Language Shapes Life

October 25, 2010

Ever stop to think about the specific language you use in your day-to-day life? Language, as I’m seeing more and more, really does shape the way we view our world. There are whole books of linguistic theory written on this concept, but the gist of it is that language doesn’t just describe our reality, it constructs it.

As an example, I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to refer to the act of plotting as “thrashing out a plot.” When I actually stop to think about the implications of this phrase, it seems almost violent. It’s almost like the “plot” is a huge, serpentine creature, which I have to thrash against the floor until it stays still enough that I can figure out what the heck is going on. Contrast that with folks who say they plot “organically.” I can just see them sitting in a sunlit garden, decked out in straw hat and overalls, testing the earth and encouraging little plot shoots to grow.

But language affects more than our personal idiosyncrasies (obviously). Think about the Inuit with their dozens of words for “snow.” Because they can name different types of snow, in their reality snow exists in distinct, various forms, rather than the just the “white-and-cold” or “grey-and-slushy” varieties we get. I think a parallel to our culture would be electronics. How about I list some words like… I don’t know… Blackberry, iPod, iPhone, Nintendo DS, MP3, and Kindle. You probably got a different picture in your head for each term, right? Just like the Inuit’s worldview contains discrete varieties of “frozen precipitation,” so does ours contains discrete types of “small, glowing electronic thing.”

We “fall” in love. Love is a physical place, a place that we can “stumble” our way into and out of. Depending on my mood, I may be “up” or “down.” Emotions correspond to direction. When having an argument, you may try to “attack” my points, or seek holes in my “defence,” which leaves me having to “strategize” my own “counter-attack.” Who knew that arguing or debating could be so similar to having a physical battle?

If you look closely enough, metaphors’ effects on our perceptions of reality are everywhere. In fact, I just used one. You can’t actually “look closely” at a metaphor (unless it’s been written down, of course); you’re really just considering it.

And once you start, it’s hard to stop.





  1. Wonderful observations. Debating is a battle of words and wit.

    One quick fix:
    “But language effects more . . .” ~ should be “affects.” 🙂


    • Oops, my bad… my finger slipped. 😉

      Thanks for pointing it out… off to fix it!

  2. So true, and some of us love wordes so much that we spend as much time as we can pleasantly wrestling with them. Woops, there goes another metaphor.

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