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Language Close

Sarah Grochala | Oct. 14, 2013

Gavin Spokes, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Hara Yannas, Mark Arends, Tim Dutton,  Stephen Fewell,  Mandi Symonds and Matthew Spencer in 1984. Photo: Tristram Kenton.


Language is more than simply words. It shapes the way we think. In the appendix to 1984, Orwell tells us that Newspeak is a language deliberately designed to limit the range of people’s thoughts and to make certain ideas unthinkable. It can be argued, however, that all languages, like Newspeak, limit the range of ideas that it is possible for people to understand.

Words represent ideas. For example, the word ‘tree’ represents the idea of a ‘tree’ – the large woody leafy plant that you find might lining the streets of a city, in gardens, in parks, in the countryside or in forests. When I talk to you about a tree, we both have the same basic image of what I mean in our heads, even if the tree in my head is an pine tree and the tree in yours is a chestnut tree. The trees we imagine might be slightly different but we both understand the basic idea that is being communicated.

We like to think of language as something natural and innate. You could argue that the word for the idea of a ‘tree’ is ‘tree’ because there is something innately tree-like about the sound of the word. The essence of the idea of a ‘tree’ is contained in the word ‘tree’ and that is why this particular word is associated with this particular idea. If this was true then the word for the idea of a ‘tree’ in every language would surely be the same or at least very similar in sound. However, the word for the idea of a ‘tree’ in different languages is very different. For example, in French the idea of a ‘tree’ is represented by the word ‘arbre’ whilst in German it is represented by the word ‘baum’. These two words for the idea of a ‘tree’ do not sound similar in any way. There is no innate relationship between the word and the idea that it represents. Instead, the word ‘tree’ represents the idea of a ‘tree’ because the group of people who speak the English language have agreed that this is so.

If language is built out of words which represent ideas, then it makes sense that the range of words within a language reflects the ideas that are present in the culture of the group of people who speak it. Different languages present different understandings of the way that the world works. The French linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, argues that an Inuit would not understand what an English person meant when they used the word ‘snow’ because for the Inuit there is no one thing that is ‘snow’. Instead, for Inuit people, there are many different ideas of ‘snow’ because it snows a lot and in lots of different ways. Each Inuit idea of ‘snow’ would have its own features which defined it from other types of snow and there would be a different word to represent each different kind of ‘snow’. The Inuit language, Saussure argues, has lots of different words for snow because this reflects the way that Inuit people experience their world. In contrast, the English language has a large number of words for different types of water, while Welsh language has the most single words to describe different types of rain, which would suggest that the both the English and the Welsh understanding of the world is a very watery one.

If the words of a language reflect the way in which the people who speak that language understand the world, then it is also possible that our understanding of the world is shaped by the language that we speak. Words not only reflect the way that we understand the world but they define it as well. Is it possible to think an idea if there are no words in the language that you speak to represent it? If you spoke a language, such as Newspeak, that had no words to describe the idea of ‘freedom’ would you be able to even think about the idea of being ‘free’? Would you have any understanding of what ‘freedom’ was? Or would the thought be completely unthinkable? Orwell argues that in Newspeak, where there is no word to describe the idea of ‘freedom’, it would be as impossible for a person understand the idea of ‘freedom’ as it would for a person who had never heard of chess to understand that the words ‘queen’ or ‘rook’ could represent chess pieces.

Orwell’s Newspeak is an extreme example of the ways in which a language could be used to limit the range of people’s thoughts. However, the languages that we speak everyday do shape both the way that we think about the world and what it is possible for us to think in subtle ways.