We use language to discuss, chat, argue, but it’s more than just a medium of communication. Language itself controls the way in which we express ideas and to what extent we are able to communicate it.
This idea manifests itself in George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell knows the central importance of language to human thought because he realizes that it provides much-needed structure and limits the ideas that we are capable of formulating and expressing. Orwell explores the consequences of a political agency, such as The Party, taking control of language in order to obliterate disobedient or rebellious thoughts by erasing all words related to such ideas. In 1984, Orwell creates the Newspeak language, which not only helps communicate the Party’s ideals and values but also makes all other ways of thinking impossible, thus removing all heretical thoughts. The Party is constantly refining and perfecting Newspeak, with the ultimate goal that no one will be capable of conceptualizing anything that might question the Party’s absolute power. As Winston grasps onto this, he wonders,
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. […] Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. […] In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness. (Orwell, 1984)
This example clearly shows how language plays a greater role in our way of thinking than we believe it to be. Researchers at UC Berkeley and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania investigated these very ideas last year by mapping 1,100 years of metaphoric English language. Their research, which was published in Science Direct, showed some unusual patterns in how English speakers have added figurative word meanings to their vocabulary.
The researchers examined over 1,000 years of English language evolution and created computational models to track how words have grown multiple meanings over time.
After creating their historical map, they tested their computational models’ ability to predict the order in which new meanings of English words have emerged over the centuries against the Historical Thesaurus of English, which documents the dates in which English word meanings first entered the language. Their research proved that languages and words develop new meanings not in arbitrary ways, but instead reflect fundamental properties of how people think and communicate with each other.
As the findings provide the first large-scale evidence that the creation of new metaphorical word meanings is systematic, their discovery has the potential to teach machines (like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Bot) to follow the cognitive steps that humans have taken to add new definitions to their lexicon.
Language is evolving rapidly, and it’s important that not only dictionaries but our smartphones keep track of it, as well. With this ground-breaking research, we can also see how language has progressed in terms of achieving equality! There are so many possibilities of applying this research; I’m just giddy with anticipation!