Language is not just a tool for expression; it is not just a vehicle for the transmission of knowledge, it’s more than that. Language shapes our thoughts in profound ways. It can be defined as a conventional code of symbols, which allows a sender to convey a message that can be understood by a receiver. We use language for several purposes, such as expressing our feelings, writing literature, describing things etc. However, language is not perfect, it has its limitations. Language hinders thought.
Apart from the problems of the meaning of words in the language, such as its vagueness (words such as big and small are vague since it does not provide information of how big or small), ambiguity (possibility of having a different meaning, can never be sure what the sentence/word means or is intended to mean) which is widely used by politicians, secondary meaning (the connotation or denotation of a word and the usage of euphemisms), metaphors and irony; which makes it difficult to convey thought. Language hinders and changes thought itself. Language does this by, putting labels (assigning to a category) on things and people (stereotypes) and linguistic relativity (a reference to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).
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Labels have their pros and cons, for example, if we didn’t have a word for sand, we would have to identify each grain individually, or other objects such as rocks, electronics, clothes etc. Communication becomes easier with labels, however, with labels we tend to generalize. These generalizations often become substitutes for thought and experience. It blocks the sense of an item or person’s true individualities by categorizing them. When generalizations are employed, labels are used as the sole source of information about other people; they limit our understanding and describe only one aspect of a person. When labels are used on people, they are called stereotypes.
These stereotypes limit our view of people, therefore limiting our thought. A stereotype is an idea or belief (often inaccurate) about what another person is like, based on what group that person belongs to. Stereotypes are a type of prejudice. Stereotypes arise when we make assumptions about members in a particular group solely because of the reason that they belong to that group. Stereotypes are widely shown on the basis of nationality.
Some common stereotypes are: Asians have high IQs. They are smarter than most in Math and Science. These people are more likely to succeed in school, French is romantic, Irish are alcoholics, Russians are violent, African Americans play basketball, and Immigrants have poor English etc. However, stereotypes hold some truth in them. For example, if you go to a French restaurant, the environment is likely to be romantic. However, to distinguish between harmless generalization and a stereotype, it must be known that stereotypes mostly exaggerate the negative features of a certain group.
Linguistic relativity is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (however this is a misnomer) states that language determines our experience of reality, and we can see and think only what our language allows us to see and think. Linguistic relativity is the linguistic theory that the semantic structure of a language shapes or limits the ways in which a speaker forms conceptions of the world. Since the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that language determines the way we think, it can be defined as a form of language determinism.
A popular example would be the Inuit. They are said to have many different words for snow. Since they have such sophisticated vocabulary for the word snow, they are able to distinguish and describe snow in a broader spectrum. As a result, the Inuit are able to see and experience snow-covered landscapes differently from the rest of the world, not to mention people who lived in places such as tropical rain forests where there is no snowfall would not have had even a single word for snow, therefore experiencing the world differently.
Benjamin Whorf studied the difference between the language of the Hopi Indians of North America and European languages. As it turns out, the Hopi Language contains ‘no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call “time”, or past, present, or future, or to enduring or lasting’. Since the Hopi have no words for it, Whorf came to the conclusion that they have no concept of abstract time. Also, in a certain part of New Guinea, people live a hand-to-mouth existence as they always have done. Consequently, they have no wealth and no reason to count things.
Their language has a word for one and another word for two. But, that’s the extent of their counting system. Today, because of contact with the outside world, they’ve had to adapt their language. They use the word for dog to indicate the number four (possibly because a dog has four legs). Therefore, their primitive language does not allow them to count large numbers and therefore will be unable to think in large numbers. In the anthropologist Peter Farb’s book: Word Play: What happens when people talk, experiments on bilingual Japanese women who had married American servicemen and were living in the USA are being discussed where the Japanese women are used as test subjects.
The women spoke in English with their husband, children and other speech situations, however, spoke Japanese together to gossip or discuss their lives at home. Since they spoke in two languages, they inhabited different language worlds, where each of them thought differently in each of the language worlds. The experiment went such that two interviews took place with the same questions, however, the difference between them was that, one was asked in Japanese, and the other in English, and the results were astonishing.
For example, Real friends should… help each other (Japanese)…be very frank (English). As seen, there was a large difference in the attitude of the speaker when speaking in different languages, thus concluding that the language changes thought.
Language is not perfect and tends to hinder thought. As seen through the Japanese women, people who speak different languages think differently. Labels cause people to think of things as part of a category instead of individually, which causes them to ignore a particular thing’s individuality. And, stereotypes give false interpretations (though sometimes true) of people solely based on the group that they belong to. Therefore to conclude, language does hinder thought.
‘Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma’ – Richard van de Lagemaat
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