How Language Affects our Thoughts

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Year of the Flood talks about God being a result of evolution and language. Once humans conceive of a past, they are stuck in an infinite loop of wondering about what happened before. God becomes the answer, the unknown past, revealed and demystified or at least mystified in an understandable way. The known past, of course, is history. This idea is a direct result of our language which causes us to see the world’s events in a series of inter-related vignettes.

If we envision the present as the end of a string of events that presupposes a beginning of the string: a creator of the world. Thus, the way we have used language to build our world creates the need for gods. Yet this worldview can limit us, as we can only express concepts for which we have words. Going further, we can perhaps only conceive of concepts for which we have the words. If this is true, we must invent a new vocabulary or we will inevitably stagnate as a society. This conversation is already happening, particularly as the LGBTQ movement gains traction, and runs up against the limitations of our current language.

Language, at its most basic, developed so humans could share ideas. This started out very basic with ideas like “Duck!,” “Run!,” or “Let’s eat that,” but eventually civilization developed and humans clawed their way to the top of the food chain. At this point, the human brain appears to have changed as the left and right sides learned to talk to each other. This lead to the emergence of artists, philosophers, and proto-scientists. This is, of course, a vast oversimplification and I’m sure the linguists among you can go on about Indo-European and the creation of different languages because of isolation as people spread out from Africa, but for our purposes, this will do.

In the past, people starting talking to each other and then they started thinking. The problem is that the language we now want to use to address complex issues like higher powers and the difference between sex and gender was basically created to tell each other to run away from predators before we were eaten.  Is it any wonder that the LGBTQ community had to become LGBTQ to define itself? The human mind has a vast capacity for grasping new ideas and concepts, but can only shape them using the available language.

In history to conceive of the past, we first had to have a word for it. To explain the unknown past we created God. As we enter a more scientific era perhaps it is time to create words not for the unknown but for the inconceivable because they are not the same thing. We cannot conceive of the Divine because we lack the language to do so. On a more mundane level, we cannot conceive of LGBTQ, Feminist or Black equality because our language is still missing the correct terms. If you’re not sure what to call someone how can you consistently see them as a person?

Please note, that I am simply pointing out the importance of language to our cognitive ability. I am not making a religious or political statement.


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