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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. - By Manmeet Saluja XII-A Language and the vocabulary that the language contains have been indispensible over millions of years in communicating our knowledge and our perception of things. There are certain questions that arise in our mind when we talk about the correlation between vocabulary and knowledge. Does our vocabulary shape what we can know? Do we think in words? Can we know something without having vocabulary to express it? This essay is an investigation into the role of vocabulary in a language that discusses claims and counterclaims involving different ways of knowing such as emotion, perception, and reasoning and taking into account different areas of knowledge. Our thinking and ideas are limited by the copiousness of our language. Our vocabulary limits our understanding of things as well. The Sapir Whorf hypothesis mentions, The structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken. One of the examples, as stated by Whorf, is the use of multiple synonyms for snow as used by Inuits. Each word for snow had different meanings for the Eskimos that many English-speaking people would not be able to comprehend easily. Thus, vocabulary used in a language affects how people perceive things and shapes the understanding of what one can know. Even German Philosopher Hans Reichenbachs statement If you cant say it, you dont know it corroborates with the above argument. But we have to know that knowledge can be obtained without having the vocabulary to express it. In days of the early human beings, vocabulary and language came into existence to communicate the knowledge that human beings had intrinsically acquired through observation and experiences of their surroundings and with a need to enhance their lives through collaboration with other members of the same species. Communication with them through vocabulary and a common language makes this collaboration and the sharing of knowledge easier. A statement made by David Snowden, Man knows more than what he can say provides a counter claim to the

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claim stated in the TOK topic by saying that intrinsic knowledge does exist even though there are no words to explain it. In order to discuss the topic in relation to different areas of knowledge, it is necessary to interpret vocabulary not only as words in a language but also as collection of symbols or tools that are used to express our thoughts and views. Vocabulary limits our knowledge to the extent that it does not comprehensively include the entire actuality of a particular concept. This is quite evident in human sciences such as psychology. In psychology, you might find many terms such as jealousy and vanity, but just knowing the dictionary meaning of the terms doesnt convey their in depth meaning. Our knowledge of these terms would be partial and insufficient unless we experience these feelings. In Czech a word called litost which Milan Kundera, a Czech writer, says has no perfect translation in English. He describes its closest translation as a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of ones own misery. Though the Czech may easily understand it, the native English speakers, with the word not being in their vocabulary might require more explanation to understand it. Discerning this particular emotion and understanding the psychology behind it is absolutely necessary to understand the concept of litost. Thus, we see that the importance given to vocabulary and to defining things to express ones knowledge explicitly also varies from one culture to another. Thus, the vocabulary doesnt cover the entirety of a concept and hence shapes our understanding of it. Though our vocabulary, at times, does not cover the entirety of a concept, the lack of certain words to explain certain things does not correlate to lack of knowledge. This can be understood by taking examples of emotions that we experience. Vocabulary in a language might limit the way we communicate our emotions of how we feel about something, but it does not limit our emotions itself. Our perception of emotions and our feelings is not limited by our vocabulary even though our communication of it might be. The concept of presence of knowledge without having the vocabulary for it is clearly seen in the Pirah language, spoken by a group of Amazonian natives in Brazil. Basic counting in mathematics such as 1,2,3 does not exist in their language. To describe the quantity of objects, they just used words like some, few etc. Daniel Everett, an American author, set a fixed quantity of objects before

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the Pirah people and asked them to match the exact quantity. They were able to do so successfully even though their language had no numeracy. This disproves the previously stated Whorfs theory which links a persons thinking capabilities to the language he speaks. This shows that knowledge does not necessarily have to be limited by our vocabulary just because we do not always have the vocabulary to express our knowledge. Another question to be raised in context to the topic is whether new vocabulary can be created based on the knowledge we have? This would imply that the shaping of our knowledge is not influenced by our vocabulary. Or whether requisite vocabulary is needed to broaden our knowledge? This would then suggest that vocabulary does shape what we can understand. Having knowledge before having the vocabulary for it would indicate that knowledge is independent of the vocabulary and knowledge leads way to new vocabulary. This is very much evident in the natural sciences. For example, in physics, the Plancks constant h came about as a result of study of principles of the energy and frequency of photons by Max Planck. Planck gained the knowledge of photons and their energy and devised this constant or new vocabulary based on his findings. Even children gain new knowledge before they know the vocabulary for it. For example, when children learn numbers, they are usually demonstrated to them using an exact quantity of an object such as, 13 chocolates, 9 coins etc. Though Plancks constant or numerals learnt by children may not be something new for the world, they are when looked through the knowers perspective. This shows that new vocabulary can be generated based on the knowledge we have acquired demonstrating that knowledge is not dependent on vocabulary. Knowledge can also follow vocabulary in many instances. There might be cases where basic vocabulary is essential to expand our knowledge. Consider the use of numbers such as -5 or the cube root of 64 in the field of mathematics. We use these numbers extensively to obtain further knowledge in mathematics, such as obtaining the side of a cube by taking the cube root of its volume. It may not always be possible to learn math through actual demonstration such as those of numerals learnt by children in the previous paragraph. Students are told of a particular formula in math and asked to apply it to different situations. For example it

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becomes easier to understand the concepts of differentiation in math when they are applied to the real world such as rate of change of velocity gives acceleration etc. Here it is quite evident that knowledge is gained with the help of vocabulary, which in this case are a set of formulae. There are some areas of knowledge such as history in which it is very difficult to obtain knowledge without the help of basic vocabulary. It is very difficult to obtain knowledge in history without any written records of the event in the past or a video that had been taken in the past, unless one has been witness to an event. Both these sources use extensive vocabulary to give knowledge of what occurred in the past. In the case of history, even artifacts and the study of symbols to obtain historical knowledge requires some background vocabulary as vocabulary is a broad concept and must not be just looked at as words in a language but also assemblage of symbols, representations, signs etc. as stated earlier in the essay. Both arguments concerning vocabulary shaping our knowledge and our knowledge being independent of our vocabulary are strong. There is an importance and dominance of vocabulary in obtaining knowledge in some areas while in the others vocabulary is developed through innate knowledge. It is difficult to weigh down the claim of vocabulary shaping our knowledge of things, as the strength of claim and the perspectives through which it is looked upon also varies from one area of knowledge to another. I think both of the claims are also circumstantial and it is essential to weigh them down based on the situation in hand.

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