Thursday, October 21, 2010

Responses 007 (2011-2012)

The seventh question of this year's list is one on a theme close to my heart: " '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."

I have a suspicion that most people would equate 'the vocabulary we have' to 'language'. That's because 'vocabulary', strictly speaking, is a Latinate word describing a list of words and their standard acceptable meanings. However, that might be overly restrictive when managing the question given.

Why? Because in modern usage, a vocabulary can be taken to be the complete set of tools, techniques, processes, symbols and actions used to express oneself. That is why we can speak of a vocabulary of dance, of visual imagery, or of non-verbal communication.

This has to be borne in mind when one parses the second part of the claim. A vocabulary certainly communicates knowledge. But the claim is that one's range of knowledge is confined, restricted, or otherwise shaped by the constraints of one's vocabulary — not just language, but all the contents of one's 'communications toolbox'.

That claim is not a new one. It is found in constructs like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and other ideas about linguistic relativity. These range between two extremes.

At the 'weak' end, theories of linguistic relativity merely assert that different people have different languages, and since language also encodes nuances of thought and culture, some things can only be communicated if the language to do so is available. At the 'strong' end, the hypothesis suggests that language capability controls what a person thinks and how a person can think.

This is one key to understanding how the question should be approached. If a thought cannot be expressed or communicated using available components in one's toolbox, then doesn't one's vocabulary control what one can understand, and hence have knowledge about?

Once this is assumed, then the second part of the question comes into play. To what extent do different areas of knowledge rely on vocabulary?

Certain areas of knowledge have some capacity to bypass communication (as in religion or the aesthetics). In such areas, it may be true that you cannot express something completely in words and yet can have knowledge of it (think of the Biblical phrase 'the peace that passes all understanding', for example). If this is the case, then the original claim may be less significant or less true — or the definition of knowledge in the area may be less sharply defined than in other areas.

Well, that's a possible position to look at. There are lots more, and if you attempt this question, take the opportunity to extend your vocabulary.

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand that there is such thing as communication through dance etc, however, the topic clearly states 'vocabulary', not 'ways of communication'. It would be wise to talk about vocabulary as only one way of communicating, but the word 'vocabulary' I don't think actually encompasses non-verbal or non-written ways of communicating. Vocabulary is the set of words we can use and understand correctly either in speech or when written down.
For that reason, it gives scope to discuss other ways of communicating knowledge (though the precision of those ways of communicating in comparison to vocabulary may be questioned).

Friday, June 24, 2011 4:55:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

say-thanks: our vocabulary is socially mediated, as are our definitions of it. If you can think of the specific gestures that are involved in sign language as a vocabulary, then in some dance forms which have specific symbology the gestures are likewise a vocabulary. It is probably best to define 'vocabulary' as a set of lexical items which are given relatively specific values in a specific context. Try googling 'vocabulary of dance' (in double quotes) if you like. :)

Saturday, June 25, 2011 12:56:00 pm  
Blogger Luisa Peress said...

I still don't get the connection between communication our knowledge and the fact that our vocabulary shapes it.
The claim is that vocabulary does MORE than communicating it, it shapes it. But what is the connection? Merely the fact that we can communicate just what we know, and therefore what we communicate depends on our vocabulary? I'm confused...

Thanks in advance, have a nice day!

Thursday, July 07, 2011 12:34:00 am  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Luisa Peress: Let's say you know something like a) that you love someone, b) that the cube root of 8 is 2. Now you can communicate both a) and b) to some extent through your vocabulary, as I'm doing here. However, for a), no matter how much vocabulary you have, you can't communicate all of it; for b), you can communicate all of it, but that is because we have fixed definitions of mathematical terms.

One possible implication is therefore that for things like a), vocabulary shapes what other people can know about what you say about it; the limit is the vocabulary that you and other people ('we') share in common.

Another possible implication is that for things like b), vocabulary (in this case, for math) only allows you to know math-related things. In math vocabulary, there is no way to talk about love AT ALL. Hence, in a convergent discipline like math, where everything has a fixed definition and is limited in vocabulary, you can't know anything beyond math.

All this limiting creates a shape for knowledge: you can't claim to know certain things unless you can talk about them using recognised sounds, words, gestures or symbols.

Now for the counter-arguments...

However, you can know things that are not limited by vocabulary, but they tend to be subjective things — you are the only one who can know for sure what it means to love another specific person, or what colour you really see when you see 'red'.

When you say 'love' or 'red', people understand what you are trying to say, but not what you really know. You know it without having vocabulary to completely describe it, and other people think they know what you mean, but your vocabulary may not be shaping true knowledge for them.

Thursday, July 07, 2011 5:26:00 pm  
Blogger Lu said...

Thanks a lot for the answer, I found it very useful!
It was interesting to see that I am currently finishing and revising my first "draft" and I have already written some of the things you clarified here, before reading your comment (but after reading it, I feel like my reasoning is backed-up by someone already! :))

Saturday, July 16, 2011 11:47:00 am  
Blogger Sonia Kabra said...

Dear Sir
Can you give examples of art vocabulary and dance vocabulary as you mentioned them in the article above. I am also confused about integrating AOKs and WOKs in my essay. Any suggestions.
Thanks :)

Friday, July 29, 2011 5:48:00 am  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Sonia: Here is an example of dance vocabulary. And here is an example of a visual vocabulary.

Friday, July 29, 2011 7:02:00 am  
Blogger david said...

this helped a lot ! However, when you defined vocabulary as being more than just words of a language , do you have an authoritative source to back that up ? thanks!

Monday, November 07, 2011 3:28:00 pm  
Blogger david said...

Thank you for your insight, it is really helpfull. However, i was wondering when you extended your definition of vocabulary from just a set of words in a language to a set actions ect, would you have a authoritative source to back that new definition? Thank you in advance

Monday, November 07, 2011 3:29:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

David: Yes, and no. If you look at the history of the word 'vocabulary' here, it tells you that the use of 'vocabulary' to mean 'range of language' dates back to 1753.

However, 'language' covers a wide range — consider this notation for example: clearly it is a language and it has a vocabulary (also consider the more common musical notation). So clearly vocabularies can be developed for non-verbal or normally non-written actions. Also, try Googling "language of facial expression".

In short, the term 'vocabulary' has now come to mean what I've defined it to mean in a practical sense. Now, you've asked if I have an authoritative source — well, no. I have assembled an authoritative definition myself by synthesis from many sources. This is a post on how it's done.

Hope that helps!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011 11:03:00 pm  
Blogger Paula Buškevica . said...

I am a bit confused on which angle to take when looking at this question. Either it is about the vocabulary that we have, which limits the way we percieve knowledge and therefore the knowledge we have or could it also be discussed in a way that the vocabulary that other people are using and the words they choose shape our knowledge? For example, advertisements will try you to convince you to buy the product, not just simply state the information about it. Or okay. That's a bad example. What about politicians? They use vocabulary to shape our minds. I'm not sure if this is comprehendable, but I hope you get what I mean.

Sunday, February 26, 2012 3:47:00 am  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Paula: This topic is about how a shared vocabulary (the vocabulary WE have) may constrain the knowledge we can claim to possess. It's not about how people inflict false knowledge on us! :)

Thursday, March 01, 2012 1:39:00 pm  

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