Does the extent of our language = the extent of our knowledge?
No TOK teacher worth their salt will not include this passage from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four when they come to the language section of the course. They may try to be original, and find an alternative source, but they will be unable to find any other extract from literature that makes the point better.
It comes from a conversation that Winston has with Syme, who is writing a new dictionary, although perhaps it is better to say editing the old dictionary by cutting away ‘superfluous’ words, and amalgamating others that mean the same. Syme explains the rationale of this to Winston:
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,’ he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?
The thinking here is clear: if we don’t have words for a concept or thing, then we cannot conceive of a concept or thing. It is one of the key knowledge issues inherent to language, and needs thinking about in some detail.
Linguistic relativity versus the universal language
One of Chomsky’s other theories, which fits in very well with his ideas of our innate abilities in language learning is that language is universal – that is to say, whatever tongue we speak in, we still perceive of the world in the same way. An alternative way of looking at language is termed linguistic relativism, which argues that different languages lead to different perceptions of reality, leading cultures to behave distinctly according to what words and phrases they use to label the world.
The Linguistic Relativity Principle, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, after the two men who proposed and developed it, posits the idea that our understanding of the world depends to a large extent on the language with which we use to interact with it. For example, different words for different colours leads us to form different perceptions of the world, and in the most famous example, the Inuit people were said to have a multitude of different words for snow, allowing them to see it in a totally different way to those of us who don’t spend most of our lives in a snowbank.
This theory is most effective when one compares the languages of cultures that are very far removed – rather than just comparing the subtle differences between, say, Italian and French. One that has been studied in great depth is the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon. They use three different words for numbers, that translate as ‘approximately one’, ‘a little more than one’, and ‘a lot more than one’. Since their whole perception of groups of objects is based on this, they have serious difficulties counting and distinguishing between patterns of objects once their numbers rise beyond about eight. Studies to investigate this were carried our by Peter Gordon of Colombia University, and his findings can be read in either Science Magazine or the Economist.
Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis came under a great deal of attack by academics in the 1960s – the Inuit words for snow, for example, were discovered to have been massively inflated, due to a poor understanding of their language – it has gradually come back into favour, so that now many linguists accept that there is some difference of perception depending on the language that we use. Certainly there are many untranslatable terms that anchor certain concepts to certain languages and cultures – the German Schadenfreude, for example, the fact that so many culinary terms are French, or that musical directions are in Italian.
Euphemisms have long been used to change the impact of certain words, and make them more socially acceptable. The most common term that is replaced with a euphemism is ‘toilet’: in most cultures we ask, instead, for directions somewhere else, leading us to the bathroom, restroom, W.C., or we simply reword our request to turn it into a desire to ‘powder our nose’, or ‘spend a penny’. Another taboo in society that is often covered up by euphemisms is death, and there are scores of phrases that can be used in its place that means the same thing: such as pushing up the daisies, passing on, and kicking the bucket.
Euphemisms are commonly employed by the authorities to make government policies more acceptable, or by groups seeking to either justify themselves, or rubbish their opponents. Or they are simply used to make someone or something feel more important. Here are a few examples, but there are many, many more out there:
- Collateral damage versus innocent loss of life
- Pro-life versus pro-choice
- Freedom fighters versus terrorists
- Secretary versus personal assistant
- Extermination versus liquidation or cleansing
- Euthanasia versus killing
- Taking one’s life versus suicide
- Bravery versus discretion
- Letting someone go versus firing
Have a look again at the experiment carried out by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer, mentioned in the emotion section. What does this reveal about the role language plays in how we understand and perceive of sensations?