Lan­guage as the fuel of knowl­edge


Ge­orge Or­well’s dystopian clas­sic 1984 tack­les power, au­toc­racy, and the use of lan­guage to ma­nip­u­late the work­ing class. In an ef­fort to con­trol in­for­ma­tion and the like­li­hood of a re­bel­lion, the rul­ing class im­ple­mented Newspeak, which is a short­hand ver­sion of English or Old­speak, meant to limit peo­ple’s ideas through the use of a nar­row vo­cab­u­lary. With only a few words to use for ex­pres­sion, the work­ing class gets sub­jected to mind con­trol since crit­i­cal think­ing be­comes im­pos­si­ble. This is the un­re­lent­ing power of words.

There has been a lot of re­search ever since the 1930s sup­port­ing the the­ory that lan­guage ac­tu­ally af­fects a per­son’s per­cep­tion of re­al­ity and way of think­ing. Lin­guists Ben­jamin Lee Whorf and Ed­ward Sapir be­lieve that when there is no word for an ob­ject or con­cept, peo­ple can­not think about it. Ac­cord­ing to Worf, “lan­guage it­self shapes a man’s ba­sic ideas,” and this rings true in dif­fer­ent fields of thought. The Na­tive Amer­i­can Hopi tribe, for ex­am­ple, only uses the present tense, leav­ing them with no per­cep­tion of time when they speak of fac­tual ac­counts or sto­ries.

Al­though lan­guage is re­spon­si­ble for shap­ing thoughts, it does not de­ter­mine a per­son’s think­ing en­tirely. The Dani tribe in New Guinea only has two words for color, one for warm col­ors and an­other for darker hues. This, how­ever, does not mean that they can­not tell blue from pur­ple. They are still ca­pa­ble of color dis­crim­i­na­tion as well as the per­cep­tion of all or­di­nary ob­jects.

The mind as­signs mean­ing to dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences through words. But apart from lan­guage, gram­mar also shapes an in­di­vid­ual’s think­ing. Syn­tax is im­por­tant, which is why bilin­guals are known to ex­press them­selves and ac­quire knowl­edge in two dif­fer­ent forms; scientists call this the “bilin­gual advantage.” The bilin­gual speaker de­vel­ops cer­tain skills that in­volve the brain’s con­trol sys­tem, and these in­clude mul­ti­task­ing, mem­ory switch, and a high attention span.

Lan­guage ex­pands knowl­edge. It is heav­ily re­spon­si­ble for the way a per­son com­part­men­tal­izes and clas­si­fies the things he or she per­ceives, and these cause peo­ple to form dif­fer­ent opin­ions and thought pro­cesses. Hav­ing dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions is im­por­tant be­cause it opens up discussions and op­por­tu­ni­ties for de­vel­op­ment. Di­ver­sity, more than any­thing, keeps our world turn­ing.

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