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Language Notes - Theory of Knowledge

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Language Quotes

  • "How often misused words generate misleading thoughts" (Herbert Spencer)
  • "The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world" (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
  • "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."  (George Orwell)
  • "Language was given to man to disguise his thoughts." (Talleyrand)
  • "Who does not know another language, does not know his own." (Goethe)
  • "Language was the real innovation in our biological evolution; everything since has just made our words travel faster or last longer." (Steven Pinker)
  • "Man is the animal that speaks. Understanding language is thus the key to understanding man." (Thomas Szasz)

Language Definitions

As with just about anything we come across in ToK, language can be defined in multiple ways.

  • “Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts” (Henry Sweet, English phonetician and Language scholar)
  • “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates” (Bernard Bloch and George L. Trager, American Linguists)
  • “The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way” (Current Oxford Dictionary Definition).
  • “The system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other” (Merriam Webster Definition).

While definitions of language may differ, there are many characteristics of language that remain universal.  

Characteristics of Language

  • The ability to use and understand language is specific to humans. There are no other living organism that possess the ability to communicate through the use of language.
  • Language is governed by sets of rules. In order for a language to be effective, everyone must be able to understand it. Thus the need for rules. However the application of those rules are infinite. Noam Chomsky once said: “Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”
  • Language is constantly changing. As there is always need to describe new ideas and feeling, the rules of language as well as the words used in language is constantly changing.
  • Language is sent and received. All language is rendered useless, unless it has an audience . “All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.” B Yeats (Irish Poet)

Symbolic Representation of Language

  • One reason why language is so effective, is because of its symbolic nature. Sounds and images relate to things or ideas to which there is no necessary connection. For example, there is no real reason why a .
  • A great example of this is the use of male and female images to represent male and female restrooms.
  • The two images on the right do not have any actual meaning. They are just an image of what we interpret as a male and a female. But when placed on a bathroom door, it indicates male and female restrooms.
  • It is not the actual sign or symbol that creates the meaning, but instead the connection that we have relating that image to its connotation.
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