In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian Party imposed a constructed language, “Newspeak” on its subjects, on the principle that people who had no word for concepts subversive to the Party’s rule would be unable to have thoughts that opposed it. This notion is called “linguistic relativity” or, misleadingly, the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, speculation upon which has occupied the minds of philosophers, fictioneers, and a menagerie of crackpots over the centuries.
Is it really the case that language determines what thoughts people have, or is language simply constructed as a representation of what people talk about in a given culture, which varies depending upon its circumstances and history? Does the ongoing collapse of language in “developed” countries indicate a degeneration of the intellectual capabilities of their population, or does debasement of the language drive the dumbing-down of the people?
Of course language affects thought. A classic example is those interminable debates by the Political Class about budget “cuts” – when they mean “actual increase which is a reduction in the previously-planned rate of increase” rather than “actual reduction in spending from the current level”. Would the political discussion be more productive if the English language had two distinct words to characterize those two different concepts?
I think this is kind of a no-brainer. Language is very much affected by culture, and culture affects how we think.
Perhaps, but many unrelated languages still share euphemisms and metaphors, suggesting that language is a reflection of thought rather than the shaper of it. Maybe there are some slight cognitive bias effects depending on how each language usually orders actor/acted/act, but I doubt it’s very significant.
There are qualitatively different kinds of thought but there is also a spectrum of environmental triggers for them. If one is under a lot of social pressure then obviously language is going to bias one’s ability to think. If one is alone for long periods of time dealing with the laws of nature, on the other hand, different modes of thought are going to predominate.
A social control strategy then is to get people in highly stressful social situations and then control language.
Clearly language affects what you can think.
“The thing that’s wrong with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.”
— George W. Bush
Note: this, according to the interwebs, has been ruled out to be a false claim.
Although I have no expertise, just intuition, it seems to me that language must play a significant role in thinking. Both abstraction and concrete thinking require repeated categorizing and sorting of disparate items - be they tangibles or intangibles. This process, I think, must be facilitated by the existence of a rich assortments of words as headers for categories.
The evidence which comes to mind is the fact that the most intelligent people I have encountered were all highly verbal and their language gave clear evidence of the clarity of their thought. It might be instructive to design experiments to exploring thinking patterns in individuals who were born deaf in different language areas.
Perhaps, but many unrelated languages still share euphemisms and metaphors, suggesting that language is a reflection of thought rather than the shaper of it. Maybe there are some slight cognitive bias effects depending on how each language usually orders actor/acted/act, but I doubt it’s very significant."
This would imply that there cannot be similar experiences among people, a clearly false assertion. People can and do experience the same kinds of things. It is only how they react that would change. Perhaps a better example of this is humour. A joke in one language will often not be funny in another. Same joke, same situation, so to speak - just different reactions.
Language is all about communication. To quote George Bernard Shaw – " The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Just think how different people understand quite different things when a word like “abortion” is used.
But what if there is no word that both parties to a discussion understand? It is said that William the Conqueror brought a great flock of new words to the more primitive Anglo-Saxons. The Normans had many words for military matters and sports like falconry that had no equivalent in the Anglo-Saxon world since the concepts were completely unknown to those Anglo-Saxons.
The conceptualization and the word have to grow together. If a language does not have a word for a concept then there is no way to think about that concept in that language.
Also, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It’s holding up surprisingly well for a 30 year old book (it came out in 1992) and its depiction of the metaverse sort of got it right, perhaps more so than Ready, Player One.
The plot line ties together a few interesting ideas, starting with this notion of language as a platform for a mind “virus”
On this topic, here’s the art of designing conceptualizations for the political win:
Lakoff is the leading progressive philosopher of conceptualizations: