Dominic Fairfax Forum
Dominic Fairfax Forum

LANGUAGE, THOUGHT AND REALITY

Language Precipitates Thought and Vice Versa 

 

 An interesting theory is provided by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf in Language, Thought and Reality [1956] which claims that language plays a fundamental role in shaping reality in a particular light and guiding our apprehension of it:

 

We ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to

an agreement that is codified in the patterns of language.


If we use restricted or undeveloped language with limited vocabulary, then our consciousness resides within  it; we remain locked in what Sapir calls a ‘prison house’ of the mind. This linguistic determinism or linguistic relativity in which the patterns of the language become a ‘prison house’ cause us to see reality only within the limits of our linguistic abilities. Consider for a moment, residing within a certain field: law, insurance, accountancy or business for example but without being able to ‘switch off’; not just during the day but obsessively, taking the job home too, so that all thought and discourse with likeminded partners and associates revolved around that particular field [and we have all come across individuals such as this from time to time.] Could such individuals be living in a linguistic prison house? Does it cause a sort of emotional flatness? Does obsessive occupational specialisation predispose tunnel vision or even a sort of alexithymia? The world of monks and other religious adopt a worldview synonymous with their beliefs. The beliefs encompass certain language usage and cannot be thought of without it:

 

Meaning will be found to be intimately connected with the linguistic: its principle is symbolism but language is the great symbolism from which other symbolisms take their cue.


Human search for meaning has created complex religious belief systems and ideologies facilitated and communicated to the young by their language. Beliefs, or even non-beliefs for that matter, cannot be divorced from words which encapsulate worldviews. Vocabularies of all language-spheres including anti-language embody distinct worldviews for their users. The modes, roles and norms of behaviour within social groups: sets and schemas are socially constructed. But in order for them to be psycho-sociologically constructed they must first have been linguistically and cognitively constructed. Where else could they have come from?

  

The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously

built up on the language of the group……..we see and hear and experience

as we do because the language habits predispose certain choices of interpretation.


We adhere to ‘scripts’. We ‘act’ professionally or foolishly. We ‘act’ our gender roles – our social roles. We act sophisticatedly or immaturely depending on our nurture and emotional make-up and sociological environment . We act subordinately or in a controlling way, again, depending on our nurture and the social setting in which we find ourselves. These are indeed “actions that a man might play”.  Complex societies and both the collective and individual roles that we play within them could not be performed without the language and thought that formed the concepts. Unlike all other life on earth, consciousness compels human beings to make meaning.  Nothing has any meaning in itself other than the meanings human beings attribute; and the attributions are conceptualised via language. It is impossible to have a thought without language or vice versa:

 

Human beings......are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the expression of their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. [Language, Thought and Reality. Whorf and Sapir. pg 134].

 

 Critics claim that the difficulty with the linguistic determinism/relativity theory is that it is impossible to isolate language from other possible factors but this does not mean that it should be disregarded. If it is possible to socially construct divisive linguistic prison houses which in essence, become self-perpetuating, then it might also be possible [theoretically at least] to construct positively elevating and unifying ones, although admittedly, this would be difficult to put into effect and maintain. Schism of the potential for a higher consciousness may well be caused by the language used within cultural hegemony to maintain the current modes, norms and values of existing societies. It is as if language is being used to “weave a web of maya or illusion” without which, we would undoubtedly take a collective leap into the light. [Language, Thought and Reality – pg 263]

 

 Linguistic relativity is an important theory since when we look at people and society from its perspective, we can discern that inequalities, racism, sexism, and even all non-organic abnormal mental states from neurosis to psychopathy might not be genetically based, or even caused by our predecessors and parents in the strictest sense but more by language-meanings used in positive nurture or its lack. There are probably other factors besides language. I don’t know. It seems that the answers reside somewhere in my mind but to illustrate the point I suspect the reason I don’t know is because at this particular moment in time I do not possess sufficient vocabulary to formulate, organise and express my thoughts on the matter.


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