The limits of my language mean the limits of my world

I can’t hold it back any longer! I have to mention Wittgenstein. I just have to.

When you ask a philosopher to say something about language, he is going to mention Wittgenstein sooner or later. I have done my best to stick to more everyday kind of topics, but I can’t go on not talking about Wittgenstein any longer. So here goes.

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. This is perhaps the coolest and vaguest thing Wittgenstein, or anyone for that matter, has ever said about language.

It’s a strange sentence, partly because it is translated from German, and party because it’s still a strange sentence in German, although admittedly not as strange as in English. The strange thing about it is the word ‘mean’. How is a world limit meant? Why do meaning limit your world? What world are you living in Wittgenstein?!

I’m not going to try to unpack everything that this sentence contains, but I think it has some quite nice and straight forward consequences that everyone learning a new language can appreciate. First of all, if our world is somehow limited by our language, then learning new languages, or expanding the language that we already know, will also expand our world. At first sight, not a bad thing. New words and concepts make you sensitive to different and previously unnoticed aspects of the world around you. Learning about the Danish or Scandinavian Jantelov can make you sensitive to group dynamics and general collective unpleasantness for instance. And learning about koldskål can make you want to eat nothing but koldskål for the rest of your life.

If Wittgenstein is right, then learning a new language is kind of equivalent to entering a new world. This makes the whole ordeal a bit more action-packed I guess. You are not just taking afternoon classes, you are traveling through the looking glass or the wardrobe (or whatever… insert favourite fantasy reference here)to new exotic lands. You are meeting new people, facing new challenges, slaying Jabberwockies and saving the kingdom.

w49StefanPic

A Jabberwock in its natural habitat, engaged in its preferred pastime: endorsing TalDansk Online. No need to slay this one

I don’t think it’s all fun and games though. If learning a new language alters your world, you might want to be careful not to let the wrong kind of language take root. Hate speech for instance, and the world that accompanies it might be nice to avoid. Danish on the other hand… Well Danish can be whatever you make of it, as can any other national language, so please use it with caution. Apparently, it’s not just words after all. The whole world might depend on it.

Stefan

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