being involved in a "fatal crash"

Discourse is dependent on both the context of the conversation, in "real time", and the overlearned vocabularies which are acquired over the course of social, professional, and vocational training. In other words, we communicate to some extent using a vocabulary contained in the scripts of our daily lives and daily experiences3.

Freud, nearing the end of his life, and holding his first and only seminar in America, was asked for the secret of happiness, and (in German, paraphrased here), answered "Work and Love". The drives. But while Freud was best known for his interpretation of the "love" portion of that formula, the "work" portion of life is perhaps more amenable to systematic study and is also quite interesting to examine.

One's work experiences are where a great deal of our vocabulary and communication skills come from, and sometimes even our relational styles. Our workday shapes our thoughts and sets our neurons ablaze even as we are dreaming or trying to express with a loved one the trials and tribulations of our work day. Knowledge of one's use of language as a tool is knowledge of a great deal more.

In fact, we each may be speaking a different dialect of the same language, as doctors and lawyers and beauticians and homemakers and teachers and software engineers all take for granted that we are processing words and meaning in the same way. Consider, however, how we may hear "computerese" spoken in a corporate lunchroom, the latest news from Paris haute couture spoken while strolling through Bloomingdales, and self-referential, psychoanalytically-derived reverie from the student of clinical psychology. Are they speaking the same language?

How does one's vocabulary and learned way of associating words to meaning affect the way one thinks and communicates across a range of situations? How will the course of psychotherapy, which is heavily dependent on verbal representation and interaction, be affected by one's linguistic disposition and the world view this may represent (or reinforce)? These sort of broad questions will be the focus of the present paper. It maybe anticipated that many more questions will be raised than answered, but this is not seen as necessarily being a bad thing.

Two central themes shall be amplified:

  1. the relationship between language and the professions; and
  2. the implications of language style for the analytic situation. Following this, I hope to indulge my whimsical nature with some muses about the interaction between professional/linguistic world views and the possibilities both within the therapeutic relationship and beyond.


The Language of Law

The Language of Advertising

The Language of Bureaucracy


The Medical Model

Gender Differences

Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy




Robert DiPietro (1982) has compiled a diverse sampling of the literature relevant to "Linguistics and the Professions". It is here, rather than with a focused exploration of communication within the psychotherapy context, where we shall begin, the rationale being that most often the psychoanalytic patient comes from a professional field other than psychology, one which may be quite dissimilar from our own orientation towards language, in particular how we derive meaning and modify behavior through words and other forms of language. Notwithstanding Labov's findings of certain "universal" linguistic sets within a psychotherapeutic context, intuition and experience suggest that by dint of cognitive style and professional training, there may be wide variations across "professional types"-- in terms of tendencies to think concretely vs. fluidly (e.g., the engineer vs. the advertising copywriter), referentially vs. metaphorically (the ultrasound technician vs. the novelist) and so forth.

For the illustrative as well educational value of so doing, the focus will first be on the way in which our education, graduate training, professions, and other life circumstances exert a powerful impact in shaping the vocabularies of our daily lives. While we are familiar with the words and meanings of our friends and family, even spouses have been known to become lost in the dust of professional jargon and action patterns which are the tools of the trade during the work day. For the therapist it is useful to remind ourselves that not everyone thinks in turns of transference, resistance, contingency, or other paradigms for human relationships.

We may all speak very different languages from the time we leave our schools and our offices in an environment which demands efficient and shared communication. What follows is a brief survey of some of the styles which have been found to be common within particular professions.

The Language of Law

At the Second Annual Delaware Symposium on Language Studies (1982), a great deal of attention was given both to lawyer-client communication and the linguistic nature of "legalese". Mellinkoff's (1963) suggestion that legal vocabulary is characterized by "wordiness, pompousness, dullness, and lack of clarity" is perhaps not difficult to agree with for those of who have had the opportunity to observe legal discourse first-hand, or through Court TV. Even Thomas Jefferson, in 1817, complained that the art of writing by the legal profession lay in expressing "...everything so that nobody but we of the craft can untwist the diction, and find out what it means..." Such characteristics seem perhaps incompatible with the stance of the "good analysand".

Yet lawyers are trained to be quite "analytical", or so it seems. What else are they taught to do with language?

Anne Walker (in DiPietro, 1982) examined a particular tendency of lawyers, during deposition, to engage is simultaneous talk with the opposing side's witness, which Walker labels "cospeech". He conducted a structural analysis to determine its nature, precipitants, and by whom it was initiated. She found cospeech to serve either a "disruptive" or "non-disruptive" function. She also noted the impact of environmental press, and the tendency of lawyers to manipulate outcome through this device.1 Moreover, when the deponent interrupted the attorney midclause, with a "deep-structured" negative component, counsel viewed this as role encroachment", and reported that the deponent was trying to "control" the deposition.

Finegan (1982) looked at the characteristics of written testament language as used by the legal profession, particularly in regard to writing wills, and found:
  1. absence of second person pronouns
  2. absence of the imperative mood
  3. reliance on declarative sentences
  4. frequent use of conditional sentences
  5. exceptionally long sentences
  6. passive voice
  7. "postponed performatives" (e.g., "I authorize;", "I designate")

Finally, Finigan described a language style specific to attorneys' letters, as distinct from testaments. This he labels "editorial tentativeness". Perhaps the sort of lawyer who draws up simple wills is a different breed from the criminal lawyer taking depositions. Certainly they speak a different language even within the same profession.

And what of corporate lawyers? Citing the seminal work of Flesch (1946, 1949) on verbal complexity, Luis Arena (1982) presented the results of several more recent studies at the Delaware Symposium on Language Studies. While many readers may find most of this presentation to at least equal the legal profession's penchant for complexity of communication, a through review of the material will surely enlighten the reader whose primary interest is in linguistic structure. Briefly, after exploring the nature of style complexity by means of "clause analysis", it was concluded that "complexity...depends only on the number and kinds of clause embeddings" and has little to to with the occasional inclusion of an understandable simple sentence. A very thorough meta-analysis is undertaken, citing results of several studies examining reaction time in the processing of complex sentences which contain embedded clauses. Arena concluded his presentation by examining a simple sentence containing several embedded clauses, written by someone not at all engaged in the legal profession, whose name happens to be Noam Chomsky, one of the icons of language analysis. He writes:
A weaker, but perfectly sufficient demonstration of inadequacy would be to show that the theory can apply only clumsily, that is, to show that any grammar that can be constructed in terms of this theory will be extremely complex, ad hoc, and "unrevealing", that certain very simple ways of describing grammatical sentences cannot be accommodated within the associated of grammar, and that certain fundamental properties of natural language cannot be utilized to simplify grammar.
(Chomsky, 1957:34.)
Arena, perhaps in reaction to the above sentence, ends his analysis with equal time as he speaks up in the legal profession's defense:
"My Lord", the attorney might say (if he or she should read this paper), "this writer averages out at over 5 embedded clauses per sentence! I refuse to read any more; after all, Arena says we attorneys average out at 2.5 per sentence. Why should we spend our time processing all that information? Anyway who is this guy named Noam A. Chomsky who writes like that? And he has the courage to name the book Syntactic Structures?

The Language of Advertising

In 1936, Zd. Vancura introduced the concept of what Mukarovsky (1964)later called the "functional dialect" of language. Perhaps not too different than the lawyer seeking a useful disposition, Vancura described the adman's vocabulary as deriving from "the functional point of view [and making] a selection from the [whole] repertory of linguistic means for specific technical ends". The ends, in this case, are pursued through linguistic means, utilizing the same device employed by the successful trial attorney: persuasion.

Salespeople and advertisers know the importance of language in shaping the thinking of an audience. Smith (1982) reported on early research among network broadcasters in such areas as name-brand retention and purchasing behavior. A key finding was how advertising language was oriented towards both "cognitive reorganization" or towards retaining the memory of the product itself rather than the jingle. [Often, as Internet users know very well, the use of visual presentations to accompany the text produce a much stronger reaction than words or text alone.]

Advertisers and psychologists also know that people are different, across age, culture, gender, etc. Accordingly, language is often tailored to a given target audience. "Market segmentation" is one way of targeting consumers of a given product, although it is still rather broad-banded. Techniques such as "psychographics", or "lifestyle analysis" rely on an understanding of more "personal constructs" (Kelley, 1970) among audiences within a given market.

The ability to use the correct vocabulary and evoke the most motivating imagery for each potential consumer is what brings wealth and success to the Madison Avenue copywriter, or selling the image of a political candidate who shares the vision and symbolic language of the voter. A new version of linguistic salesmanship has become very much in evidence lately, referred to in the vernacular as "spin control".

Not only does the advertising world synthesize language in order to persuade the consumer, but a language has also evolved to categorize consumers, all the better to target for advertisements using language to which they'll likely respond. One famous example of a valuable market segment widely wooed by advertisers, it what the 1980's tagged as "YUPPIES" (young urban professionals). Clearly, one strategy may need to be evoked in trying to sell this particular audience an automobile or candidate, one which might not go over well in another market, say "LISPS" (lower income struggling people).

Role perception is very important in psychographics. Eight life styles (of males) which were frequently identified and targeted, are: The Quiet Family Man, The Traditionalist, The Discontented Man, The Ethical Highbrow, The Pleasure Oriented Man, The Achiever, The He-Man, and the Sophisticated Man. [Did they leave anything out?]

How does one learn to be an effective copywriter? First, one must be a bit of a psychologist, combining the ability to be persuasive with a working knowledge of modern "types" of people, akin to the conceptualizations of Eric Fromm. And then, one must employ the language, the lingo of the group, to be attended to and persuasive. It may help also, of course, to have visual and social associations which accompany memorable products, or to offer special incentives, and so forth, but this too will be conveyed largely through language.

In advertising, as with Law, language is used meticulously and with a particular goal in mind. Some psychological intuition and ability is also clearly important. Perhaps the adperson must be a bit like a social psychologist, the lawyer a bit of a group therapist. The copywriter may also be more creative and facile in the use of imagery, while the lawyer is better prepared to be directive and to use language as a blunt instrument rather than a sublime intoxicant.

The Language of Bureaucracy

Distinct from legal language, Charrow (1982) suggests that from the moment we are born, we are subject to a "bureaucratic language", or sublanguage, which " manifests itself in birth certificates, hospital forms, medicare/medicaid forms...and so on". If there is anyone exempt from dealings with the legal profession or the constant drumbeat of the advertising agencies, there breathes hardly a soul who has not dealt with a bureaucrat, be it in applying for a driver's license, food stamps or unemployment insurance, a bank loan or the payment window where we're trying to pay an overdue electric bill.

Based on a thorough analysis of bureaucratic documents and discourse, Charrow discerned four categories of bureaucratese's features: the pragmatic, organizational (written discourse structure), syntactic/grammatical, and semantic. Pragmatic features, considered by Charrow to comprise a "meta-category" encompassing the others, are concerned with "the ways in which bureaucratic documents (and sometimes bureaucratic spoken discourse) attempt--or do not attempt--to establish contact with the reader or listener." Hardly a soul exists who has not at some time thrown up his or her hands at the painfully callous disinterest of some bureaucrat who holds ones very life in their agency hand. Notwithstanding this ubiquitous experience--which has given the very word "bureaucrat" a pejorative connotation--Charrow points out how objective linguistic analysis yield the discover of a frequent cause of bureaucratic confusion: documents (and bureaucrats) often display no attempt at offering explanation or context.

They do not begin by telling the reader what the document is for, and at whom it is aimed. Perhaps a pragmatic feature of bureaucratic language is a built-in assumption that all readers/listeners are familiar with the various contexts, just as many other types of jargons presuppose a shared world view.
Organization features are seen by Charrow as being "often bizarre" due to similarly autistic assumptions that the reader will probably through ESP, realize to what the documents are referring.

My own research (published in Journalism Quarterly) found a very similar use of language plastered on the front page of New York City's flamboyant daily tabloid, the Post. On the day that the New York Times announced the leak of a nuclear reactor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (3 Mile Island), the New York Post had a headline filling half the front page screaming "Nuke Cloud Spreading". Underneath was a picture of a woman petting a goat subtitled, "Mrs. Louise Hardison comforts sick goat". Pragmatically, the New York Post gave far less information and presumed the reader was exactly clued in to the details and context, while the Times provided the details and context. Which sold more newspapers on that day? This writer can only guess!


The Medical Model

Unlike the computer programmer, bookkeeper, or managed care analyst, the roles of both patient and physician are wrought with interpersonal expectations and demands. Often these are not only of profound importance for self-esteem (i.e., feeling one is in control of a serious situation), but may in fact entail life and death consequences. Leaving aside the possibilities for sadomasochistic relationships, "power trips", regression towards infantile dependency and helplessness and so forth, it has been observed that the language employed in doctor-patient relationships is of a style all its own.

Despite the substantial allotment of time at the Delaware Symposium dedicated to language and the medical profession, it is disappointing to note that very little was said about the linguistic organization of the physician or of the doctor's contribution to dialogue with their patients. Empirical studies have tended to focus on the limitations of the patient's imprecision in communication, rather than the physician's efficient--if sometimes impersonal--communication style with patients. The physician, perhaps, is unlike any other professional in that (s)he is as diagnostician largely a passive listener to others' attempts at communicating symptoms. (Psychotherapists may also be listening passively and formulating diagnostic impressions, but their goal is to make interventions linguistically. Moreover, the nature of long-term treatment is such that psychotherapists may welcome opportunities to analyze and clarify communication, while physicians may be less inclined to endure "faulty communication" longer than necessary to know what symptoms to medically treat.)

Tannen (1980) has offered examples of instances where the physician's inflexibility in his or her willingness to try to understand others' language has been an obstacle to treatment. An example is offered of a physician who was unable to elicit information about an ailing child because his "lexicon" included only the words "white" and "yellow", while the mother considered her child to be "pale", and tried in vain to describe this to her pediatrician. Prince and her associates (1982) pointed out that too often the doctor is seduced into complacent belief in his own omniscience, and as a result may view the patient as "defective" in his or her attempts at clarity. Their study on "physician-physician discourse" yielded a very interesting finding. It seems that among themselves physicians have a tendency to "hedge" in their communication, preferring to be at least superficially right rather than negligently (or narcissistically) wrong. Perhaps, it was suggested, they do not want to appear less than omniscient and precise among their own colleagues.

Prince et al cite the "2 Maxims" of Grice (1975) which seem to apply ot both the cognitive set and the linguistic style:

  1. Grice's Maxim of Quality:
    Try to make your contribution one that is true.
    1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
    2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
  2. Grice's Maxim of Quantity:
    1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the purposes of the exchange).
    2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Gender Differences

More Coming...."Women's Talk"...

Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy

Thelma Leaffer (1982), who acknowledges her fascination (as did Freud) with Shakespeare's "The lady doth protest too much, methinks", gave this line of inquiry a new incarnation, the results of which are seen as supporting Freud's contention that "within the context of clinical denial, not and never are 'psychoanalytic primitives'". In her study, Leaffer had presented transcripts of therapy sessions to experienced psychiatrists and found significant agreement between them in identifying instances of clinical denial.

Therapist: It seems always to be the case with people who are brought to the hospital that there is difficulty in the field of sex.

Patient: No, I have never been interested in anything but women.

Therapist: Well, you have sexual relations?

Patient: Yes, but only with women.

And so forth.

Stay tuned...More to come


Language in Everyday Life

Ahh, therein lies the most interesting part of life....what do we mean by that?

(To be continued)


Charrow, V., "Language in the Bureaucracy", in DiPietro, R. (ed.), Linguistics and the Professions, Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1982.

Chomsky, N., Syntactic Structures, The Hague, Paris: Mouton, 1957.

DiPietro, R. (ed.), Linguistics and the Professions: Proceedings of the Second Annual Delaware Symposium on Language Studies, Norwood N.J.: Ablex, 1982.

Fenichel, M. and Dan, P. Heads from Post and Times on Three-Mile Island, Journalism Quarterly, Vol.77, No.2, (Summer 1980), pp.338-339, 368.

Labov, W. Therapeutic Discourse: Psychotherapy as Conversation, NY.: Academic Press, 1977.

Mellinkoff, D., The Language and the Law, Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1963.

[Under Construction]


1One need only recall "The OJ Trial" to quickly conjure an image of masterful word manipulation!

2 Fenichel and Dan (1980) found that scream headlines sold papers but provided little information communication through language. Some words and buzzwords appear more visceral than factual in design, and choices are often made as to whether to relate on an intellectual/factual basis, or an urgent and emotional basis.

3 For a dialog on the topic of how each of us develops meaning from experience, see
Ego: The Cauldron of Personality, Fenichel (1997).

--Color Line--

Words and Meaning, by Profession

(from FUNK & WAGNALLS Standard Desk Dictionary)


1. The thinking, feeling, and acting self that is conscious of itself and aware of its distinction from the objects of its thought and perceptions.

2. Psychoanal. The conscious aspect of the psyche that develops through contact with the external world and resolves conflict between the id and the superego.

3. Informal Self-centeredness; conceit.

Return to Current Topics in Psychology

Comments? Contributions? You can reach me by e-mail at:

Last Edit/Update: Sunday, 29-Jan-2006 13:18:20 CST

Copyright © 1984-2004 Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.