Theory of Knowledge on Vocabulary and Knowledge

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‘The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know’. Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge. ‘ Does our vocabulary truly affect or shape the way we think or know? We could interchange the use of the word vocabulary and language seeing as vocabulary is defined as ‘the words in a language’ by dictionary. com. The world contains a broad range of languages in which we use to communicate to each other, every one unique and beautiful in its own way. Yet does having different languages mean that we think differently, therefore shaping what we can in different ways?

We could say yes, that it does shape what we know. On the other hand, a number of people would argue that thought or ideas are self-sufficient of language. Vocabulary may truly shape what we can know, though only to a certain extent. Let us take the subject of English for example as an area of knowledge. Reading through Dante’s Inferno, one who might have been exposed to different reading materials, therefore an extensive array of words or vocabulary, will not find any complication in comprehending the epic poem compared to another person who might not have been exposed early on to reading.

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They would have entirely unlike thoughts on what happened and how it would have looked like, creating two wholly diverse ‘worlds’ of Dante’s Inferno. Most probably, the person who has limited vocabulary will therefore have limited understanding of the story though it does not mean that the lack of vocabulary means there is lack of knowledge. If there is limited vocabulary, one would not be able to explain or communicate thoroughly their ideas which in turn, would affect how the receiver of the information sees it. There would not be sufficient words to thoroughly explain what one thinks.

One cannot claim to know certain things unless able to talk or explain it using words, symbols or gestures they have recognized. The claim that vocabulary or language affects what we can know can be supported by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus(TLP). As what it is said above, the main thought in TLP is that when one’s vocabulary is limited, this would limit their thoughts and how they perceive things. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. ” (TLP, 5. 6), “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (TLP, 7) This supports the claim and states that the limitation of one’s vocabulary means the limitation of one’s world seeing as having limited vocabulary can hinder a person from truly expressing what he or she may feel or any ideas to others. They could also only think using the vocabulary they have and that affects the thoughts they would have which in turn could affect the way they know things. For example, one would be asked to describe love. They would only be able to explain in the limited vocabulary that person has and in turn, that would shape how the one who receives the information sees it.

In another area of knowledge such as math, the knowledge we have is already shaped by the vocabulary that was taught to us early on. Normally, in starting out a math lesson, vocabulary is the first thing on the list. This may be mathematical terms which are important in understanding the lesson and is added into our continuously expanding vocabulary. The mathematical ‘vocabulary’ or terms will enable us to have a greater comprehension of the lesson, aiding us in shaping the thoughts and ideas presented to us therefore shaping what we know. These terms may be exclusive only to Math as a subject.

Without these terms, it would be quite hard to explain math and building concepts around it. It is also said that in an aboriginal group in northern Australia called Kuuk Thaayorre in which they do not use the words of direction such as left, right, forward and back. Instead, they use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west to describe where they are going. According to the study of Lera Boroditsky, a professor in Stanford University, it is said that the Kuuk Thaayorre says things such as “Please get the rock on your south west direction. To see if this affects their knowledge or how they think, she gave them sets of cards which show temporal progression (e. g. , pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). They were to arrange this in order. It was observed that the people of the Kuuk Thaayorre arranged this in an east to west manner but according to the direction in which they are facing. Meaning, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right, when facing north, the cards went from right to left and so on and so forth.

They did this even though they were not told which direction they were facing, this they already knew. With this in mind, it can be said that language can affect or shape how people view or perceive things, even time. (Boroditsky, 2009) However, to almost everything, there is a counter-argument. For this, some say that our thoughts or how we acquire knowledge is completely independent of our vocabulary. Not all things can be defined by words no matter how big one’s vocabulary may be but it does not mean that the lack of vocabulary instantly follows a lack of knowledge.

Some thoughts or ideas cannot truly be expressed in words. No matter how vast a person’s vocabulary might be, some thoughts cannot be contained in words such as the example above, love. Yes, when a person may love someone, they could explain this to another person using the vocabulary available to them yet it does not encompass the whole idea. Only the person who is talking about loving someone accurately knows what it feels like to love. Same goes with color. A lot of experiments have been done regarding this yet it really tends to be subjective.

People could use fancy words for color such as tangerine or aquamarine yet color is really subjective. For example, imagine a jar or red paint then put a drop of another color, maybe blue. This would automatically make the color a different one than the original color of red yet there could not be a word for the color after every drop but the color is always different than the one before. But that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t know the difference from each of the colors. Only the person saying, for example, the color green, truly knows what she color she thinking about.

Another situation is how easy it is to translate a word from a certain language, to another. Let us say that this is called, the translatability of a certain idea or word. It does not mean that even if there is not a word to translate kilig into English, does not mean they do not know the concept of it. This claim can continue on seeing as there are more and more studies regarding it. Vocabulary does not always limit or shape what we can know. Yes, it may affect knowing in some ways though only to a certain extent.

The topic is vast and time after time, there continues to be a growth in experimenting whether the claim is true or not. Sometimes our vocabulary fails us, we cannot, in totality, explain all of our thoughts in ideas however, having a vast vocabulary enables us to acquire knowledge much easier than having a small range of vocabulary. In the end, when making this claim, one must be aware of both sides of an argument to truly gain insight on the true nature of it and not be blinded into making biases.


Boroditsky, L. (2009, June 12). Edge: How does our language shape the way we think? Retrieved May 20, 2012, from Edge: http://edge. org Deutscher, G. (2010, August 26). Magazine. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www. nytimes. com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t. html? _r=1&pagewanted=all Hartshorne, J. (2009, August 18). Mind Matters| Mind and Brain. Retrieved from Scientific American: http://www. scientificamerican. com/article. cfm? id=does-language-shape-what

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