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Aaron Yang

High school Mathematics teacher,

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Has language limited our capacity of thought?

"Words can't describe..." is a very common saying. We may be hearing this all too often now that the world is changing like never before. But this also begs the question of, in what other mediums are we able to understand things? can these ideas be recorded on paper? video? etc. Just wondering what all you TEDsters thought of this.

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    Jan 31 2012: Language is a hacksaw dealt on the ocean of experience.

    If it enlightens, it also enshrouds. If it clarifies, it also obscures. It is a tool of oppression as much as it is an agent of liberation. It is a loom and the bluntest pair of shears. If we have a heavily dichotomous language, we are more likely to fall prey to dichotomous thinking. Language is the beam from whatever brand of socio-historic flashlight we happen to possess, and many of those could stand an overhaul.

    Language sends currents of meaning that heavily influence our interpretation of experience. Blindfolded, we will react differently to the smell of a block of cheese depending on whether someone calls it gourmet cheese or an old pair of socks.

    Even so, language can never be the thing itself. The best you can do with language is keep asking for definitions. For example, what do you mean by "language"? Thomas Sebeok observes, "Any form of energy propagation can be utilized for communication. Therefore, visual and auditory signaling do not exhaustively characterize the devices at the disposal of living things, for these include tactile, thermal, and electric physical patterns as well" ("On Chemical Signs"). More poetically, Rachel Carson, speaks of phosphorescent plankton as "lights that flash and fade away, lights that come and go for reasons meaningless to man, lights that have been doing this very thing over the eons of time in which there were no men to stir in vague disquiet."

    Moreover, what do you mean by "thought"? Are insights gained through language the most valuable of all insights? In contrast to any traditional Anglo-European/Judeo-Christian anthropic hegemony, "the more abstractionist and less intellectually vain Indian sees human intelligence as rising out of the very nature of being, which is of necessity intelligent in and of itself, as an attribute of being" (Paula Gunn Allen).

    In the words of Lao Tzu, "Nature is not human-hearted. The sage is not human-hearted."

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