The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know. Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge.

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7. ‘The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know’. Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge.

There are a number of knowledge issues implicit within this question. Firstly, it implies that it is what we can know that is shaped by language, not how we do know. The connotations are that, for example, if you don’t know computer-related vocabulary, you will not be able to know about computer-technology. An alternative example would be that the vocabulary we use limits our knowledge, so that, for example if your language had only the word ‘stubborn’ for the concept of determination, you would not understand that determination could also be viewed more positively. This view can be criticised as, if it were true, we would not be able to learn anything new. The idea that vocabulary shapes what we can know, then, may be seen as an erroneous idea. It is more likely to shape how we know, but not even how we can know as, by learning a different language for instance, I could easily change my vocabulary and thus expand the way I think and know. The word ‘shape’ is also involved with this specific knowledge issue as it connotes the idea of moulding and limiting knowledge to a specific form. Hence, this idea may also be fallacious since it implies that vocabulary influences what we can know, not how we know.

There are various areas of concern posed by language as a way of knowing. Firstly, language can be very vague. For instance, the word ‘wonderful’ is vague as it can be used to describe events from getting a new haircut to reaching the end of a war.  This depends on how much meaning one infuses into the word: either uttering it in a serious tone or a lighter one. Thus, the vagueness that sometimes plagues language means that it does not shape our knowledge as rigidly as the title would suggest: our perception may influence language in a significant way. 

Secondly, there is the problem of secondary meaning of vocabulary. A word may have one denotation, but a much larger range of connotations, influencing an individual’s interpretation of that word. The denotation of ‘clever’ may be ‘quick to understand’, but the connotations of the same word could range from ‘cunning’ to  ‘ingenious’. Therefore, the vast connotations of vocabulary imply it does not strictly shape how we know, as there are myriad ways of interpreting vocabulary. However, it is possible for the secondary meanings of language to shape how we know since individuals may associate different ideas together as they are contained in the same word. For example, the word ‘smart’ contains the ideas of intelligence or hygiene and style. This might influence how we know as we may connect both these ideas, creating a slight stereotype that intelligent people are also well dressed. Furthermore, there is also the issue of ambiguity within language, where the meaning of a sentence may be interpreted in multiple different ways. For example the sentence ‘the panda eats, shoot and leaves’ could be interpreted as describing the food the panda eats, or the panda’s actions. This ambiguity means that sometimes, although not in the case of the example, it can be difficult to know exactly what a sentence means, thus influencing our knowledge. Metaphor and irony are also problematic uses of languages, where language can affect meaning, where knowledge is not conveyed clearly and, thus, information is similarly opaque. Both problems of language convolute meaning: ironic language means the opposite of its literal meaning in the same way that metaphoric language means something different but related to the literal meaning. Both distortions of meaning imply that language shapes how we know, not what we know. Irony and metaphor can convey the same meaning as language that is not ironic or metaphoric, but they demonstrate the meaning in different ways, altering the way an individual perceives an issue. For example, in English we are studying the poem ‘Minority’ in which there is a metaphor describing his writing as a ‘scab’. Besides conveying the idea that he is writing, the metaphor suggests that his composition is a healing process to him. Consequently, language affects how we know.

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The statement in the title states a view similar to that of someone who would support the Sapir-Whorf theory, a hypothesis that the language we use influences the way we think and therefore how we know. The deterministic form of this hypothesis implies that our language determines and thus limits what we can know, whereas a more moderate Whorfianism implies that language influences the way we know, but not what we can know. For instance, it could be argued by a strong supporter of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that the metaphor ‘chair leg’ in English means that English-speakers will not understand that ...

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