Last week I explained how we live in a dualistic universe in which for any “thing” or concept to exist, we must distinguish between it and a not-that-thing or concept. Our most important tool for making distinctions and creating our reality is language.

As Edward Sapir, a noted anthropologist, has said:

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 a particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. The fact of the matter is that their “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up in the language habits of the group. . . . We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

Language is far more than a tool for communication. The word “language” comes from logos, which means category or concept. With language we categorize, distinguish, and create the universe. Ultimately, we perceive the world according to our language. For example, when we think in English, we perceive a world made up primarily of objects: people, trees, and houses. These objects do things or have things done to them using verbs. We literally see everything in the world in this fashion. We don’t perceive “things out there” because there really are things out there. That just happens to be our worldview, because in our language there is a subject, which acts upon an object, which exists independently of the subject. In the English language, independent entities (subjects and objects) are primary, rather than processes or relationships. That’s not true in every language.

As Ralph Strauch points out in his book The Reality Illusion:

Some languages are structured around quite different basic word- categories and relationships. They project very different pictures of the basic nature of reality as a result. The language of the Nootka Indians in the Pacific Northwest, for example, has only one principle word-category; it denotes happenings or events. A verbal form like “eventing” might better describe this word-category, except that such a form doesn’t sound right in English, with its emphasis on noun forms. We might think of Nootka as composed entirely of verbs, except that they take no subjects or objects as English verbs do. The Nootka, then, perceive the world as a stream of transient events, rather than as the collection of more or less permanent objects which we see. Even something which we see clearly as a physical object, like a house, the Nootka perceive of as a long-lived temporal event. The literal English translation of the Nootka concept might be something like “housing occurs;” or “it houses.

In a discussion of this point, Nobel Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg said:

What we are observing is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. And how do we question? All of our methods of interrogating nature depend on language—and it is the very nature of language to refer to things. We therefore think in terms of things. How can we possibly think of nonthings, nothings, nothing? In our very forms of thought we instinctively divide the world into subjects and objects, thinkers and things, mind and matter. This division seems so natural that it has been presumed a basic maxim of objective science.

A dramatic (and sobering!) example of how language determines the distinctions we make can be found in the specific technical language that is used to describe nuclear weapons and arms control. Carol Cohn, a senior research fellow at the Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age, Cambridge, Massachusetts, spent a year as a visiting scholar at a defense studies center. She published some of her experiences in the Summer 1987 issue of SIGNS: The Journal of Women in Culture and Society, ©1987 by The University of Chicago Press, in an article titled “Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb.”  She wrote:

The better I became at this discourse [of arms control], the more difficult it became to express my own ideas and values. While the language included things I had never been able to speak about before, it radically excluded others. To pick a bald example, the word “peace” is not a part of this discourse. As close as one can come to it is “strategic stability’ a term that refers to a balance of numbers and types of weapons systems—not the political, social, economic, and psychological conditions that “peace” implies.

If I was unable to speak my concerns in this language, more disturbing still was that I also began to find it harder to keep them in my own head. No matter how firm my own commitment to staying aware of the bloody reality behind the words, over and over I found that I could not keep human lives as my reference point….

I was so involved in the military justifications for not using nuclear weapons—as though the moral ones were not enough. What I was actually talking about—the mass incineration of a nuclear attack—was no longer in my head.

As I learned to speak [this new language], I no longer stood outside the impenetrable wall of technostrategic language, and once inside, I could no longer see it. I had not only learned to speak a language: I had started to think in it. Its questions became my questions, its concepts shaped my responses to new ideas. (Emphasis added).

To reduce all this to the simplest possible statement: For us, reality is the way we experience it, which is rarely how it actually is.  And our experience of reality is largely a function of our beliefs about reality, how reality occurs for us, and the language we use to describe reality.

Do you have any comments on how our language determines how we perceive “reality”?

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