The concept of the Universe being as vast as the language we have at our disposal to describe it is not new. Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein formulated it about a hundred years ago as “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” The definitions comprising the language do not only outline precisely the boundaries of the inherently infinite phenomena, but may also assign to it bias and emotions at the exclusions of other emotions, thus further limiting the world and manipulating the observer.
Linguistic authorities are the limiters of the world via the language.
Here is an example, the word “a conservative” from various dictionaries:
1. “A person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.” – Google On-line
2. “3a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions b : marked by moderation or caution c : marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners” – Merriam-Webster
3. “1) One who espouses a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change. 2) One who believes in less government being better government. 3) One who believes in such “outmoded” ideas as civil liberties (freedom of speech, separation of church and state, right to keep and bear arms, etc.) 4) One for whom the Republican Party no longer truly speaks.” – Urban Dictionary
4. “Today’s so-called ‘conservatives’ don’t even know what the word means. They think I’ve turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That’s a decision that’s up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the Religious Right. It’s not a conservative issue at all.” – Barry Goldwater
5. n. A person who favors maintenance of the status quo or reversion to some earlier status… based on pessimistic assumptions. – Wordnik
6. “The origin of the word “conservative” is from the word “con”, which means to lie or cheat for personal gain. Some etymologists, however, lean towards a different derivation related to the Latin root “con”, which means to be against something. Conservatives are against such things as affordable health care, fuel-efficient vehicles, and nature.” – Fandom
This is a melee, free for all. Some of these definitions are colored so brightly that they may blind the reader—all of them do to a one degree or another.
Simple colors should present more innocuous examples. Color blue, for example. What could possibly be less contentious? Let’s take a look:
1. “The hue of that portion of the visible spectrum lying between green and indigoevoked in the human observer by radiant energy with wavelengths of approximately 420 to 490 nanometers” – Free Dictionary
2. “Of a color intermediate between green and violet, as of the sky or sea on a sunny day.” – Google On-line
3.”The pure color of a clear sky; the primary color between green and violet in the visible spectrum, an effect of light with a wavelength between 450 and 500 nm.” – Dictionary.com
4. “of the color blue” – Merriam-Webster
5.“Of a colour intermediate between green and violet” – Oxford
6. “of the color of the sky on a clear, bright day”— CAMBRIDGE ENGLISH DICTIONARY
7. “Blue is the colour between violet and green on the optical spectrum of visible light. Human eyes perceive blue when observing light with a wavelength between 450 and 495 nanometres, which is between 45 and 49.5 Ångströms. Blues with a higher frequency and thus a shorter wavelength gradually look more violet, while those with a lower frequency and a longer wavelength gradually appear more green. Pure blue, in the middle, has a wavelength of 470 nanometers (47 Ångströms).” — Wikipedia
8. “The definition of blue is having the color that looks like a clear day sky or being sad.” –Yourdictionary.com
9. “Blue is a color and a dreary mood.” – Vocabulary.com
Definitions of “blue” numbers 1, 3 and 7 contradict each other in regards to the spectrum wavelength, numbers 4 and 9 are not definitions at all and definition number 8, “the color of being sad,” is nonsensical. It becomes obvious that our footing in English, our gateway to the world, may become precarious at best, if we substitute our critical thinking with the language authorities’ views on life.
Definitions also change through time, reflecting the desirable prevailing views in the society. The definition of the word “wife” can serve as an example. In a modern-day Merriam-Webster Dictionary, wife is “a female partner in a marriage,” but the archaic definition is quite different: “a woman, especially an old or uneducated one.” The slant is obvious and significant.
The influence of language on our mentality is not limited to dictionaries. “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace is an article about the Main Lobster Festival, the biggest lobster cook-out in the world or at least this side of Camden, Main. The article illustrates manipulation by language through definitions. The problem Foster Wallace is posing is whether or not it is okay to cause pain and kill lobsters for one’s epicurean enjoyment. Here is how he frames his moral questions, “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: is the previous question irksomely sentimental? What does ‘all right’ even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?”
By counterbalancing “boiling a sentient creature” and “pleasure” and thus defining the act of eating as a perversion and sadism, Wallace successfully manipulates the reader toward the only answer possible, “No, it isn’t okay.” The next sentence, however, drags the reader by the scruff of the neck back to the fork in the road by defining the quibbles as sentimental and “sentimental” as “irksome” (or vice versa). The third sentence nonchalantly splatters the entire dilemma into the reader’s face, “What does ‘all right’ even mean in this context?” Probably designed first and foremost to give reader a pause, the question is engaging but it is also slanted.
Obviously, for the locals at Rockland, Main, the answer is the resounding “yes.” It is okay to cause pain to lobsters and kill lobsters en masse. Lobster bashing being their mainstay, not accidentally, per Wallace the locals call lobsters “sea bugs.” Everybody knows that killing bugs is perfectly acceptable and possibly even beneficial (obviously, nobody ever asked the bugs). Redefining a lobster as an insect makes it okay for the locals to kill lobsters.
Therefore, masterful use of definitions and associations can be the driving force of human relations and manipulation, but the dangers of language are not limited to definitions. Choice of a part of speech can be used as a weapon. Using nouns instead of verbs makes people change their behavior. People think about their self-identities when they hear nouns. When they hear verbs, they think of behavior. Nouns win.
We are surrounded by words—spoken, written and thought up, and thus a subject to constant limitation and manipulation. We can and should be aware of the language and its impact on our well-being and, hey, nothing wrong with doing a bit of manipulating of others on our own, is there?