Columbia University



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For example, when a person is trying to explain the way he or she feels on a rollercoaster at the height of a big drop. The person could say I’m scared, nervous, or excited, but these more abstract emotions can’t really be explained through language; it doesn’t really encompass the whole picture, therein lies a knowledge issue.This is similar to trying to explain something you feel strongly about; you are likely to find it difficult to find the right words and sometimes it might not make sense, like when Dan Quayle said, “verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things.”9 I have found this to be true during a theory of knowledge class; the teacher asked the class to define a few words one of which was the word “love”.

Language empowers thoughts and ideas and is a way of embedding these thoughts in the minds of others. One way in which language empowered someone’s thoughts and dreams and branded them in the memories of the masses is Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream”. Proof that language empowers thoughts is that his speech is published in history books and is still taught to this day.

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“Language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is a great and efficient instrument in thinking”10, Humphrey Davy. This gives hint to the concept of Linguistic determinism which is the idea that language shapes thought. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,”11 Ludwig Wittgenstein said. For instance if I have an experience, I am restricted by the words I know not only when attempting to communicate it to others but also in my knowledge of it. This means that the words one possesses decides what he or she can know. There is a published study done by Peter Gordon, a psychologist at Columbia University in August of 2004 on the language of a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Brazil, Pira, which is a “one,two,many”12 language (meaning that it only contains words for one and two and anything above is described by a word that stands for “many”.

It was shown that speakers of this language are incapable of comparing objects of a quantity of three or higher. On the other hand, a counter argument for linguistic determinism might be that thought could bring about the creation of a word; for instance, during a theory of knowledge lesson we were asked to come up with a word for the feeling you get when sitting on a chair that is still warm from someone’s bottom. The word one of us came up with was “hotchaach”. Douglas Adams, in his book “The Deeper Meaning of Liff” also came up with a word for this feeling; “shoeburyness”.

“How often misused words generate misleading thoughts,”13 Herbert Spencer said. With the complicated structures of languages and the ways in which they are currently used it is quite common for misunderstandings to arise. There are two knowledge issues which crop up from the quote (mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph). The first knowledge issue is that there might be more than one meaning for words in a language; words may have several connotations. This leads to ambiguity where sentences could be misunderstood giving others the wrong thoughts.

An example of this is the statement “the teacher was mad”; mad could mean angry -where it is thought that the teacher was angry- or mad could mean crazy -where someone would understand that the teacher was crazy. It is the same with sentences which carry a simple meaning but imply a more complex one; such as when a child picks up the phone and you ask “is your mom there?” the child replies, “yes” but sets the phone down. In this example the child has only understood the simple meaning but hasn’t understood -the implied meaning- that you would like to speak to his/her mom. The second knowledge issue arrives when irony – the saying of something to mean the opposite – and metaphors are used in languages because it means that a statement can’t always be taken at face value. An example of irony is when someone says “what lovely weather!” whilst there is a storm.

Another knowledge issue arises when a problem is renamed in the belief that it has been solved. For example, if someone says “that painting is extraordinary” and another asks, “why do you find it extraordinary?” -the first problem lies as the (first) person attempts to explain why he/she finds the painting extraordinary- then the first person replies, “because it has hidden deep thoughts and emotions” – the problem is not solved; in fact it is renamed and becomes “what does the person find extraordinary about the deep thoughts and emotions.

After exploring the area of knowledge; The Arts and the way of knowing; Emotion I have come up with a comment about my question. I believe that although there seems to be more points for the idea that language determines thought, the ways in which language empower thought outweigh the ways in which language limits thought and that language doesn’t only allow expression of thought but is a tool in thinking and a way of knowing. A limitation in my essay is that I didn’t explore the forms of language in my examples but used the form of language involving spoken words. However, I did explore the idea that there are different forms of language.

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