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  • If you can hear what I'm saying right now and understand me, you can probably speak

  • English.

  • It's also very likely that you think in English as well, right?

  • For example, you might be saying to yourself, "when is this guy going to get to the point?”

  • But, if I took all of those words out of the English language, would you still be able

  • to think that thought?

  • After all, you probably think to yourself in language all of the time.

  • If you know less words, can you think less thoughts?

  • More importantly, can you think complex thoughts?

  • George Orwell explores this theme in his classic

  • novel "1984".

  • Winston Smith - the protagonist - lives in the superstate of Oceania, in the province

  • Airstrip One, in the city of London.

  • The state is governed by a totalitarian party led by a figure known as Big Brother.

  • The Party seeks complete and total control over the entire state and its citizens.

  • They use tactics typical of totalitarian governments such as constant surveillance, strict disapproval

  • of independent thought, and controlling access to information.

  • But, I want to focus on one tactic in particular.

  • The Party has invented a new language called

  • "Newspeak" which is meant to replace "Oldspeak".

  • Oldspeak is the English we all currently use.

  • Newspeak is a heavily modified version of English with a much smaller vocabulary.

  • Over several decades, the Party hopes to pare down the language to take out any words that

  • don't serve their ideological mission.

  • Borrowing a direct example from Orwell, words like warm would not exist.

  • Instead, it would be referred to as "uncold".

  • The root word "cold" would still exist.

  • "Pluscold" would mean very cold, and "doubleplus-cold" would be very very cold.

  • In essence, one could revolve any discussion about temperature around one word: cold.

  • In Orwell's own words,

  • "Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought."

  • The Party believed that by limiting the language available to the citizens, they could limit

  • their ability to think.

  • More importantly, they believed that they could limit a persons ability to think thoughts

  • that were in opposition to the Party's ideology: concepts like political or intellectual freedom

  • would be non-existent.

  • But, does this hypothesis hold any weight?

  • Could a totalitarian government actually limit our ability to think of the concept of freedom

  • by removing the word from our collective vocabulary?

  • According to the theory of linguistic determinism,

  • the answer would be yes.

  • Linguistic determinism is one-half of a greater theory referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

  • The other half is linguistic relativity which we may touch on in a separate video.

  • Edward Sapir wrote that

  • "Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social

  • activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language

  • which has become the medium of expression for their society. "

  • He also wrote that

  • "The world in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world

  • with different labels attached. "

  • Sapir believed that language did, indeed, have an effect on our thinking.

  • Benjamin Lee Whorf - Sapir's student - developed

  • this line of reasoning further.

  • He claimed that upon studying the Hopi language, he found that they had no words that referred

  • to time.

  • This discovery led Whorf to believe that, because they did not have any way to refer

  • to it, Hopi speakers experienced time differently.

  • In this Hopi view, "time disappears and space is altered, so that it is no longer the homogenous

  • and instantaneous timeless space of our supposed intuitions or of classical Newtonian mechanics.

  • At the same time, new concepts and abstractions flow into the picture, taking up the task

  • of describing the universe without reference to such time or space - abstractions for which

  • our language lacks adequate terms. "

  • In English, our verbs contain tenses that explain the time during which an action occurred.

  • For example, if I said that it snowed, you know that I'm referring to the past.

  • If I say that it is snowing, then you know that it's happening in the present.

  • In English, we divide time and split it up into past, present, future, minutes, hours,

  • days, weeks and experience it as such.

  • Is it true?

  • Do the Hopi experience time in a fundamentally different way than we do because they lack

  • the words for dividing it?

  • Well, no.

  • It turns out that Whorf's analysis of the Hopi language simply turned out to be inadequate

  • and that they do in fact have ways of referring to time.

  • So, they don't actually experience time any differently than we do.

  • But, the theory is not dead yet.

  • The Dani people of New Guinea have only two

  • words for describing color: "mili" and "mola".

  • "Mili" is representative of cold or dark colors and "mola" represents warm or light colors.

  • If linguistic determinism holds true, then it's reasonable to think that the Dani people

  • will not be able to make detailed distinctions between colors like we do.

  • They should only be able to distinguish them as dark or light, right?

  • Well, the studies show that the Dani people can make distinctions between different colors

  • just fine, despite not having terms for them.

  • So, what's going on here?

  • If they can make distinctions between these colors just fine, why do they not have different

  • words for them?

  • It seems that there is a complex and interdependent

  • relationship between language, thought, and culture.

  • Let me put forth a simplified thought experiment that may help clarify our dilemma.

  • Consider two hypothetical cultures: Culture A and Culture B. Culture A's flag is made

  • up of various shades of green and they live in a forest.

  • Culture B's flag is made up of various shades of blue and they live near the ocean.

  • Now, let's say that I show both cultures a lighter green and a darker green.

  • Culture A is far more likely to make a distinction between the two colours because they value

  • making that distinction.

  • Since they live in a forest, they see a lot of green and value making a distinction between

  • lighter shades and darker shades in their language.

  • They need to make that distinction to communicate with one another.

  • On the other hand, when Culture B is asked what colors they see, they may just refer

  • to them in the singular: green.

  • They don't value making that distinction because they don't need to.

  • So, to the extent that we see different languages lacking words for things it's more likely

  • a reflection of their culture; they don't necessarily see the world differently, but

  • they value different things.

  • So, what does all of this mean in the context of "1984"?

  • Would Newspeak be effective in limiting thought?

  • The complex relationship between language,

  • thought, and culture is not fully understood: scientists are still doing lots of hard work

  • to figure it out.

  • But, the language of Newspeak is a reflection of linguistic determinism or the strong version

  • of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

  • As we have seen, this theory seems very unlikely.

  • Just because a language may lack words for time or colours it doesn't mean its speakers

  • can't experience that phenomenon or create a new word for it.

  • In his book "The Language Instinct", psychologist, linguist, and author Steven Pinker puts forth

  • an interesting concept: he believes that all humans have an innate "language of thought"

  • or "mentalese".

  • He states that,

  • "knowing a language, then is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words,

  • and vice versa. "

  • According to this theory, you and I are not thinking in English.

  • Rather, we are thinking in the language of thought and translating that into our respective languages so that

  • we can communicate with others.

  • So, if a totalitarian government came to power and started cutting out words like "freedom"

  • and "democracy", would we lose our ability to think about those concepts?

  • It's unlikely.

  • To the extent that me or you could still feel oppression, we would be able to think about

  • oppression in our language of thought.

  • Thus, a new word would likely emerge so that we could communicate this abstract thought

  • that we are both thinking and feeling; thought comes first and language comes after.

  • When you look at language from this perspective, I think there's something beautiful about

  • all of them.

  • In some sense, we can look at one language and see a reflection of the values and thoughts

  • that people in that culture share and based on the words

  • that they have chosen to create.

If you can hear what I'm saying right now and understand me, you can probably speak

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Can You Think Complex Thoughts Without Language? | 1984 - George Orwell

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    Samuel posted on 2018/05/27
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