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Theory of Knowledge (TOK) essay

‘The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know’. Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge.

With reference to the title statement, there exist different views. On one hand, knowledge acquisition and communication cannot exist without vocabulary, as people would not then be able to share, communicate and accumulate knowledge. On the other hand, the lack of vocabulary does not imply the lack of knowledge: there “exists some kind of a pre-linguistic thought” (Lagemaat, 2011, p.70) because otherwise new words would not enter the language. Often, new discoveries gave birth to new vocabulary concepts; for example, the words like “telephone”, “camera”, “computer” did not exist 1000 years ago.

In order to analyze the impact of vocabulary on knowledge, it is necessary to determine knowledge, language and vocabulary. Knowledge, according to Plato’s definition, is a justified true belief (Kohne, 2010, p.11). The process of knowledge acquisition is illustrated by the traditional TOK diagram (Pojman, 1999, p.75). According to it, language belongs to the ways of knowing, and vocabulary, which can be defined as “a sum or stock of words employed by a language, group, individual, or work or in a field of knowledge” (Merriam-Webster, 2012, n.d.), is the instrument of language.

The use of language and vocabulary is closely associated with individual experience. My native language is Polish, and I am now studying subjects in English; for me there is a clear relationship between English language and academic information, while Polish is more strongly associated with home and daily routine. This personal perception is coherent with the adapted version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and related experiments.

The precursor of language in the process of evolution was protolanguage (Corballis, 2009, p.23). This is a pre-grammatical stage of linguistic performance, exhibited by animals. Animals are capable of labeling (associating the word with a particular item). Humans have more advanced linguistic ability, as words are associated with abstract preverbal concepts (Puppel, 1995, p.119). Humans can develop an abstract perception of an item or notion basing on previous experience, and identify new objects using these abstracts. Moreover, humans use language for cognitive purposes, e.g. create new concepts using the old ones. For example, in the childhood I have invented new words to name unknown objects (created new vocabulary). These facts prove that vocabulary does not unambiguously determine what we can know.

However, there exists the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which language determines the way of thinking and perceiving the world. The strong version of this hypothesis is linguistic determinism: available language directly determines perception and its influence on thinking. Experiments have shown that this hypothesis is not true. Contrary to Whorf’s suggestions, the Hopi had the concept of time and own calendar (Pinker, 2007, p.53). Later, in an experiment with the Dani and English participants, both groups recognized focal colours and learned associations to focal colours equally, despite the minimal colour-related vocabulary of the Dani (Parkin, 2000, p.255).

The research of Chomsky also disproved the strong version of this hypothesis (Parkin, 2000, p.258). Chomsky focused on the concept of generative grammar, which implied the idea of universality and innateness of language. The findings of Chomsky showed that language skills were developed using certain grammar rules during a critical period of language acquisition. Chomsky proved that perception and external environment had an impact on language skills, contrary to the statements of linguistic determinism.

There exists an adapted version of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis linguistic relativism. It states that available language influences cognitive processes (Parkin, 2000, p.254), and that the use of language to a certain extent determines the perception of the world. There were many research experiments proving this hypothesis. There was an experiment with bilingual Japanese women who lived in the USA and were married to the U.S. servicemen. These women used English for ordinary communication, and Japanese only to reminisce, gossip and discuss Japanese news (Lagemaat, 2011, p.69). As a result, they exhibited different meanings for the same words, depending on whether they were asked in English or in Japanese. Linguistic relativism can be illustrated by my own experience: I tend to use more abstract and academic words in English, and more relaxed and simple words in Polish.

For different spheres of knowledge, the impact of vocabulary on knowledge acquisition is different. For example, the arts deal with symbolic expression of human thoughts and perceptions. For literary arts, key statement of this paper is definitely true, because literature uses language as the main method of expression, and the differences in vocabulary might prevent readers from grasping the whole picture created by the author. Likewise, vocabulary plays a significant role in the theatre, since dialogues are an essential part of the plays yet much is shown by movement and setting.

Other performing arts, such as music and dance, are less strictly shaped by linguistic vocabulary, because these forms of art use the artists’ bodies, facial expressions, instruments and materials to create an impression on the audience. With regard to music, the effect of vocabulary is less significant, because the music has its own expressive means, and musical notation is common throughout the world. Music can be appreciated and understood in terms of emotional response without knowing notation.

Dance is the language of body, but it also relies on specialist vocabulary to describe its expressive techniques. Acquisition and communication of knowledge in dancing is also strongly shaped by the vocabulary. Even though it is possible to convey feelings and emotions in the dance without a word, it is not possible to reproduce or share this knowledge without vocabulary. Vocabulary allows to get a deeper grasp of communication, to implement sophisticated teaching and creates environment for steering without presence. For example, most dancers, athletes, actors and therapists use the Laban notation to interpret and describe human movements. Thus, vocabulary does not explicitly determine perception and cognition in the arts, but has a strong effect on knowledge sharing, acquisition, memory and perception in this sphere.

Existence of different argot variations illustrates the impact of vocabulary on the formation and transmission of knowledge. In expert groups, the use of special vocabulary might also impact the processes of knowledge acquisition and idea sharing, due to jargons developing in these groups.v

A similar situation can be witnessed in human sciences. Many words originate from other languages: for example, in the language of dance there are words like “plié” which came from French. The vocabulary has a powerful effect on what individuals can know or perceive in these sciences. Culture and society shape vocabulary and cognition, and are deeply affected by vocabulary: for example, it appeared that eastern children tend to memorize verbs rather than nouns, and western kids – vice versa (Robertson, 2007, p.594).

Perception strongly depends on vocabulary context. Communication is the combination of surrounding words in the sentence, tone and delivery of the speaker, gestures and behavior, and coherence between the message and external environment (Parkin, 2000, p.267). Context shapes the intended meaning along with vocabulary and strongly affects emotional perception of a person’s words. The diversity of emotions in a particular vocabulary to a certain extent determines the perception of human emotional reactions (Barrett, Lindquist and Gendron, 2007, p.329). Words used in natural language are closely linked to personality, especially particles, which act as markers for cognitive styles, social identity and emotional state (Pennebaker, Mehl and Niederhoffer, 2003, p.548) For example, depressed and emotionally stable peoplee have 7% and 4% of “I” pronouns in their speech accordingly; people that are lying use “we” instead of “I”, and tend to use negations like “no”, “never” much more often (Pennebaker, Mehl and Niederhoffer, 2003, p.551). The set of words used in daily life can be used to characterize psychological and social features of an individual. Overall, in human sciences vocabulary does affect cognition and knowledge acquisition.

However, there are areas of knowledge where vocabulary has a less profound impact on knowledge. The most vivid example is mathematics. It originated as a practical science operating abstractions associated with the real world, and then departed into a highly abstract discipline based on axioms, definitions and knowledge justified by applying deductive reasoning to these abstract structures. Existing mathematical notation appeared in the XVI century, and since that time a separate language of mathematics has emerged (Kenney, 2008, p.26). Mathematics has own vocabulary (notation using symbols) and grammar. Mathematical thinking is nowadays inevitably linked to mastering this specific language.

However, there still exist minor regional differences: in some countries, comma is used instead of a dot for decimal numbers; multiple signs are used for denoting multiplication (centered dot, sign “x”, asterisk, etc). This means that mathematics is not absolutely independent of vocabulary. Mathematics uses its own vocabulary, which is to a very large extent independent of natural vocabulary of the researcher. Moreover, a mathematician belonging to any culture, ethnic group and language group can exchange ideas with other mathematicians with minimal number of language limitations. It is possible to state that mathematics is the least dependent on linguistic vocabulary compared to other areas of knowledge, but there still exist vocabulary factors affecting knowledge in this sphere.

The title statement is mostly true regarding human sciences and the arts, i.e. the areas of knowledge associated with subjective or emotional perception of reality. At the same time, this statement is mostly not true for mathematics and similar sciences, i.e. for areas of knowledge dealing with objective perception of reality. It should be noted that the word “vocabulary” has an alternative definition: “a supply of expressive techniques or devices (as of an art form)” (Merriam-Webster, 2012, n.d.). From this point of view, for any science, even for mathematics, the expressive means of science, that is, vocabulary, are vital and determine knowledge acquisition and communication.

Works Cited

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