Language as a Way of Knowing

1.   Read pages 32-49 in the Green TOK Course Companion.

2.   Choose 1 quote from the list above and comment on it with your own personal thoughts and real-life examples.

“The world is half his that speaks, and half his that hears it” – Michel de Montaigne

We can talk all we want. If there is no one around to hear it, it makes no difference as to what we say. Hearing is just as important as talking when it comes to language. Both sides of language are incredibly important and cannot exist without the other, hand in hand. It’s similar to the tree-in-the-forest scenario; if someone talks but no one listens around them, does it really matter what they said?

3.   Choose 1 linking question. Comment on it with your own personal thoughts and real-life examples from the world or your experiences. Find a related article or video that would support your answer, and describe how it does. You can research your own or use the handy Diigo list of almost 100 sources to help.

How is mathematics like a language?

In mathematics, half of the numbers we use are letters. For example, both pi and e refer to different irrational numbers. Mathematicians need to convey a message through their numbers to attempt to solve questions of the world. For example, Einstein’s equation E=mc^2 solves the relationship between energy and mass, trying to describe with words the most famous mathematical ideas of the universe.

4.   Choose 6 of the 20 proposed blog questions and answer them thoughtfully, providing examples as you go. Relate it to your own experience. Try to find other articles, tweets, images or videos that would support your answer and post along with it.

I realized after answering 13 of those questions that that was not the real assignment so here are an extra seven answered questions. Hurray.

  • How much could you know about the world if you had no language or means of communicating with other people?

Language is for labeling things to be able to describe them to someone else. For example, poets describe their love or chefs ask for certain cooking utensils. Without being able to describe things, and not even knowing how, the language-less person would be utterly lost in our world of words.

  • What are some examples of words that have entered the English language as a result of the computer revolution?


The word “LOL” has made its way into Merriam Webster, one of the most famous reference books. Although aided by the use of computers, this word got its foot in the door through texting.

After typing that last word, “texting,” I realized that it is underlined in red. Uh-oh. So I Googled the word to see if it had a definition. Non surprisingly, it does.


Our use of computers and cell phones are evolving our language to create new words. Above are just two examples of words created through technology.

  • Try to define as precisely as possible the following words. What is the difference? Which was easiest to define?

Triangle – a closed, flat, three-sided figure with three interior angles that add up to 180 degrees.

Love – an intense and deep feeling of affection.

Table – a flat  piece of furniture with one or more legs that create a surface to place things on.

The hardest of the words to describe was “love.” What it feels like varies from person to person and is, therefore, incredibly difficult to label and explain in a sentence. An emotion is not a tangible object with a set shape which causes it to be difficult to give a definition to. On the other hand, both “triangle” and “table” have certain characteristics that can be described and can effectively convey their meaning or purpose.

  • How would you try to explain to a blind person what the word “red” means? What does this suggest to you about the limitations of definitions?

The only effective way to describe the idea of red is to compare it to something else red. Unfortunately, a blind person would not have seen the object you are comparing it to. For example, one might say, “red is the color of blood.” This blind person has never seen blood, though! A big limitation to definitions is that we cannot effectively portray non-tangible objects in an effective way if the person has never seen the idea or felt the emotion.

  • To what extent is your use of languages accompanied by images? Does every word conjure up an image or only some of them?

This questions, personally, determines on which language I’m speaking. In English, my primary language, I attempt to paint nearly everything I hear into a picture in my mind. When someone is telling me a story or asking to do something, I imagine exactly what they are saying in images.

On the other hand, when I’m speaking Spanish or German (trying), the words are not as concrete in my head. I equate these words to their equivalent in English and do not have time to paint myself a picture because I am trying to keep up with what everyone is saying. In the future, when I have better learned these languages, I may begin to associate images with them.

  • Do you think a robot (or Siri) could use and respond appropriately to language? What differences would it make in real life if that were the case?

Some robots are already responding incredibly well to language. It’s true they still have their glitches, but for what it’s worth, they’re doing a great job. Once all of these kinks are worked out, though, I think our world is going to change drastically. Many people with retract from the outside world and delve even deeper into the technological world with their robotic talking companion.

  • Do you think communication would be improved if we got rid of vague words? Do you think vague or ambiguous words sometimes serve a purpose?

Vague words are necessary for people to convey messages. For example, most of our adjectives or emotions are vague. “Happiness” can mean so many things. By saying this word, we do not understand the cause of the happiness, the degree of the happiness, or its implications. If we got rid of these vague or ambiguous words, we would need to completely remake our language system – unless we went for a 1984 approach? That would be double-plus bad.

Speaking of 1984, many authors use a combination of ambiguous and incredibly descriptive words in their writing. They effectively portray an image when they want to or allow for some creative freedom among its readers by using less specific words.

  • Many jokes are based on ambiguity… can you give an example?

Police were called to a daycare where a three year old was resisting a(r)rest.

  • When Bill Clinton entered the White House in ’93, his wife Hillary wanted to be known as “Presidential Partner,” not “First Lady”. What is the difference in connotations? If a woman ever would become president of the USA, what do you think would be an appropriate title for her husband?

As shown by Hillary when she ran in the Presidential Election, she clearly has (or believes she has) ideas worth sharing. By being labeled as “First Lady,” it implies that she is just there as arm candy to the President and serves no political purpose. With the title of “Presidential Partner,” it is implying that she will still have power in all, if not most, Presidential decisions.

If a woman were to become the president of the US, the “correct” thing to do would be to label him as “First Man”. Unfortunately, “gentleman” is most closely related to “lady”. Too bad that sounds weird! I think that we should create a new, gender-ambiguous name. “Presidential Spouse” maybe?

  • Birds fly and planes fly. Since fish swim, why don’t we say that submarines also swim? What do submarines do?

Submarines just go. Because there are so few ways of remaining in the air for extended periods of time, everything that can simply flies. In the water, because creatures have been “swimming” for much longer than anything has been flying, there are many different ways to move through the water. A possible reason for why submarines don’t “swim” is that everything that does swim moves something back and forth. For example, fish move their tail fins to the right and then to left and so on while people kick their legs up and down, etc. Submarines, on the other hand, have a spinning motor which is something unnatural to the underwater world. The only acception to my theory is that humans spin their arms in circles when doing free-style.

  • What would be the advantages and disadvantages of everyone in the world speaking a common language? What would be gained and what would be lost?

Everyone, obviously, would be able to communicate more effectively with everyone else. This is a huge positive. I think it would also create a more united world because there are no different languages to brand us as different. But, if everyone spoke the same language, the thrill of going to a foreign country would not be as great. Part of the fun of going to Thailand, for example, is that you have to piece together information like an adventure. Of course not everyone has the same mentality as me and would just end up yelling at foreigners until they magically understand English, but I believe that building up one’s knowledge of different languages is a fascinating thing to do. After learning different languages, you can also begin to piece together separate words or expressions (especially from different Latin-based languages). For example, my mom is a language major and can speak English, Spanish, German, and French very near to fluently. I think her interest in languages has passed down to me and if the world spoke one language, this interest would be gone.

  • What can or have you learned about your own language by studying a second language? Can you provide examples from your second language which have no English equivalent? What about idioms (expressions)?

Learning knew words in Spanish, especially when cognates, can increase my English diction as well. For example, I previously did not know the meaning of “clandestine”. When reading it in one my books, “clandestino”, I learned the meaning of the word in both languages.

The word “empalagoso” in Spanish does not have a direct, one word translation. The closest meaning that people have been able to describe is “sickeningly sweet.” In English, and I have said it many times throughout my life, we just say something is “too sweet” which is very ambiguous to how sweet the food really is.

One example of a Spanish expression that we do not have in English is “a otro perro con ese hueso.” This directly translates to “[give] this bone to another dog”. One would use it when they do not believe what someone is telling them or thinks they are lying. It means that they are calling you a liar if they tell you this expression after you, for example, give them an excuse.

  • What kind of texts do you think are easy to translate from one language to another and what kinds are more difficult? Can you provide an example from your sturdy of L’Etranger by Camus?

I think that shallower, non-philosophical texts are much easier to translate into other languages. But, even though The Stranger was all about absurdism and society, the translator still managed to translate the text incredibly well. This could be because English and French are both Latin-based causing some similarities between structure. On the other hand, Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is not translated as well. This book is originally in Japanese and so the translation is very choppy at parts. A possible explanation could be because English and Japanese are much more different than English and French. Unfortunately, I do not speak french so I could not read L’Etranger. 

5.   Comment with your own personal thoughts or questions on the four videos found on this blog post.

The Kinetic Typography video focuses what happens to be one of my pet peeves. When people use simple words incorrectly, it bothers me. I’m not the kind of person that points it out constantly, but listen misuses irk me. For example, when people say “good” instead of “well”, I wonder how much harder it would have been to just use “well” instead. Every time I hear the two words misused, the rest of the sentence sounds incredibly choppy even if that was their only mistake.

Next, in Stephen Fry’s Interview video, he discusses the ongoing extinction of languages. Apparently, the amount of languages spoken in the world is decreasing by at least 100 languages per year. His estimated figure was the by 2050, we would have about 1000 languages left. Personally, I am not as enthusiastic about languages as Stephen Fry. This number does not invoke any kind of dread in me for our “lack of languages”. If the world still has 1000 languages, I don’t see the problem. Once this gets down to below 10, I may begin to worry.

In his third video, Stephen Fry Discussing Swear Words, he acknowledges the flaw in our society’s “bad words”. To an outsider, our worst words are those which have to do with basic human functions like the F-word or the S-word. I don’t know how our world, or the United States at least, got to be this way, but it doesn’t make any sense to both Stephen Fry and me. As I learned from a fellow MUN-er during our stay in Anchorage, Alaska, “idiot” is one of the worst things you can call someone in her home country of Cameroon. Here, we toss around “idiot” like it means nothing and it is just laughed off as a common name.

Lastly, in the TED talk named The Birth of a Word – from Gaga to Water, Deb Roy discusses how his baby son evolved “gaga” into “water”. During the sound clip that he played, we hear the change in sound of this word. To me, it sounded like his son figured out where to emphasize the word correctly to produce the word “water” before he was able to shape his mouth and work his tongue in the correct way to say the word. After he got the timing, the change was incredibly fast. “Gaga” nearly-instantly became the real word: “water”. Humans capability to learn a language so quickly in their youngest years is incredible and I will never completely understand this wonderful phenomenon.

6.   In a partnership or by yourself, choose one of the articles on the Diigo list of language-based articles. Create a maximum of 3-4 slide power point to present to the class using Google Slideshow.

Katie F, Zoe, and I created a short slideshow about words that don’t exist in English. To view our slideshow, click this link.


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