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I am dealing with a question whether is a human language a prison for a mind and also whether is there something above a human language.

my progress: I have read articles on wikipedia about metalinguistics and linguistic determinism.

There are eight word classes in English: noun, adjective, pronoun, verb, adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection. They seem to be enough. One can name a thing (car), its attribute (yellow) and what it is doing (is moving) etc.

Concrete nouns serve to name material objects. But how should I address material objects I cannot perceive through my senses? My senses are limited, therefore my perception of reality is limited. Or how should I address abstract nouns that do not exist to name phenomena nobody has ever noticed?

I can only write or say a sentence involving words I have seen or heard only about things I have ever perceived / phenomenon I have ever noticed.

EDIT: question specified in comment from me, number 3 of this posting.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 13, 2022 at 17:01
  • This question was cross-posted. linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/44268/… I had to join this site to post that and I would like to post my answer from the other site and can't. Not enough reputation??
    – Lambie
    Apr 13, 2022 at 18:32
  • It sounds like your limitations aren't caused by languge, but rather by the limits to your perception. If you can in the future find a way to perceive those material objects that you currently cannot perceive (build a bigger telescope or something), I doubt your language will have too much trouble describing them. Apr 14, 2022 at 14:42

9 Answers 9

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One version of what you're asking is, in linguistics/cognitive science, called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. There's been a ton of writing and empirical work on this hypothesis.. My understanding (PhD in cognitive science, but not an expert in linguistics) is that most people no longer think believe strong versions of it are true (i.e. it seems like people's thoughts are not deeply constrained by their native language). But weaker versions of it are still, I think, being debated.

There's other versions of your question which I think are pretty easy to see are not true. Consider all the times that you've realized something but haven't been able yet to put it into words. Clearly in those cases your thoughts are not being constrained by language -- you know something that you can't yet name. Similarly, people throughout history have invented new concepts (e.g. the concept of a "galaxy") and then proceeded to name them afterward. It is still a deep, open question in cognitive science how new concepts are acquired (or what even the ontological structure of a "concept" is), but it seems clear that they're not completely constrained by language.

If you want to read more on the cognitive science perspective on these types of questions, I recommend Steve Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought" or Jerry Fodor's "The Language of Thought".

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  • 1
    The first time I heard about the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis was at a maths class during my BSc studies, in an anecdote: Allegedly Paul Erdős stated that there were some mathematical problems, which he could only solve when thinking/arguing about them in English, while others were only (or more easily) solvable with a Hungarian frame of mind.
    – D. Kovács
    Apr 12, 2022 at 11:48
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    Sapir–Whorf (and its variants) is a double-edged sword with respect to this question. One could see it as language constraining thought, but also as language enabling thought. Same goes for reality: Consider the impressive experiments on Himba colour perception: Does their language prevent them from distinguishing blue or does it enable them to better distinguish certain shades of green? Or consider mathematics, which is all about assigning names to abstract concepts so we can better think about them.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 12, 2022 at 14:21
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    In some ways this question can be seen the /opposite/ of Sapir-Whorf at least in the context of Universalism (in the Chomskyan sense), as Sapri-Whorf is usually taken to mean (and tested as) a form of linguistic relativism. The question is formulated in the context of language in general, where universal structures could be argued to be relevant (at least by a Chomskyan). It would be perfectly possible for those who believed in universal linguistic meta-structures that it is possible to experience outside them, in ways which don't touch on language at all.
    – Dan
    Apr 12, 2022 at 17:37
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    ". Consider all the times that you've realized something but haven't been able yet to put it into words." - I've also had times where I realized something has been put to words in one language, but not another.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 13, 2022 at 16:44
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    @Nobody That's how almost all words come about. They start as metaphors, and over time the original meaning is forgotten. "vaccine" comes from the Latin word for "cow" because the original vaccine was for cowpox.
    – Barmar
    Apr 13, 2022 at 19:52
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You're giving too much power to language as a way of structuring lived experience. While there may be some support for a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, minds are more flexible than language, as can be shown both by a theoretical argument from necessity, and a lot of empirical counterexamples.

There was a time when language did not exist. So a priori, the development of the first language--whatever it was, however it formed--and for it to subsequently grow, means that the set of concepts expressible in "language" must have expanded at some point. Since there is a necessary precedent for adding new concepts into what a language can express, then there is no reason to believe that existing languages set impenetrable boundaries on what we can perceive and feel.

To be more concrete, we know that novelty is a universal feature of languages today, which are always adding new words for both new (and old) concepts. The word "potato" did not exist in English prior to contact between the indigenous peoples of Europe and the Taino; but English-speaking people can nonetheless comprehend what a potato is. Language grew to accommodate new experiences. Now you might not find this convincing--maybe the reason English uses "potato" with so few changes is that we are still somehow imprisoned by the original word-symbol. But that can't be so, for two reasons: first, French calls it a pomme de terre or "earth-apple", and so isn't bound by the original sound; and second, the English word originally referred to what we now call the sweet potato--meaning that the boundaries originally imposed by language are capable of shifting. This is just one instance of the way languages change all the time.

For another example, consider word roots used in novel constructions. We have a device that keeps food cold; we call it a "refrigerator"--even though on its roots, that ought to be "a thing that makes something cold again". The image we carry in our heads is more precise than the parts which make up the word. The object, at some point, did not exist; once it did, we created new words to describe it, but the concept is not defined by or limited by the literal meanings of the words we choose to use to express it.

And I don't think I need to bother giving any of the countless examples of slang that every generation of teenagers has invented.

There are eight word classes in English: noun, adjective, pronoun, verb, adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection. They seem to be enough. One can name a thing (car), its attribute (yellow) and what it is doing (is moving) etc.

Sure. And other languages have more or fewer categories, and may draw the lines differently. But the word-categories are imposed by linguists analyzing the language, not fastidiously followed by the speakers. For as long as we've been recording language, we find instances where words from one category are used to mean something from another category. Thought and expression are more flexible than imposed rules.

On the other hand, we have conceptual distinctions that may not be recognized by language categories. If I say "I broke the window with a hammer," you'll understand hammer to be a tool, an instrument. If I say "I broke the window with Jim," you'll understand Jim to be an accomplice, a fellow agent. If I say "I broke the window with a hammer and Jim," you'll probably be quite confused, because it feels wrong to mix things from two different conceptual categories this way, even though the rules of English grammar don't forbid it.

Concrete nouns serve to name material objects. But how should I address material objects I cannot perceive through my senses?

Well, Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig called them "quarks"... When a word is lacking, we repurpose an old one or make up a new one.

Or how should I address abstract nouns that do not exist to name phenomena nobody has ever noticed?

We have many words for abstract nouns. Words are incomplete, of course, for the precise details that we can feel or perceive in a particular experience; but that's the struggle of the poet--to come up with words that evoke a feeling with more precision than its mere name, that distinguish one sunset from another.

If you're the first to discover a phenomenon, and it's one that others can see, you'll decide to call it something. Maybe you'll call it "magnetism" after the name of the region where you found the rocks that exhibit it. Maybe you'll call it "electricity" because you observed it in electrum, amber.

On the other hand, plenty of people perceive phenomena that others cannot; while these experiences are hard to express, we find words to express them nonetheless. One such word might be scintillating scotoma--which word I did not know until I'd been seeing them for quite a while; or the rich vocabulary used to describe different kinds of hallucinations, whether by the medical community or in some cases by the people themselves.

I want to make a quip that it's unusual for any language to have words for phenomena that nobody has ever experienced--but the unicorn and the dragon disagree with me. Perhaps it'd be better to say that languages don't have words for phenomena that nobody has yet experienced or even imagined--but even then, we come up with abundant vocabulary whenever we do discover new ones.

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    It seems that Europeans call every unknown fruit a „new kind of apple“. What does this say about their thinking? Not only „pomme de terre“, but also: peach (malum persicum or Persian apple), melon (big apple), pomodoro (golden apple), appelsin, pineapple…
    – wra
    Apr 12, 2022 at 21:34
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    @wra apple comes from the proto-germanic word for "fruit" and they just called the most common germanic fruit "fruit" because it needed no further specifier. Just like the people from Vienna don't call the traditional food "Wiener Schnitzel" but just "Schnitzel" - and when you discover new fruits you call them "french fruit", "green fruit", "giant fruit" and so on...
    – Falco
    Apr 14, 2022 at 9:53
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    And two Mandarin words for "tomato", literally translated, are either "foreign eggplant" or "red persimmon from the west"--but most Chinese people know what a tomato is. We usually describe new things to people by comparing them with things those people are already familiar with; and due to historical circumstance, Europeans are familiar with apples. (And you've got to admit, "foreigner's eggplant" is a pretty good description for a tomato if you were describing it to someone who hadn't seen one.)
    – Tiercelet
    Apr 14, 2022 at 14:08
  • @wra I always wondered where the nickname for New York came from! Europe!
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 15, 2022 at 2:07
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The human language is not a prison for the human mind. The main reason: If necessary, one can dismiss natural language, and choose or invent different means for expressing thoughts or to communicate:

  1. In the field of art, languages like painting, dance, music etc. serve to communicate. These languages continuously expand.

  2. In the domain of science, mathematics serves as language to express and to reason about results in the microcosmos and the macrocosmos. Here human language lacks the necessary concepts and the necessary precision. It has to be replaced by mathematical concepts like infinite-dimensional space (Hilbert space), curved spacetime (Pseudo-Riemann manifold), generalized numbers (ideals from algebra)...

  3. In particular, computer science invents new languages to communicate with computers in the field of artificial intelligence.

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  • Couldn't you say that those three are still some forms of a language and constrain us for until after we've developed them further?
    – d33tah
    Apr 12, 2022 at 9:09
  • @d33tah I agree considering those three to be languages. They have have been invented and are continuously expanded in order to pass over the limitations of natural language. And I do not see any obstacle for further development.
    – Jo Wehler
    Apr 12, 2022 at 9:18
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    I guess the question is: can something develop further, yet currently be a kind of a prison, because those developments can't happen overnight? Even if a prison grows, it's still a prison if we can reach its bounds faster than they grow.
    – d33tah
    Apr 12, 2022 at 12:27
  • @d33tah "The problem with the Rat Race is: even if you win, you're still a rat."
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 13, 2022 at 10:07
  • @d33tah a prison is meant to contain something, hindering it from growth and development. I see language as a social instinct, for me to convey what is in my mind to your mind. So imagination and thinking is the starting point, not the words that subsequently are used to describe it. Apr 14, 2022 at 9:51
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Without language we would be stuck eternally in prison. A life-long sentence would be ours. The death penalty pales in comparison. We couldn't convey ideas, thoughts, emotion, etc. We couldn't talk to ourselves to criticize our ideas or thoughts. We would have ideas, but we wouldn't be able to name them. The ideas, on their turn, could be shaped by language, but the normal order is that language follows ideas. Language can be used to establish ideas in other minds. But only if these minds are fertile to perceive them. Language is limited. But can it imprison? Don't think so. Rather, it has a liberating power, offering a friendly hand to express, be it the strict language of mathematics, or the dancing words of poetry. It can be used though in constructing prisons for the mind.

So it's rather the contrary. Not speaking a language can put you in a mental prison. A two-way prison. Ideas can't get out and ideas can't get in.

For the more concerning aspects of language see this enlightening essay.

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    This approach seems quite naive to me. First phrase: "Without language we would be stuck eternally in prison": babies born without language and they are not eternally in prison.
    – RodolfoAP
    Apr 11, 2022 at 11:51
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    @RodolfoAP Babies speak all kinds of language already. They cry, show faces, etc. I think it's kind of frustrating for them not to speak words yet. Their mind feels in prison. It would set them free. Like speaking Chinese in China would be handy in China. So not imprisoning. Why should speaking language put you in prison? My mind is not in prison.
    – Pathfinder
    Apr 11, 2022 at 12:59
  • Are you saying music or pictures or abstract art do not convey ideas or emotions, or are you saying those forms of expression are languages? I think you might face some disagreement either way. If you’re saying that facial expressions constitute language, that suggests you’re saying dogs have language and linguists would generally disagree on both counts. Apr 13, 2022 at 3:39
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    Actually, to a linguist a language is a method of communication that is generative. That’s why even though dogs communicate, they are not considered to be using a visual language. Note that dogs can communicate a lot without using any of what linguists call a language. Apr 13, 2022 at 6:18
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    Human language is doubly articulated. There is no one-to-one relationship between words and meaning. The phonemes of English recombine to form universes of meaning. Only human language has that. If you tell your dog to sit, he might if you taught him that. However, if you tell me, I might argue with you. :)
    – Lambie
    Apr 13, 2022 at 21:52
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Since language is not merely syntax and grammar but also semantics, we have Humboldt declaring in 1820:

The diversity of language us not the diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views about the world.

Whilst earlier, Hamann said:

Reason is language

meaning:

The lineaments of their language will thus correspond to the direction of their mentality.

So here are two philosophers who pointed out a close proximal connection of language with thought, with one shaping the other - a dialectic. Here language is the expression of a man, a nation or a civilisation. Here, nothing is said about language or thought being a prison. Far from it, it is thought's enabler and hence an enabler of civilisation.

So can language be a prison and if so how? George Orwell famously offered a fictional example in his famous novel, 1984: the language 'newspeak' with it's philosophy 'doublethink' which he characterised as:

To know and to not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness whilst telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opposing opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory, and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality whilst laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it all again, and above all, to apply the process to the process itself - that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis that you had just performed. Even to understand the word - doublethink - involved doublethink itself.

It's well known that Orwell wrote his novel as a reflection on the totalitarian regimes of the 20th C. Totalitarian because unlike ordinary tyranny it extended the rule of the tyrant into the very confines of the mind and spirit. And it did this by breaking down the very concept of truth. It is a reflection that Arendt thoroughly excavated in her book, The Origin's of Totalitarianism. Techniques of mass indoctrination such as these turn both language and thought into suffocating prisons.

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  • Amazing to me when humans are developing and achieving so much lately that anyone could instead decide to limit, close off horizons, attack and kill... Seems rather... evil really. What would make someone choose that route? Well, time for breakfast.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 15, 2022 at 15:36
  • @Scott Rowe: Well given we have so many films detailing villanous and evil figures, it should come as no surprise to anyone even when they glorify violence as the Godfather. Apr 15, 2022 at 15:39
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A language is a set of tools for a mind.

The primary purpose of language is communication. I would like to claim that it is also used for me-in-the-past to communicate to me-in-the-future. That is, it works as a memory aid.

Without this memory aid, our minds would be far poorer. We have intuition, which is can draw analogies to similar remembered situations and draw conclusions without words. But intuition is a pretty bad reasoner.

We are also able to temporarily define categories without naming them. However, most people will instinctively put a name on such a category. Experience tells us that names makes categories easier to reason with.

There might be better toolsets and worse toolsets. However, I suspect that all languages that has been used by a significant number of people for a significant number of generations has naturally expanded into pretty good toolsets.

When looking at how different languages shape our minds, I think we should look beyond vocabulary and instead look at grammar. Adding words to a language is easy, changing its basic structure is harder.

The examples I have of this is unfortunately political in nature, so I will skip them.

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  • If you have political examples from over 100 years ago, they should be good to use.
    – wizzwizz4
    Apr 13, 2022 at 16:30
  • I'm not sure what you mean when you bring up grammar at the end of your answer. Languages change all the time, not only with regard to vocabulary but also with regard to grammar. I have a publication on my shelf that lists several dozens of areas in which the grammar of English is currently undergoing change. Change is simply a natural process for languages.
    – Schmuddi
    Apr 14, 2022 at 15:36
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The other answers are very good. I'd just add a thought from a methodological viewpoint. How would we ever know if language were constraining our thoughts?

Not infrequently students will say to me that they understand something, but can't put it into words. I confess I am always doubtful that they do understand it. Even when artists say similar things (i.e., that they can't express it without music or a painting) I am similarly skeptical. I admit that different modalities are better for expressing different ideas, but is anything really impossible to communicate with words? That's a tall order.

So even if there were something that couldn't be expressed in language: how would we ever become convinced of that? We'd basically have to take somebody at their word when they say something like, “I know the secret of cold fusion, I just can't express it” or “I'm having a really profound experience, it's not possible for me or anyone else to put it in words.”

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  • Disproving the existence of such Things would be as difficult as proving them. You then have to resort to Occam/parsimony which are about belief / mental models. Certainly, a model where such Things are considered non-existent would be easier for the non-experiencer to work with and, by the definition of the Thing, as effective in explaining and manipulating the world (or else such a different effect could, in principle, be articulated and communicated: a contradiction). This then boils down to a p-zombie issue (or anti-p-zombie). P-zombieism is easy for an observer to reject for a quiet life.
    – Dan
    Apr 12, 2022 at 16:15
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    I agree that from within language based thought it is hard to admit anything could be outside of it. That is the perspective which I call 'egoic': ego tries to control everything and uses words to do so. But clearly there are vast amounts of experiences which cannot be put in to words. Imagine looking at the Grand Canyon vs reading about it. Self-realization is basically getting beyond a fixed perspective, and I think that is what the question is really about.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 13, 2022 at 9:44
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    @DanSheppard Truth be told, I had assumed this was Linguistics Stack Exchange, so your reply is bit out of my depth! I certainly admit it depends what you accept as the null hypothesis. Speaking for myself, since I know/believe that (1) there are things other people can express in language that I cannot understand, (2) there inarticulate people who simply cannot put certain things into things words (even things we both understand); therefore I'm just very skeptical about the claim that there are ineffable concepts.
    – adam.baker
    Apr 13, 2022 at 11:45
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    @ScottRowe That's an interesting point, and it makes me think of the distinction between qualia and propositions. Even if I use language to convey a precise shade of red (i.e., to the point where it could be reproduced), I don't think I could conclude that I've communicated what it is to see that color of red.
    – adam.baker
    Apr 13, 2022 at 11:50
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    @adam.baker truth be told, the comment length restriction made it telegraphic almost to the point of incoherence, anyway!
    – Dan
    Apr 13, 2022 at 19:48
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I would say that the analogy of a prison is inappropriate in many ways, perhaps the most significant of which is that it implies an enforced confinement, but for which, one would be capable of exercising unlimited freedom. In other words, it suggests that the human mind is capable of conceiving an unlimited set of conceptual building blocks that language is incapable of expressing. I contend that the reverse is true- that limitations of the human mind constrain our ability to have ideas, and that the limited scope of language reflects the limited scope of our thoughts rather than being the cause of it. There is nothing to stop you from coining as many words as you like. If you have some nuanced abstract concept which no abstract noun can be employed to express, then by all means create a new one. You say I can only write or say a sentence involving words I have seen or heard . Perhaps the next word you should add to your vocabulary is 'neologise'- it could be the key to unlocking your prison cell.

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  • Not everything can be captured with language (for large values of "not everything" ). Music, art, emotions, dance, and many other things cannot be described fully using words. People often lose sight of this fact, and spend inordinate amounts of time on this SE, among other places, trying vainly to nail these amorphous things down. If they do not realize that they have gone in to language and shut the door behind them, it is effectively a prison for their mind. Fortunately, it is always unlocked, but people might not be able to locate the door again after a while.
    – Scott Rowe
    May 1 at 21:19
  • "Strawman" is a noun; so is your argument. Start at least verbs. Then go on to time and tense, Move on to gender and neutrality
    – Rushi
    May 2 at 8:47
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Percy Bysshe Shelley

It were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is the burden of the curse of Babel.
The Vanity of Translation

Lera Boroditsky

We used to think that humans were worse than other creatures because of some biological excuse: "Oh, we don't have magnets in our beaks or in our scales." No; if your language and your culture trains you to do it, actually, you can do it. There are humans around the world who stay oriented really well.

[Consider the Kuuk Thaayorre people of Australia...] that I had the chance to work with.]

They live in Pormpuraaw at the very west edge of Cape York. What's cool about Kuuk Thaayorre is, in Kuuk Thaayorre, they don't use words like "left" and "right," and instead, everything is in cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. And when I say everything, I really mean everything. You would say something like, "Oh, there's an ant on your southwest leg." Or, "Move your cup to the north-northeast a little bit." In fact, the way that you say "hello" in Kuuk Thaayorre is you say, "Which way are you going?" And the answer should be, "North-northeast in the far distance. How about you?"

So imagine as you're walking around your day, every person you greet, you have to report your heading direction.

(Laughter)

Gail Heyman

Tone-language experience (eg. Mandarin) is associated with advanced musical pitch processing in young children.

We demonstrate that the language you speak affects how you perceive music - at such an early age and before formal training.

Mikhail Bakhtin

Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process.

Roland Barthes

Language is never innocent

Language is legislation, speech is its execution

George Orwell

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought

Steven Pinker

Language is a window into human nature, but it is also a fistula: an open wound through which we’re exposed to an infectious world.

Nietzsche

You say you dont believe in God, yet you believe in grammar

Wittgenstein

The limits of my language are the limits of my world

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  • William S. Burroughs - "Language is a virus from outer space"
    – Scott Rowe
    May 2 at 10:52
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    @ScottRowe From outta space? "In the beginning was the Word...."
    – Rushi
    May 2 at 11:15

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