What is the importance of vocabulary on human knowledge?

How would you evaluate the claim that “Vocabulary not only communicates knowledge, but actually shapes what we can know” ?
Many languages have prospered and all are actively evolving. Any examples of vocabulary that somehow affects knowledge itself??

Every definition is a theory about the world, albeit in most cases a simple one.

By that I mean that when we define something, we’re creating a framework for making predictions about the world around us. Consider two words:

Table: A piece of furniture with four legs and a flat top.

Antique: A piece of furniture of unusually great age.

If you ask me “What’s in the dining room?” I could answer “a table” or “an antique”. Because these words exist, I can use them to make a claim about the properties of the dining room, a falsifiable prediction.

But note that a word, like any theory, doesn’t capture the totality of reality. It encompasses particular features and ignores others. We don’t have a word for “a piece of furniture colored purple with brass nails”, for example. This constrains the sorts of ways that I can answer your question about the nature of the dining room.

And, in fact, there might be potential categories of knowledge that I don’t even realize that I lack words to express. For example, the object in the dining room might be radioactive. Not only do we not have a word for “a piece of furniture that is radioactive”, two hundred years ago we wouldn’t even have known that “being radioactive” was a property for an object to have. Whether the antique table is radioactive or not is not dependent upon language. But our capacity to KNOW that the table is a table, and is an antique, and is radioactive, is.

Note that **The Hamster King **has no problem communicating the concept “a piece of furniture colored purple with brass nails” even though English does not have a word for it.

Partly I wanted to come into this thread to bring up the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but mostly I wanted to mention the **strong **Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that because the Eskimos had a lot of words for snow, they decided to move North.

I forgot which philosopher said it but I paraphrase it as, “you can’t disentangle words from knowledge.” Apparently, some philosophers have tried to create an ultra-precise non-ambiguous meta-terminology to describe both knowledge and the words associated to that knowledge but Ludwig Wittgenstein showed that this was impossible to do.

In many ways, this self-referencing limitation is similar to Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem for formalizing mathematics.

We have a word “negative” for numbers less than zero. We also have a word “galaxy” or phrases such as “galaxy clusters”. The ancient Greeks didn’t have these concepts, therefore they had no need for particular words to map to them. Are these the types of examples you’re talking about?

But I would certainly have trouble communicating the concept “a piece of furniture that is radioactive” if I didn’t know that radioactivity existed.

I read an article a while ago (there’s a good chance that it’s this one) arguing that language doesn’t determine what we are capable of thinking about, but it determines what we are required to think about. For example, in languages with gendered nouns, the speakers are required to see each object in the light of being either masculine or feminine. It’s an interesting read.

Regarding the OP: a surprising amount of theoretical work in, say, mathematics is dedicated to finding the right language (symbolic or otherwise) to describe the phenomena of interest. In this sense, I think language definitely affects knowledge.

I do believe in a modified version of the sapir whorf hypothesis. I think that language organizes our thinking structure.

This is a good topic. Wish there were more like it.

Piraha Language

Thank you for the compelling article. It brings up a lot of interesting points regarding how certain languages somehow oblige us to focus on certain details of ourselves, our actions, and the objects around us. This could practically affect our habits and tastes. But perhaps it could also affect how information is processed and communicated.

Dr. Love, could you elaborate about finding a language to describe mathematical phenomenon. I don’t quite understand your distinction between symbolic language and other kinds.

But that doesn’t have anything to do with the words. The word is a signifier. it does not, and cannot, reveal anything about the signified. You have to learn that for yourself. What language does do is provide a guide for learning things. if a word exists, then the concept does as well. But people add concepts, and words, all the time - as they are needed for expression.

I have a huge problem with the Sapir-Worf hypthesis. Specifically, it’s incredibly stupid, excect in the weakest form. It’s patently obvious that language is an aspect of culture. Language does not define our thinking, it is learned alongside thinking: it does get trasmitted along with cultural notions of value. People do not simply make language randomly in as much as we can tell: they create words deliberately drawing upon cultural knowledge, and imbue them with the meaning they choose.

Answer: Not much. We are so used to our own language, we fail to notice that many basic words in it are (or were) really “work-arounds”, or semantic extensions or contractions from previous meanings, etc, etc. Take an English word as basic as “understand”. What are you standing under? There’s an answer (sort of), but it’s shrouded in the mists of time, and you don’t need to think about this when you hear the word “understand”.

Individual words take up semantic space, as needed, in any language. It’s sort of analogous to “crown shyness” – how taller trees in many types of forest will spread their canopy so that its edges touch the next tree’s canopy just enough to give more or less complete coverage to the canopy as a whole.

That said, it is true (as a previous poster mentioned) that each language also has its own “encrustations” (as John McWhorter likes to put it), its extra “bells and whistles”, including obligatory-in-that-language but fundamentally unnecessary things like, say, noun gender in one language, or definite/indefinite articles in another. But this is not what this thread is about.

Sigh. What kind of vocabulary? There was an argument made in the 60s that Black children couldn’t think logically or form complete thoughts. Why? It was because of how they spoke.But there’s nothing wrong with black (AAVE, if you would, but I find that so…odd) English. It’s a dialect. Another way of using words to express a meaning.

However, this isn’t to say that the way in which we** frame **things has no bearing on our thought process. I would also argue that lack of vocabulary in some things prohibits the understanding of others. If you have no vocabulary for the term ‘gravity’, you can’t possibly understand planetary science - even the basic kindergarten parts. If you acquire a word for the term, then sure. Learn away.

But i reject the idea that Chinese kids are better at math than Americans because of their inherent genetic brain smarts. I vote that language (and as a result of language, that culture) has something to do with it.

Not all languages affect brain development the same. A child using a sign language is going to activate much of the same region that Chinese children do when reading characters. This is not the same for oral English-speaking children.

Like I said, a very modified S-W hypothesis is what I believe in. Basically, relative linguistics.

knowledge yes, i’m pretty sure. but skill no. proof: the guiness estimated that william shakespeare had a 35,000-word vocabulary while the average college-trained english-speaking person has at least 55,000 words (includes all scientific terms and foreign words.)

I don’t know the answer, but let me respond anyway. :smiley:

For me, the interesting question is not about relatively complicated vocabulary, but about more basic grammatical forms. Do languages lacking in tense or number inhibit certain types of cognition?

I think it is difficult to answer even such a simple-seeming question. Linguists’ own bias may give them a false sense of a language. For example, Daniel Everett was a key researcher of the Pirahã language mentioned above, and presented a phrase “two big red barrels” as an example in his early paper, but later recanted:

‘Wrath’ was a term without a meaning until Othello.

I’d say that it’s definitely, mostly, the opposite way round. What we know shapes our vocabulary. If we discover a new thing, we give it a name, we utilise language to suit our knowledge. But it’s a process that moves back and forth. The word ‘radioactive’ does not convey any inherent meaning. Even if you understand the morphology, radio + active can mean any number of things. So you need to understand the definition before you can use the word effectively. However, the definition is based upon a number of other words + concepts, so yes having a suitable vocabulary is necessary, and does temporarily shape what you know. But it always come back to knowledge first (you need to understand the definitions of the constituent parts of the definition of ‘radioactive’ to understand the hypernym), it rarely starts with words. Look at how children learn what animals are. Very often they’ll begin by identifying with the sounds they make. ‘Moo’ signifies cow, and this is very often figured out unprompted (the word has inherent properties that connote cow - because the animal itself makes the sound. ‘Cow’ does not). I have a nephew who, after seeing Lion’s roar on television, now always refers to them in picture books as making that sound. The word ‘lion’ came later. So, it’s clear to me that we understand what things are, before we have the words that refer to them.

We change language and expand upon it to suit our needs, language change rarely (I can’t think of any examples, but I’m sure there must be) precedes new understanding.


Could you consider that these “bells and whistles” that are distinct to each language, may in fact oblige the speaker to focus on a specific details of the events they describe, and cognitively affect how these objects are perceived? Or that the limits of a language’s vocabulary make expressing certain ideas less convenient and is, as a result, an obstacle for general human knowledge?

Vocabulary is not necessarily most important for verbal communication, but also for construction of thoughts. There must be some connection between the vocabulary one has access to, and the complexity of thoughts that one is more likely to develop.

On the other hand, languages change based on the vocabulary that the speaking population requires. Could it be just a reflection of the already-present practical necessities of the population? Again the issue of vocabulary for verbal communication vs. thinking must be considered, because these 2 demands are very different…

You have already receieved a Mod note regarding “bumping” threads for no good reason. Bumping a thread that is still on the first page of the forum and to which someone posted on the same morning as your “bump” qualifies as bumping without a good reason.

I get the feeling that you are not really paying attention to how this board works, so I am issuing you a Warning for failing to follow Moderator instructions.

Start paying attention or you are liable to lose your posting privileges.
(And if you use the Repoirt function to take a jab at the Moderators regarding this Warning, you will probably lose your posting privileges a lot sooner.)

[ /Moderating ]

There’s two things that vocabulary tell me about a person:

  1. If you use various words correctly, you have a wide knowledge of definition, and most likely are a well read person.

  2. If you use slang correctly, you’re aware of your current, hip surroundings.

Learning new words by their REAL and SLANG definitions and using them tells me you’re knowledgable in many ways. Especially if you can create some good puns on the spot. :smiley:

Example: When the whole “actually” thing was going around recently, like, “Actually, I actually, don’t really know how to actually get there…” tells me you don’t know what actually means. I’d have more respect if you said something like, “Frankly, I don’t know the best route without a map or a GPS.”

Vocabulary will necessarily fill in the gaps that knowledge needs. But knowledge, now having the vocabulary, can now grow even more.

It is the communicative property of words that expands knowledge. People can and do think without having language, but they can’t share what they think with someone else, and we don’t get the benefits of previous knowledge.

Specific words are irrelevant–all that matters is that a word or group of words exists to explain the concept to someone else.