Key language ideas

Key language ideas

These key language ideas will help you to understand theory of knowledge, and produce a powerful TOK essay and presentation. You should try to the terms as much as possible, and ideally link them to key TOK thinkers.


The connotation of a word is the meaning that has been acquired by a word over time, via individual and shared use. It is different, therefore, from the ‘denotation’ of a word, which its more formal meaning, that may be defined in a dictionary.
The connotation of a word is often more powerful than its denotation, meaning that when we use a word with one intention, we end up actually expressing a different idea. It also means that two words with a similar denotation can mean totally different things because of their connotations.
For example, the two words ‘house’ and ‘home’ have similar denotations – dwellings in which people live. However, because of the way we have used the word ‘home’, it has a lot more connotations, involving family, warmth, safety, and comfort.

Constructed languages

A constructed language is a language that has been deliberately designed and constructed, rather than one that has evolved over time. Examples include the language ‘Esperanto’ which was created in order to facilitate communication between different language-speaking cultures, and the code used to create websites (such as this one!).


The denotation of a word is its literal meaning, and the one you will find defined in a dictionary. See our discussion above for the difference between ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’.


A euphemism is a word or phrase used in an attempt to lessen the negative aspects of an event, phenomenon, or state of being. Euphemisms are used skilfully by many people who are good at persuading others, such as those who work in the advertising industry, sales, or politics. Examples abound – we no longer buy ‘second-hand’ goods, we buy ‘pre-loved’ items (note the use of the connotation of ‘loved’); military leaders do not talk about civilian (ie innocent) deaths caused by their bombing campaigns, they talk about ‘collateral damage’; rather than say a person has died, we might say that person ‘passed away’, or is ‘no longer with us’.

Linguistic relativity (or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)

Linguistic relativity is the concept that our ideas, beliefs, and perspectives are shaped by the language that we speak. This was based on studies made of different cultures by (amongst others) Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, that linked different thought processes and world views with different languages. Although the idea influenced many works of literature (such as Orwell’s 1984), it was largely replaced by the Universal Grammar theory of Chomsky.


Metaphors are used widely in language, and are responsible for conveying a huge proportion of language’s meaning. A metaphor uses a recognisable and approachable word or phrase to compare to a real situation or condition in order to give it a different meaning. One of the most commonly quoted examples is the way William Shakespeare compares human existence to a stage and set of actors, in his play As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances
By comparing life in this way, Shakespeare gives us the impression that life is temporary, beyond our control, and possibly absurd or tragic (or both), thus providing us with a different insight into its true nature.

Natural language

A natural language is one that has been allowed to develop independently of any design or intention, as most of the languages that we speak have done. It is the opposite of a ‘constructed’ language, as mentioned above.


Onomatopoeia is an interesting language phenomenon, and illustrate how diverse the way in which language develops can be. Onomatopoeic words are formed from the sounds associated with what the word denotes, for example, the bleat of a sheep, the honk of a car horn, the sizzle of a saucepan, or the clap of a hand. These words may even end up as the name of that which makes the noise, such as a ‘Cuckoo’.
Onomatopoeia also indicates that different cultures seem to hear things differently – just look at the words for the noises made by different farm animals (particularly the cockerel!) across different cultures.

Universal grammar theory

The Universal grammar (UG) theory is a theory proposed by Noam Chomsky, who argued that the human brain is ‘hardwired’ in order to understand grammar, and that we have an instinctive ability to learn the rules of different languages without having to be taught them explicitly. Although Chomsky’s theory has been accepted for many years, it is beginning to be questioned by cognitive scientists and linguists, who point to increasing evidence that children learning to speak languages do not do so via grammatical thinking.