A 2-way street

Does the way of living shape the language a community speaks? Or does the language shape the community’s ‘Weltanschauung’, namely, the outlook on the world?

This is one of those questions that end in the foggy, mysterious black holes of our knowledge. I guess I’m not really answering the question when I’m saying ‘it goes both ways’. That’s probably just the typical way of providing a working answer to keep everyone happy, without really ticking the question as closed.

That the language reflects a way of living is easily proved. Names for plants, animals, natural phenomena, colours and so on are one quick argument. Norwegian has for sure a different vocabulary about the natural world than Swahili. Less obvious arguments have to do with abstract concepts that are part of the community’s culture, or with ways of organising the language under grammatical rules. I mentioned in a past post the distinctions made in understanding the ‘we’ or ‘they’ in different languages, distinctions in placing events in time, or distinctions made in separating fact from speculation.

Whether the grammatical distinctions can be put down to the way of living or the natural environment of that community, is however the question that anticipates trouble. Could it be, the other way round, that the language with its distinctions has shaped the community’s way of thinking, or of seeing the world?

I’m not going to write a scientific article here on this topic, simply because this is a topic for a whole section in a library, not for one blog post. I’m just going to tell you that I’m very worried about the effect of verbal cliches on our thinking and give you just one example.

I’m living in a society that is very concerned about the social integration of immigrants. There are many loud voices, including in forums on Facebook, which fight with big words like ‘integration’, ‘assimilation’, ‘racism’, ‘Nazi’, or even with longer statements expressing a viewpoint: ‘integration is a give-and-take’, ‘Germany is a homeland for all in need’, ‘Germany’s integration policy has failed’ and so on. All these things sound good, they make you look like you are up-to-date with  the world and with the issues in your country.

I’m only worried that people don’t really ask themselves what exactly ‘integration’ means, for example, what is the difference between ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’, when someone can be called ‘racist’ or ‘proud of their nationality’; what kind of give-and-take integration should be, namely who should give what and take what?, or what kind of homeland should Germany be and what the consequences are, or what exactly it is that has failed. Many people truly believe in these words or statements (language), but do they really attach a specific, clear-cut notion to them (thinking)? Or is it rather that the language in this case is shaping points of view because  it sounds trendy, politically correct, powerful etc?

My point is: I’m not taking here any sides, although I do have my own view on the matter. My point is just that language that has been created by one or another journalist or politician formulate a point of view that becomes trendy by the way it is formulated, and not by its actual meaning. The cliches I mentioned above are taken over by masses of users simply because they sound sexy, liberal, or intimidating and in this way they replace the users’ own thinking processes. If the statement ‘Integration is a give-and-take’ was translated into concrete actions, maybe lots of people would stop believing in this idea. Those who pronounce the word ‘racist’ would perhaps need to search for another word if they understood exactly what ‘racism’ really means. There are people who have absolutely no idea about what started World War 2, what basically happened in those 6 years and who the main actors were, but quickly use the term ‘Nazi’, as if they knew what the Nazi ideology really was.

Cliches and slogans do shape our thinking. Unfortunately. They are convenient points of view, ready-made, pre-cooked, suitable for instant consumption. Language can be used by propaganda like the Matrix in the famous film, to create the world for the masses to live in