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What we know depends on how we say it:How vocabulary limits and expands our knowledge
Choi Ju-hye  |
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승인 2014.03.03  19:57:02
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    ACCORDING TO the Merriam-Webster dictionary, vocabulary can be most commonly perceived as a collection of terms employed by a language, group, individual, work or in a field of knowledge. This definition implies that the primary purpose of vocabulary is to communicate denotations of knowledge, ideas, and emotions as well as implied meanings of concepts when they are applied to various specific contexts. Going further though, vocabulary is an expression medium that influences our access to potential knowledge; the vocabulary we use unconsciously shapes our current knowledge and affects what we can know.  

The limitations of vocabulary  

In many cases, the lack of vocabulary limits our capacity to advance on an area of knowledge. Because vocabulary not only conveys the meanings of terms but also bestows conscious awareness of subtle differences among similar concepts, especially in the field of art, deficient vocabulary can be an obstacle that prevents us from gaining further knowledge and perception in different areas of knowledge.   A study done by Paul Kay (Prof., Dept. of Linguistics, Univ. of Berkeley) in the 1970s manifests the knowledge— obtained through perception— that vocabulary grants us: the participants, who were either native English speakers or Berinmo speakers, were given 160 samples of different colors and asked to categorize them. The results of the study showed that Berinmo speakers did not differentiate between the color blue and green, but drew two distinctions— nol and wor— from the color yellow. Moreover, the Berinmo speakers were found to be better at matching colors across nol and worcategories than across blue and green, while the English speakers were better at matching blue and green than across nol and wor. This finding can be explained in terms of aforementioned cultures’ vocabularies on colors; in Berinmo, there is no vocabulary that distinguishes blue and green, but there are two concepts for yellow— nol and wor. Since vocabulary conceptualizes the nuances of meanings, the lack of specific vocabulary hindered Berinmo speakers of the study from knowing the precise difference between green and blue. Alternatively, because they have more vocabulary to illuminate subtle specificities among tints of yellow, Berinmo speakers were more adept at discerning, through sense perception, various tones of yellow than were English speakers, who only have one word that groups all shades of yellow.   Similarly, the coining of terms also shapes our access to more knowledge. Coining, in a sense, is labeling, which invariably results in biases and preconceptions. According to a research conducted by the staff of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), in the medical field, when the term “autism,” a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by societal communication difficulties and impaired intelligence, was first coined, children who were diagnosed as autistic were treated differently by their parents. Although they had demonstrated autistic behaviors even before the disorder was named, officially labeling them as being autistic altered their parents’ attitudes towards them. Research showed that these parents tended to pay less attention and care if their children were labeled as "autistic." This was due to the fact that autism was assimilated with schizophrenia, whose afflicted ones were shunned by the society. Because the public isolated schizophrenic people, autistic children, who were perceived to be similar to schizophrenic people, were avoided as well. Because of the society’s prejudgment, the “wrongly” coined vocabulary influenced what people can know about the subject; if people had paid more attention and interest in autistic individuals instead of segregating them, greater access to further information may have been possible. Creating a new vocabulary limited people’s access to further reasoned understanding in the scientific field.  

The expansion: creation of a new field  

Vocabulary not only limits the horizon of our potential knowledge though. Sometimes, access to or the creation of novel vocabulary can, in fact, also open up entirely new areas of knowledge. Because vocabularies generally form a closely-knitted network in which all words are linked together, a single word can introduce an entire field of knowledge. Taking the word “phobia” as an example, an individual's encounter with that one word brings in all the notions of emotions and experiences that can be related to the idea of fear. Because countless other words are interrelated to the word “phobia,” exposure to one word among them can lead to a greater understanding and discovery of knowledge. It can be reasonably deduced that when the term was first coined, such introduction to a vocabulary created a completely new topic in which medical, psychological, and other communities can investigate further and expand their knowledge in these specific areas of knowledge.   The choice of terminology also influences our capability for knowledge: in natural sciences, for instance. In English, two-dimensional vocabulary is used to distinguish different directions in relations to the observer’s position; the observer is at the center and each direction is described from the observer’s perspective (e.g. left, right, in front, behind). Australian aborigines, on the contrary, use directional vocabulary, which describes the position of the observer in terms of absolution direction (e.g. north, south, east, west). Such a system- the idea of locating themselves in a bigger picture rather than viewing the world from their own positions- endows some special navigation abilities to the aborigines; researches proved that Australian aborigines are generally more advantageous and adept in navigations in unfamiliar regions than English-speaking individuals. Accordingly, their specific choice of vocabulary allows Australians more intuition and knowledge on navigations, whereas the vocabulary used in English limits individuals from gaining advanced navigation abilities and insights (Lera Boroditsky, Prof., Dept. of Psychology, Univ. of California).  

Vocabulary as a source of identity  

The history of colonization also reveals that the vocabulary of a culture holds some sense of identity of that culture. Looking back at the history, one finds that colonizers invariably had tried to “educate” the colonized ones by replacing the native language with their own, while the colonized ones, on their part, struggled to prevent their language from disappearing. This hints at the fact that within vocabulary and language underlies a sense of one’s identity and culture. From this, we can deduce that although elusive, we can know who we are, where we are from, and where we belong through the vocabulary that we use. In fact, teenagers utilize the identifying character of vocabulary in order to distinguish their identity; they invent their own vocabulary precisely in order to set themselves apart. Having their own vocabulary, in turn, bestows self-empowerment and distinctiveness to the group members.   This idea can be applied at a smaller scale as well; not only does vocabulary embed the uniqueness and soul of a community, but it also allows individuals to express themselves. By examining the words a stranger uses, we can generally know what type of person he/she is; we can deduce the personality, age (the generation/time period that he/she belongs to), occupation, and other characteristics. Accordingly, the vocabulary one uses, or else the way one speaks and writes, plays a huge role in determining one’s identity.                                              

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Overall, vocabulary serves to both limit and open up our access to further knowledge and intuition in various areas of knowledge. Sometimes, it acts as an obstacle in expanding our knowledge, whilst other times it introduces an entirely new area of knowledge. And as ironic and contradictory as it might sound, the vocabulary that we unconsciously choose to use steers the direction of our potential knowledge.     

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