Ways of Knowing: Language
We make sense of the world through eight ways of knowing: language, reason, sense perception, memory, faith, intuition, imagination and emotion. On this page, you will find articles, clips, PowerPoints and TED talks on language as a WOK.
Possible essay questions related to language as a way of knowing:
- “A map is only useful if it simplifies things.” To what extent does this apply to knowledge? (Specimen 2015) [signifier/signified, language as a tool to map one's world/reality].
- “The possession of knowledge confers privilege.” To what extent is this an accurate claim? (Specimen 2015)
- There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. (May 2015)
- “There are only two ways in which humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
- “No knowledge can be produced by a single way of knowing.” Discuss. (November 2015)
- "The knower's perspective is essential in the pursuit of knowledge." To what extent do you agree? (May 2016)
- To what extent do the concepts that we use shape the conclusions that we reach? (May 2016)
- “Ways of knowing operate differently in personal and shared knowledge.” Assess this claim. (November 2016)
- “Metaphor makes no contribution to knowledge but is essential for understanding.” Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. (November 2016)
Language as a way of knowing
Language is a medium through which we pass on most knowledge. The political power of language is apparent in propaganda, linguistic stereotyping and through verbal nuances such as euphemisms versus pejorative language employed by politicians. Our daily language is heavily influenced by the discourse of the most dominant groups, even though we may not always be aware of this. The language we speak can be used to pass on knowledge and values, but it also creates knowledge as such. Even though the limitations of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis's linguistic determinism have been pointed out, new research reveals how the language we speak may shape the way we think. Some speakers of aboriginal languages have excellent orientation skills due to their use of absolute cardinal directions, for example. And the Japanese legal system seems to be structured differently from the Anglo-Saxon system because of the linguistic differences between the respective languages' causality structures. The PowerPoints and articles in this section explore these notions more in depth and may give rise to various knowledge questions.
Powerpoint lesson on language as a way of knowing (see Lagemaat textbook).
Check out the below PowerPoint lesson on language as a way of knowing. This lesson does not focus as much on languages in translation, as on the role of language as a source of second hand knowledge. It is worth remembering how languages can shape or reinforce emotions or memories. The role of language within logical fallacies is also very important (see pages on memory, emotion and reason).
What gets 'lost in translation' from one language to another ?
This lesson focuses on languages in translation. It emphasises how speakers of different languages know differently when speaking (and thinking) in their language. As bilingual students are often able to draw from their own experiences for real life examples, this lesson is an ideal topic for assessed student presentations. Research in the field of cognitive science may support knowledge claims in this area.
The art of language invention
The language of Dothraki (Game of Thrones) is now going to be taught at a US university. Linguist David Peterson, will teach the language he created for the famous series as well as the art of language invention as such. Although languages normally develop organically over time, several artificial languages have been created throughout human history, with Esperanto perhaps being the most famous of them all. The creation of new languages, as well as the dying out living languages, give rise to some very interesting questions about what we need or want from a language. What do we want to express and how? What can or can't be translated? What happens if life moves on but a language doesn't? When you study a dead language such as Latin, you will be able to translate what is written on paper, but do you really get what it means? After all, your life is so much different from the Romans'. Likewise, in Latin you won't be able to fully express feelings and concepts that are from the modern world without being creative and adapting the dead language. How would you say "I updated my homepage", in Latin, for example? Language and thought are interconnected, which is why language is such an interesting way of knowing to analyse. In the interview below, Peterson discusses some of the challenges he faced in his language creation. Apart from the practical issues such as linguistic consistency and phonological representation, artificial language creators have to overcome the bias towards their own language(s) and discourse to imaginatively conceive what other people(s) may want to express and how.
Peterson (Dothraki etc) and Farmer (Belter conlang for "The expanse") on language invention:
Jennifer Kemp's excellent lunchtime lecture on metaphors
Jennifer Kemp's lunchtime lecture on metaphors highlights the close connection between language and thought. It contains a wealth of real life examples which can be used to illustrate presentations and essays. Bilingual students could also investigate how speakers of different languages often use different figurative expressions. This may have implications on how the language we speak shapes the way we think and vice versa.
Documentaries, prezis, articles and TED talks on language.
On what basis do we define a language?
What can languages tell us about culture or even human nature?
Which methodologies do linguists use to reveal the past?
Watch this brilliant 4 minute TED ED talk to explore answers to these questions.
Language as a window into human nature
When discussing languages in translation, we have seen that language and thought are connected. This RSA animated video explores further how language can be considered a window into human nature. This concept can raise interesting questions regarding the role of language as a tool to map and gather knowledge.
Language, imagination, politics, literature and thought: 1984
In Theory of Knowledge, language can be discussed within two main contexts. Firstly, language is a way of knowing, a tool we use to gather knowledge. Secondly, language can be studied in 'The Arts', an area of knowledge. The brilliant book, 1984, by George Orwell combines these two aspects of language in TOK terms. 1984 is a dystopian novel which imaginatively explores the possibilities of a totalitarian society in which free choice and individual thought are controlled by the state ['big brother is watching you']. The novel explicitly discusses the power of language as a tool to gather, limit or control knowledge. The following quote from the novel illustrates this point:
“Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there's no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won't be any need even for that. . . . Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”
George Orwell, 1984.
George Orwell, 1984.
The legacy of Shakespeare's language and metaphors (2 mins)
As discussed before, languages develop organically over time. Because a language is normally spoken by a group of people, there are shared conventions between speakers of the same language. You can be creative with language, but for people to understand what you say , you have to follow certain rules. You can invent a new word, but that is only useful if others accept and understand this new word. Then again, historically, there are many examples of where individuals have driven the historical development of languages. This can be when people coin new terms or invent new things. When these new phrases become commonly accepted and used, individuals have changed our shared languages somewhat. Sometimes, new figures of speech can be created as well. Shakespeare left a legacy of metaphors behind, some of which still form part of common discourse today.
Sense perception, language and memory
The lessons on language as a way of knowing (see above) illustrate how language influences sense perception and vice versa. Boroditsky shows in her article 'Lost in Translation' that Russian people tend to distinguish the shades of blue better because they have an extra word for light blue. Conversely, Davis suggests that the Barasana people tend not to distinguish blue from green. Loftus has proved through psychological research that our memory of sense perception is affected by language (see section memory) and the article on the link below illustrates how our memories literally colour what we see.
'Take, for example, this child of a Barasana in the Northwest Amazon, the people of the anaconda who believe that mythologically they came up the milk river from the east in the belly of sacred snakes. Now, this is a people who cognitively do not distinguish the color blue from the color green because the canopy of the heavens is equated to the canopy of the forest upon which the people depend.'
(Wade Davis, TED)