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The Vocabulary We Have Does More Than Communicate Knowledge. It Shapes What We Can Know

1601 words - 7 pages

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf first hypothesized that language shapes what we can know. This theory has launched an evolution in the way we understand and view language as a component in the structure of our society, our relationships and our characteristics. George Orwell’s 1984 involved a dystopian government that modified English to remove some undesirable words, creating ‘Newspeak’, the reason being that by removing the words for ideas they could remove certain ideas completely. Since then, much research has been done on this interesting theory to suggest that it may be more than just science fiction and that we should better understand language if we want to better understand what we know. 1
Sapir theorized: “The ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group.” This theory was able to be tested when another proponent of the theory, Whorf, studied the Hopi Indians. Whorf said that Hopi has “no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time’.” This sparked a huge debate among linguists as to whether the Hopi have a concept of time or not. This could have been a turning point in the study of Linguistic Relativity because if the Hopi actually had no concept of time then it would be a massive piece of evidence in support of the theory that languages control what we can know. There were numerous studies published on the Hopi Indians, one of the more notable ones by Ekkehart Malotki. Who while he ultimately disputed Whorf’s assertions that the Hopi have no concept of time he did agree that the tense system had variations from English. Whether this has an effect on their understanding of time is still debatable. 2
I am born of Korean parents, raised in China and have went to a primarily English speaking school for most of my life. I have a fairly good grasp of all these languages and to some extent I consider myself to be trilingual. (I perhaps would not earn a Masters in all three but I am at a conversational level in all of them). In studying this phenomenon of language’s effect on knowledge I have become very introspective as to how my three languages affect the way I think. I have always believed that the primary language you have can be determined by the language that you think in. But the extension of this theory would be that if what I think is what I know then my grasp of my language can narrow what I can know, can it not?
I think in English because it is the most comfortable for me. However, I speak mainly Korean at home and in living in China I have a large need to use Chinese. When I switch back and forth between these languages I find that there may be a somewhat subtle change in my personality. For example, when I speak Korean it would often be to Korean adults because most of my Korean friends speak English as well. Therefore, I find myself being much more respectful when I speak in Korean than perhaps I would when speaking in...

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