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Language as a Way of Knowing. Thoughts on Language …. Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.  Cesar Chavez The limits of my language means the limits of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein

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thoughts on language
Thoughts on Language…
  • Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.  Cesar Chavez
  • The limits of my language means the limits of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth. George Carlin
what is language
  • Is a system of arbitrary signs, symbols and sounds used as a means of communication.
  • Ability to use language is rooted in mental modules that have been developed over evolutionary history (remember what you know about archetypes). Uniquely human???
  • Has no intrinsic value but has a socially constructed purpose – satisfies our need to communicate.


  • A symbol is something that stands for something else.
  • Words are symbols for things, not the things themselves.
  • Review archetypes!! On Moodle!
and you say you can communicate with your cat
And yousayyoucancommunicatewithyour cat?

This maybetrue, because…

  • Animals do have signs and signals for certain biological needs and functions, and maybe even emotions.


  • Fixed number of signals only.
  • Instinctive
  • Louder or faster corresponds to fear, hunger and sexual determination
  • Think of various species’ mating activities or, of a dog licking its master
what does language do for us
Whatdoeslanguage do for us?

Somefunctions are:

  • To communicatewithothers
  • To make life easier
  • To express emotions
  • To organizeoursound and to be social
problem with language 1 language and values
Problem with Language #1 – Language and Values
  • Labelling - this sticks even when undesired
  • Sexist language – do you recall Margaret Atwood’s fairy tale?
  • Subjective value judgements – we all make these, based on our own values and impressions (bias, religion, gender, age, etc.)
  • Not all sources are neutral – meanings that are political… remember: crippled vs. differently abled
  • Does media really report fact/knowledge? Some exaggeration or manipulation of words can lead our thoughts…
as donald rumsfeld said
As Donald Rumsfeldsaid,

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

problem with language 2 language and thought
Problem with Language #2 –Language and Thought

Linguistic Determinism:

  • Theory that the languages we speak determine what we can think.
  • Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: two anthropologists
  • Our thoughts are completed limited by our language.
  • Thoughts depend on language.
  • Ex. Japanese women and language - politeness will guide the language choices in Japanese and emotion will guide it in English
  • Ex. A surgeon must learn the language of anatomy before learning the skill in order to communicate with the team!!
problems with linguistic determinism
Problems with linguistic determinism:
  • Can language really determine the way we see the world?
  • Other languages have words or emotions and situations. We don’t have those words but we do feel the same way – but no word or name.
  • Regardless of the language we speak we share a common mental world.
  • Much of evidence used, likely has several interpretations (connotation).
  • Issues with new words: elbonics, bagmata, etc. We can’t easily control this!!
problem with language 3 language as a means of miscommunication
Problem with Language #3 – Language as a means of miscommunication
  • Many puzzles, riddles and jokes are based around language to trick and deliberately confuse (hey…just like optical illusions and magic shows…)
  • LOGICAL POSITIVISTS suggested that much of what we say is completely without meaning anyway
  • There are many rules to follow when dealing with language: GRAMMAR, DENOTATION, REGISTER, CONNOTATION, CONTEXT, etc.
  • We think that in renaming a problem thing we have solved it (circular argument).
language and meaning what contributes to miscommunication
LANGUAGE and MEANINGWhat contributes to “miscommunication”?
  • Fallacy of ambiguity “time flies like an arrow”, can it fly?
  • Words have several meanings… remember “good” and context: good student, good grades, good deal of, good friend
  • Language means something because it stands for something “real”. The cat is on the mat. (There is a real cat somewhere!!)
  • In other languages – translation becomes a problem “Drop your trousers here” or slogan translation problems (Pepsi…)
  • We are so good at analysing everyday language that we sometimes miss the complexities of meaning such as vague language: “Turn right just as you enter the village.” Where exactly does the village begin? And how far in is the right turn?
translation problems
  • When translating from other languages, communication can become confused.
  • Literal translation doesn’t always work due to multiple or single meaning words.
  • Pictogram writing (chinese characters) has several meanings and expressions are too complex to translate because of cultural specificity.

“When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it, a way of looking at the world. ” ― George Steiner

straighforward vs psychological meanings noam chomsky
  • Ex. Brown house
  • Brown exterior – same for mountain
  • Exterior only
  • Goes beyond house which is brown
  • A geometric surface but not always.
  • If I am inside, I would not say I am near it.
  • If I am in the middle of it, I would not say I am further than someone standing inside the front door.
  • House has volume if you think about it.

“Psycholinguists argue about whether language reflects our perception of reality or helps create them. I am in the latter camp. Take the names we give the animals we eat. The Patagonian toothfish is a prehistoric-looking creature with teeth like needles and bulging yellowish eyes that lives in deep waters off the coast of South America. It did not catch on with sophisticated foodies until an enterprising Los Angeles importer renamed it the considerably more palatable "Chilean sea bass.” ― Hal Herzog

ludwig von wittgenstein
Ludwig von Wittgenstein

Early Years

  • What is the relationship between language and the world?
  • Language gives us a representation of the world therefore limits our understanding of the world
  • If words do not stand for an object in the world then language is meaningless

Later Years – better understanding of whole mess

  • Language is like a net – a string- when we misuse a word our understanding becomes knotted.
  • Language does not provide a good description of the world – we don’t realize language is the problem.
  • Miscommunication is a problem of language itself
problem with language 4 the structure of sentences
Problem with Language #4 – The structure of sentences
  • The type of sentence may seem simple enough but the concept behind the sentence is a problem. If you don’t use the correct order and conventions your idea may not be clear.
  • Nicenessis not a property that can exist outside the mind.
problem with language 5 renaming a concept
Problem with Language #5 – Renaming a concept
  • Can become a circular argument
  • What are the problems in the following statements:

-Why do those birds swoop and squawk?

-Because they are starlings and that is what starlings do.

  • Problem is the renaming of behaviour, no real answer to question. Why? Why? Ask why?
problem with language 6 language and human experience john searle
Problem with Language #6 – Language and human experience (John Searle)
  • Language is fundamental to human life
  • Language is what distinguishes us from other animals
  • Dependence of experience on language.
  • Language provides us with conceptual apparatus
  • The words are a part of the experience
  • “falling in love” , doesn’t it feel like a fall upon suggestion?
  • We divide the world up into categories by using language
  • Consider art vocabulary or clothing labels
  • We try to transfer our private domain experience into literature and poetry