Thursday, September 09, 2010

Language and Thought

Here's a recent article on whether language shapes thought. The hard-line theory that grammar and vocabulary rigidly constrain a culture's perception of reality has been overturned. Yet the structure of our language does obviously influence our world-view, and it does so in more nuanced ways than simply preventing certain types of thought:

New York Times

Fortunately, Newspeak as designed in the dictatorship of George Orwell's 1984 probably wouldn't work the way its inventors hoped, to ensure that "heretical thought. . . should be literally unthinkable." In Orwell's afterword to the novel, he wisely adds, "so far as thought is dependent on words." The lack of precise terms may make a thought harder to shape, but the human mind is creative enough to get around that problem. We speak in parables and metaphors or invent new words.

What interested me most about that article cited above was the point that our languages force us to *notice* certain things. For example, a French speaker can't refer to a generic cousin, as we can in English. The gendered ending of the word forces the speaker to specify a male or female cousin. Some languages have different words for grandparents, aunts, or uncles depending on whether they belong to the maternal or paternal side of the family. And some languages have a very useful feature that requires every statement to indicate the source of the speaker's knowledge—eyewitness, hearsay, opinion, etc.

Although many people mock what's sometimes called "political correctness" in speech and writing, being careful about the terms used to refer to other people has a valid point. When "man" could mean either "human being" or specifically "adult male," it wasn't hard for phrases such as "the rights of man" to blur with ambiguity at the edges. Latin could avoid the ambiguity with "homo" for the former and "vir" for the latter; English doesn't have that distinction. Changing language doesn't magically change attitudes, but who could deny that language does help to shape attitudes?

And then there's the ever-shifting quality of euphemisms. "Retarded" (implying that the child is just developing a bit slower than others) began as a polite substitute for harsher terms such as "feeble-minded." Nowadays "retarded" has become perceived as an insult, to be replaced by phrases such as "developmentally disabled." The trouble with euphemisms, as the history of "retarded" illustrates, is that new ones eventually pick up the taint, so to speak, of the old ones, so yet another replacement has to be invented. The change in Maryland law from "disabled persons" to the subtly different "persons with disabilities" is an example of this trend.

Metaphors shape thought more powerfully than vocabulary and sentence structure. Consider the implications tucked inside metaphors such as "war on drugs," "war on poverty," and "war on terror." In war, violence is justified, and absolute victory is the only acceptable goal. In fighting against poverty or drugs, who are the enemy combatants?

Here's Orwell's essay about Newspeak:

Principles of Newspeak

He mentions that Newspeak aims to diminish rather than extend the range of thought and, as far as possible, make speech independent of conscious thought. Notice Orwell's sly references to the ways twentieth-century political discourse was already tending in that direction. Just the opposite of what we, as writers, aspire to do with language!

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. This was a great post! Language is extremely powerful. Think about slogans and catch phrases and even advertising jingles...they encourage group-think and discourage independent thought. "Yes we can!" "Make Love, Not War!" "Where's the Beef?" You say these, people understand. Kind of scary, no?

  2. "Net Neutrality" is a great modern example of Orwellian language.

    It sounds fair, utterly reasonable, unregulated. In fact, it looks like it's the opposite and will neuter free speech.