OnWords: On Language And Reality

Apr 3, 2018

Linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf

Various theories of language, notably the Sapir-Whorf theory support the idea that language creates reality for language users.

And while some visual artists and musicians might argue the point, there’s something to it.

Successful political initiatives define the terms of political debate before the debate even begins. Thus the estate tax becomes the “death tax,” the poor become lazy, and unfettered access to guns becomes freedom.

Looking back, those who wanted to justify violence, injustice, or theft used language to dehumanize others. Immigrants become “hordes” and come in “waves”; enemy soldiers become “pigs” worthy of slaughter, or “dogs” worthy of service or abuse.

This phenomenon can be as explicit as propaganda, but it’s at work in other ways as well, from the description of a wine that prepares you taste certain notes in it, to a falling stock market being described as a “correction” to keep you from panicking and pulling out all your dough.

In some ways, then, the way language creates reality is a reflection of the fluidity of reality for social animals such as ourselves.

The facts may be what they are, but within them, there is a lot of room for us to talk around.