The statement above is a composite claim, created by the juxtaposition of two independent notions which must be understood for a proper analysis to be effectuated. The concept of language is thus partitioned into a) its different varieties (e.g. French) and b) its utility in helping us understand the world around us. Due to the correlation between language and culture, it is difficult, at first glance, to deny the magnitude of the impact that can be attributed to the former. Even in its definition language is associated with “same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition”1. It is, however, the contrast made between this and other ways of acquiring knowledge that will ultimately establish whether the role of language in shaping our understanding of the world is fundamental or discretionary.
There is truth in saying that language is one of the components that make up an individual. For instance, when we are trying to define a person, we often prioritize the specification of their name followed by their gender, and then we move on to an array of aspects that range from religion to nationality. Within this range, we find language, as it is often considered crucial to one’s identity with a clear example being its inclusion in the Information Section of the Facebook Profile feature2 and almost every other social network website. Now, culture is defined as “the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action”3. This presents us with two crucial pieces of information.
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The first one is the fact that culture is a term used to describe the compilation of every single factor that determines our view of the world. The second one is that these factors are inherited. Thus, since inheritance is the act of passing on knowledge to the other members of your society, and since the only way to do this is through language, it is possible to say that one’s outlook of the world is inevitably limited, and hence defined, by language. However, there are those who believe that language is not something as unique as is often perceived by most people. Perhaps the most relevant individual stemming from this school of thought is Noam Chomsky. His Universal Grammar theory, though ambiguous in regards to validity, attempts to consolidate the idea that every human language has a common structural basis4. This would effectively disprove what has been said so far, since language would become a by-product of culture instead of an aspect that contributes to its formation, having no effect whatsoever on our ability to acquire knowledge.
For instance, an example of one of the rules that form part of the Universal Grammar theory states that “If a language has a word for purple, it will have a word for red”. Were this always true, the theory would have proven that all human beings and societies follow a pattern when they are formulating their linguistic system. Consequently, it is only the style of the language that changes, not the set of principles that helps to formulate it. In other words, if a person speaks French, they will understand the world in the same way a German-speaking person would; the only difference is the superficial qualities, such as intonation and grammar. Then there are also the strengths and limitations of language as a way of knowing. The four official ways of knowing that are taught in the IB are sense perception, reason, emotion and language5. A functional way of approaching them and their relative role in defining our knowledge of the world is by a systematic study of human evolution.
If we consider Darwin’s theory beyond the technicality that deems it pseudoscientific6, we can interlink the dependence of the human race on each of the ways of knowing. For one, the human race began with the same cognitive capacity as any other animal. Like them, we relied only on sense perception to obtain the information that would shape our view of the world. Nonetheless, over time we developed a liking for tool usage. It is known that to even consider using a tool one must have the ability to reason, even if it is only to the most basic extent. However, since we know that other animals such as chimpanzees and gorillas also use tools, we cannot yet begin to speak of humanity as we know it. It was not until our brains were developed enough to be able to generate emotions that we could speak of human society and of human culture, accordingly. With emotion came the blueprints of society; early men and women were now able to bond with other members of the species in ways that were far beyond the merely symbiotic hunter-gatherer groups. From this moment on, we gained the ability to acquire knowledge.
There are some who argue that since communication between individuals was present when these early societies started to form, language was too and so, consequently, it was really language and not an emotion that paved the wave for human culture. However, these people forget that language is really a complex system of human interaction. These early forms of communication were extremely primitive in comparison even to those of ancient civilizations, and thus cannot be classified as language. For early humans, it was really only a matter of combining their current reasoning and emotive capacity. Even nowadays, if I was thinking ‘I like you, therefore I will give you this apple’, it would require no more than using emotion to determine how I feel towards someone and reason to decide what to do next. However, if I want to casually quote Hamlet and think “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will”, it would be almost impossible to do it without a far more complex way of organizing concepts and ideas.
Hence, the extent of our language serves the purpose of allowing us to express more complicated ideas. It is then that language itself becomes critical. So far, we have seen how language is not a cause but a consequence of culture and how its extent, while not essential for human interaction, is needed to express multifarious notions. Yet, at the same time, its type appears to be irrelevant according to Chomsky’s theory. The next assertion, however, will prove him wrong. A remote Australian aboriginal tongue known as Guugu Yimithirr is very peculiar in that instead of utilizing words like ‘left’ or ‘right’, they rely on cardinal directions such as ‘north’ and ‘south’7. Thus, not only would this contradict Universal Grammar, since saying ‘left’ and ‘right’ is proven to be words that define our concept of space (a vital element of our view of the world), but it would also mean that anyone that hadn’t been born into a society that uses the cardinal points in this way would not be able to communicate with the members of said society. Without communication, one cannot understand the culture. Hence, one can never view the world in the same way. In other words, our language type can be limiting.
In conclusion, language is the evolved offspring of the communion between our reason and our emotion. It was created simply out of both need and utility since it is easier and only possible to express more complex ideas through it. It is also self-limiting because of this since when something is created out of utility it is dependant on the needs of a society which are in turn dependent on a large number of environmental factors such as geographical location or climate. This creates situations such as the one seen when discussing Guugu Yimithirr, where the language depended on the individual knowing the cardinal points, a resource that transcends their linguistic capacity. Language is limiting; hence, its extent and type define our knowledge of the world.
- The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, 1994