In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’ – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Anybody who has read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will remember that the government in this novel has such faith in the power of language that it assumes political dissent will be eliminated if it removes all of the offending words. It’s a tantalising idea and Orwell’s book continues to have deep political influence. But while language is powerful, it isn’t a prison. It might well be a political weapon, but we are not trapped by language. The beauty of language is in its flexibility.
I recall learning, in high school, of a language that had the same word for grey and brown. The language we were discussing escapes me now, but I do remember wondering at the time if the native speakers of that particular language could actually differentiate between the colours. If there isn’t a word for something, does it still exist?
If there isn’t a word for something, does it still exist?
The idea that the language people speak controls their thinking is a recurring theme in intellectual life. Pinker says it best, ‘we all know when drawing on common sense that thought can’t be pushed about by words, (but) many people hold the opposite belief when they intellectualize.’ Whilst writing The Stuff of Thought, he had to stop telling people that the book was about ‘language and thought’ as the only relation between the two that people could see was how language shaped thought. Language must, of course, in some way affect thought. If somebody’s words didn’t affect another person’s thoughts, what would be the point of communicating? But there is far more to it than the shaping.