Linguistic Determinism 101
Wittgenstein, the great linguist, once said, “The limits… of my language… are the limits of my universe.” We live in a cage. We live in a world where we can only express our feelings and intentions using predetermined words.
George Orwell explored this concept in his novel, 1984, where a totalitarian government forces society to adopt a language called Newspeak, a radically revised version of the English language from which many meanings available to us today were removed. The purpose of Newspeak was to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits accepted by the government, and making all other modes of thought impossible. The word ‘free’ still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in statements like “This dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds”. It could not be used in the old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’, since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, they were therefore of necessity nameless. Of course, this is only fiction, but the concept of language limiting our thought is a subject I find of interest.
You see, Shakespeare was one of those men who refused to be trapped in this cage. He created words that to us, today, may seem impossible to live without. Eyeball. Luggage. Successful. Amazement. When he got stuck trying to think up a word, the man just made his own. Words are not enough to embrace the full human experience. For every word there is a meaning, but for every meaning, sometimes, there is no word. We will look at some examples of this, and how it concerns us. Language can, and is limiting the way we think.
Let’s take a look at the following example. A Brazilian hunter-gatherer tribe, whose language, Piraha, contains only words for the numbers ONE and TWO, and nothing else. Anything over two is classified under “many”. There are no words for “three, four, five” and so on. Just “one”, “two”, “many”. These people were put together for an experiment, and were shown four blocks of wood. They were told to remember them. They were then shown, minutes afterwards, five blocks of wood. The results were astonishing. They could not tell the difference between four and five blocks of wood. For them, it was just “many”. Their reality is only as broad as their language. How could we know if our language is not limited in some way or other? How can we be sure of it?
We label things, we label people, and we associate certain words to certain things and certain people. Take for example, a rainbow. Speakers of different languages may see different numbers of colors in a rainbow. Since rainbows are actually a continuum of color, there are no actual stripes or bands, and yet people see only as many bands as their language allows them to. If you ask me: what colors do you see in the rainbow? I would answer: red, green and blue. But if you ask a painter, he’d probably give you a completely different answer; Indigo, Cyan, Cerise, or Turquoise.
Zen, a school of Buddhism, sticks to the idea that attaching words to the concept of Zen would mean defeating its own purpose. Zen is an example of a thought or experience that is linguistically inexplicable. But how many of our experiences are linguistically inexplicable to us right now? How many feelings have we not attributed words to? How come we sometimes have thoughts and feelings for which we don’t have the words?
Our thoughts are not determined by our language, but they may be constricted by our language. The variety of words we use do not affect what we think, but it does affect how broad we think. Language should be a means of facilitating expression, not defining it. Most importantly, language is not static. Language is not written in stone. Language is evolving every day. Language is a cage, but a cage that is changing shape and growing more and more as time passes. As we speak, in some faraway lands, some kids made up a new word for something. The words ‘OMG’ and ‘LOL’ have been added to the dictionary. And to those kids, I say, rock on. You are the Shakespeares of our generation.
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