The labels we use for things indicates what attributes of things we think are important. The lexicon of a language indicates and dictates the way native speakers perceive the world, since naming things requires that decisions be made regarding their relative importance.

The labels we use for things indicates what attributes of things we think are important.

As Gordon Allport pointed out: “Without words we should scarcely be able to form categories at all”.  Using an example from Quine, the fact that we have a word for a rabbit indicates that we do not perceive it only as a bunch of undetached rabbit parts, but conceive of it as a “thing in itself.”  Why exactly we select one aspect of reality to be a “something” and another as simply a “part of something” (or possibly nothing at all) is an aspect of a feedback loop which both determines and is determined by our worldview.

Contrasting various human languages shows our differing world views. “When Semitic, Chinese, Tibetan, or African languages are contrasted with our own, the divergence in analysis of the world becomes more apparent; and, when we bring in the native languages of the Americas, where speech communities for many millenniums have gone their ways independently of each other and of the Old World, the fact that languages dissect nature in many different ways becomes patent.  The relativity of all conceptual systems, ours included, and their dependence upon language stand revealed.” (Whorf) [Benjamin Lee, not the Klingon]


For example, French vocabulary is structured around social relationships (e.g., impersonal “vous” versus the personal “tu”), whereas English is not (e.g., there is only one word for “you”).   It is easy to see the connection between the vocabulary of the language and the culture, which focuses more on interpersonal relationships than English-speaking countries.

Putting a name or title on something makes it memorable. Even the simple act of putting a title on a passage can double the ability of subjects to recall a passage. The process of naming is an extremely powerful aspect of language.  When we name something, we differentiate its essence from things which are not-the-thing-named.  Thus, we are used to thinking of, for example, a knuckle as separable from the rest of the finger; the finger as separable from the rest of the hand, and the hand as separable from the rest of the body.  By naming it, we give the knuckle existence.  This process is called entification: to consider as, or cause to become, an entity.

However, we have names for things which are somewhat less concrete.  For example, where does your lap go when you stand up?  Can love exist independently of the lover and the object of that love?  These mistakes are examples of reification: to treat an abstraction as substantially existing, or as a concrete material object.  Mistakenly believing that, since there is a word for something, it must therefore exist is an example of the pathologies of language that Wittgenstein warned of. In the “real” (objective) world, does “forgiveness” exist or doesn’t it?  The question is a non-sequitur, and it cannot be answered reasonably.

Where does your lap go when you stand up?

Associated with this is the concept of natural categories.  Are there things in the world which naturally “go together,” or are all of our categories linguistically (or culturally) defined?  By grouping things which seem quite different (e.g., whales and bats) into a single group (i.e., mammals), are we learning something or defining something?  For example: “Dogs do not constitute an especially coherent or distinctive category, and were it not for the necessity of learning the correct use of the word dog, it is unlikely that the child would ever arrive at this particular equivalence class.” (Hoffman, Lau, Johnson)

Language works to organize the world into categories, which channels our thoughts. The linguistic relativity hypothesis proposes that the names that exist for things in a language will channel one’s thoughts in certain directions, splitting up the world in the manner that the language dictates.

Language works to organize the world into categories, which channels our thoughts.

The reason has to do with cognitive load; that is, how hard it is to say (or think) something. Thinking “against the grain” of your primary language will incur a higher cognitive load and so will be deterred naturally. And so, certain things will be harder to think about. But just because something is hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it! This works it’s way right back around to the nature of mysticism.