Essay On Language


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Essay On Language

  1. 1. Name Candidate Number Atlantic College May 2005 "All of the other Ways of Knowing are controlled by language." What does this statement mean and do you think it is a fair representation of the relationship between perception, emotion, reason and language? Language plays a great role in the process of transmitting knowledge: everybody learns a language at a very early stage of their life and this means of communication will be used throughout in order to give and receive knowledge. In the course of just one day we claim that we know something just because we have read it somewhere or somebody has told us about it. We can therefore see what a powerful tool language is. The statement in the question, however, does not just mean that language is one of the most important Ways of Knowing, but even that it controls every other one of them with the capacity of influencing or determining our way of knowing the world. At a first sight this thesis seems quite logical: it would be hard for us to imagine a school or any way of transmitting knowledge without the use of language. However knowledge comes also from our senses, our individual reasoning and our feelings. This essay will investigate the role of language in each of the other Ways of Knowing and will assess to what extent the claim "All of the other Ways of Knowing are controlled by language" is valid. The possibility that language could affect or even determine the way we view and think about reality has been investigated by anthropologists, philosophers and linguists. One of the strongest formulations of the belief that language determines thought and perception is the so called "Sapir- Whorf hypothesis". A quote from The Status Of Linguistics As A Science by Sapir summarizes the belief these intellectuals held: "Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society."1 If we look at the well-known example of the colour spectrum we can find a proof of the fallacy of the belief Sapir argued for with this statement. In different languages the boundaries between, say, red and orange may be different, but this does not mean that people speaking 1 Available on the World Wide Web at <URL:> (Accessed January 7th 2005). 1
  2. 2. Name Candidate Number Atlantic College May 2005 different languages do not perceive the difference between a darker orange and a lighter one. Therefore we can see that humans are capable to perceive the "objective world" overcoming the biases that language may impose. However to say that language does not affect at all our perception may be misleading as well. Looking at recent experiments made by Dr. David Gil, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, we can see that language could affect some parts of our perception. Studying Riau Indonesian, Dr. Gil found that in the verb system of this language there is no differentiation between past, present and future. Together with Dr Boroditsky, Dr Gil put forward an experiment the results of which arguably confirm the hypothesis of Whorf and Sapir. "People are shown three pictures, one of a man about to kick a ball, one of the same man having just kicked a ball, and a third of a different man who is about to kick a ball. They are then asked which two of the three are the most similar. Indonesians generally choose the first two pictures, which have the same men in them, while English speakers are likely to identify the two pictures that show the ball about to be kicked".2 According to the two scientists, this is because, not having Riau Indonesian a differentiation between verbs in the past, present and future tense, its native speakers were led to regard as more important the spatial relationship between the first two pictures and to ignore the temporal relationship. In other words, depending on the grammatical structure of our language we are led to perceive some relationships more strongly than others. We can therefore see how the language could influence our perception, even if subtly and on an unconscious level. This conclusion has an effect also on the relationship between language and reason: if language makes us perceive some things more strongly than others, then also our thoughts about these things will be affected and conditioned by language. On another level we can see that our thoughts are influenced by language every day: we are driven to purchase certain products by advertisement, or we could be led to believe that a war is just if an authority calls it "holy". Again this is just a mild version of what the statement in the question suggests, that is, that language determines the way we think. This thesis was firstly put forward by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) with the name of "Weltanschauung hypothesis". He regarded thought as impossible without language, in other words, he believed that we cannot think about something without a word connected to it. 2 ‘Babel's Children’, The Economist, January 8th 2004. 2
  3. 3. Name Candidate Number Atlantic College May 2005 This concept was used by George Orwell in his most known novel Nineteen Eighty-Four in which language is gradually destroyed "to narrow the range of thought". 3 In this novel the author suggests that if certain words did not exist, people would never have the ability to think of the concepts expressed by these words. For example Orwell argues in his book that the concept of freedom would be impossible without the word. However intriguing this theory has some flaws that make it erroneous: first of all we can see that languages borrow words from other languages when they do not have one for a specific concept. Language is a living and dynamic phenomenon, and people have always found ways of expressing their thoughts, even in the most tightly controlled and totalitarian societies or even if a word was not readily available to describe a certain concept. In fact, language is continuously creating new words in order to define a new concept. Thus we can see that both the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" and the "Weltanshauung hypothesis" give an extreme view of the relationship between language, perception and reason which is proved to be partly wrong by numerous examples. Concerning emotion we can find many examples in which language is affecting us emotionally: sometimes it is enough to say just one sentence to upset somebody or to make him happy. An example of this was the rejection letter a friend of mine got from a certain university. Besides the sadness of not being accepted, the letter produced feelings like anger and helplessness just with the phrase "From your predicted grades it is clear, I am afraid, that an application to us would stand little chance of success". If the phrase was formulated in another manner or even if it did not include the "it is clear", it would have sorted out a different reaction. This is only one of the countless possible examples of emotions induced and controlled by language. Because we can notice very easily when words can affect us emotionally, we are keen to agree with the statement in the question, but we have also to consider that emotions, too, can control language. Just the fact that each language has a specific word for "love" or "anger" shows that emotions have a certain influence over language. Also it is easy to observe that we use a different kind of language when we are angry or quarrelling with somebody. Besides that we can see that in certain languages, like Italian, the way of talking is conditioned by the degree of closeness in which the two interlocutors are. In fact, if a person does not know the other, or if one is a subordinate of the other, they will both use the third feminine person for each verb that relates to the other. If the two people are friends or colleagues, than they will just use the normal and colloquial "you". This is a very important feature of Italian language and it 3 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 55. 3
  4. 4. Name Candidate Number Atlantic College May 2005 possibly has roots in the will of people to express their sentiment of respect or friendship to the others. As with reason and perception, we arrived to the conclusion that language can influence emotion, but that the latter is highly independent and that sometimes it even manages to control language. In conclusion we can say that the statement "All of the other Ways of Knowing are controlled by language" expresses an extreme vision of the relationship between language, perception, reason and emotion, a vision that gives language the capacity of influencing greatly our understanding of reality. Surely language is a fundamental part of the culture every one of us carries. The culture is then "filtering" everything we know, be it through perception, reason or emotion. Thus there is a control of language, through culture, of the other Ways of Knowing. However, we also saw that language may be affected by perception, reason and emotion and this would indicate that there is no unilateral control and that the different Ways of Knowing are highly interconnected, so much that sometimes we cannot determine whether one influences the other, or whether it is the opposite. Word Count: 1490 Bibliography: G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 2000, Penguin Books edition, London. World Wide Web sites visited: Available from the World Wide Web <URL:> (Accessed January 7th 2005). Articles: ‘Babel's Children’, The Economist, January 8th 2004. ‘You Are What You Speak’, The New Scientist, Vol. 176, issue 2371, 30th November 2002, page 34. 4