In linguistics, there is a phenomenon called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that “the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition.”
Grammar, rules, tenses, depth, available words and combinations — the hypothesis argues these things either influence our thinking or determine it entirely.
If there’s only a hint of truth to this idea, then you should be racing to the bookstore right now. The question is: is there?
Bearing that in mind, I’d like you to meet my friend: Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Together, we’ve come up with a theory to answer this question — sort of. Our idea is this:
A better grip on language does not change how you think. It changes what you think about and who you’ll be because of it.
Bear with us.
Part I: Words don’t change the way you experience the world
In his second of only two books, published posthumously, Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein makes the case that language in and of itself is useless.
All of its meaning is tied to the role we assign to it in the public domain.
An example: I’m the only person in the world to use the word Squibblenaddler.
What I define a Squibblenaddler to be is irrelevant, because I can’t talk to anyone about it.
However, just by hearing the word, you’re already imagining what a Squibblenaddler might be in your mind — you’ve come up with your own definition for it, no matter what I tell you it actually is.
Suddenly, we’re here talking about Squibblenaddlers, because even while we both see them differently, the idea is now out there.
Therefore, what’s behind a word doesn’t matter — only how we use it in communication.
Wittgenstein uses the idea of a beetle in a box to explain this.
Imagine every person on earth had a little box with something they call ‘a beetle’ inside it — anything, really. It could be a mini car, a pile of dog poop, sand, fresh air, an actual beetle or nothing at all.
As long as everyone is only allowed to look into their own box, it doesn’t matter what’s in there. We can all talk about beetles nonetheless. Your beetle, my beetle, his beetle, her beetle. We all know what it means: the thing in the box.
If you apply this idea to the words we use to describe our own experiences, you’ll see why more of them won’t make you think differently about what happens.
Pain, pleasure, anxiety, joy, happiness, melancholy, nostalgia, we all measure these things differently.
For example, if you put your hand on a hot stove plate, the heat stimulus applied to your hand is of a fixed, physical nature, depending on your skin’s condition, degrees, etc.
If you do it twice in a row, your emotional experience and physical reaction stay the exact same, no matter whether you label it with “Ouch!” or as “excruciatingly painful.”
Words don’t change how you think about the world, they just allow you to communicate them with the rest of us.
Part II: Words change the range of things you can think about
In his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein shared a quite different, but equally important idea:
Words allow us to store pictures of facts in our minds.
That’s why, even though it won’t change that each of us thinks differently about them, having words for complex feelings, like angst, schadenfreude or ambivalent is useful.
More words = more pictures you can store.
For example, when you turn the stove incident from above into a memory, it’ll be stored in your neocortex, spread across various sections, which makes it easier to recall.
You now even have a new phrase to describe the whole thing: the stove incident.
All you have to do is think or say it and your brain will piece the whole picture back together in an instant. Just like you can now forever use the word Squibblenaddler to remember this story.
Why Keeping Old Photos Is Worth It
Let’s say you want to create a new kind of Hot Dog. In that case, having access to the words describing all existing ones is a huge advantage.
Like the Jersey breakfast dog:
Looking at the “pictures” of all variations out there allows you to make different connections someone with a smaller vocabulary could make.
How many pictures you have access to is a key component of creativity.
Just like having a label for nostalgia allows you to notice how often you feel nostalgic — no matter on what level — and find out if you’re a nostalgic person.
Words might not change your experiences in life, but they change how you store these experiences and what you look at to make sense of them.
It’s Not About Who You Are, But About Who You’ll Become
To that end, my buddy Ludwig and I believe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis must be conditional:
Learning new words won’t change who you are, but they just might determine who you become.
I believe that’s enough words for one day. How would Ludwig say?
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. — Ludwig Wittgenstein