To Expand Your Horizons, You Must Grow Your Language

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Source: picture alliance / dpa / Wittgenstein Archive Cambridge

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher.
One of the most influential in the 20th century — he made significant considerations, especially on the subject of language.

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

With this statement from his first major work, “Tractatus logico-philosophicus,” in particular, he gets to the heart of language’s meaning.

Such a simple yet meaningful sentence. It offers a lot of room for interpretation. I always understand him quite practically — what he means by “world,” I understand as follows:

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The world of language can be roughly broken down into listening and speaking. I myself can communicate with the rest of the world, thanks to language. Likewise, I can hear and understand what others say.

But how well I can do both depends on my language.

A simple example. Imagine you are supposed to paint a picture of a rainbow. Only based on this picture, a stranger should be able to tell what you should paint. Not so difficult, is it?

The only problem is that you can only use two different colors. Now the task becomes almost impossible — who can associate only two colors with a rainbow?

This example shows that our language can be a limiting factor when we want to express ourselves. Nevertheless, we all have almost a pool of everyday language — hardly anyone has problems describing the colors of a rainbow.

Somehow we can express everything — even without technical terms.

But language should also be efficient.

Of course, we can express everything in some way. But here, reality makes a different cut — because language should be efficient to use it successfully in everyday life.

Our goal should be to express what we want to say — possible with as little effort as possible. After all, we all have limited time and mental capacity.

Here is another example with our rainbow.

This time it is about explaining to someone only linguistically what a rainbow is. It would be very inefficient to list all the colors of the rainbow. That would take a long time, and the person would forget most of it after a short time.

Instead of remembering the individual colors, the person is more likely to remember their observation. Because of the way we describe the rainbow, it is obviously colorful. So the listener is more likely to remember that the rainbow is simply colorful.

So we can actually use such a term right away. A rainbow can be described as “colorful,” “multicolored,” or even a spectrum of colors. This saves a lot of time, and the person can also remember our description better. Furthermore, it is not entirely unlikely that we will make a mistake when listing the individual colors.

So far, we have seen how complex and different language can be. But what can we learn from Wittgenstein to master its application?

Expand your language

In everyday life, we do this quite often, but we don’t even realize it. For example, when you start a new job, learn technology, or enroll in medical school, you need to expand your language.

Without all the terminology for the human body parts, we certainly wouldn’t have a functioning healthcare system. We have to expand our language to deal with new areas of demand.

Of course, the surgeon could also give instructions such as “the small bone in the ear.”
But it is much more efficient and effective to talk about the stirrup simply.

If you want to start understanding the world better, you should expand your language. You don’t have to go through a dictionary from A to Z to do that.
It’s enough to stay curious and look up words you don’t understand.

I can recommend a dictionary app in which you can save favorites.
On occasion, you can open them to consolidate your vocabulary.

Slowly you will find that you understand more and more. Especially more abstract and complex ideas that rely on technical words.

Think about your use of language

Actually, language seems very neutral. But it is not. Many terms already carry a negative judgment — such words are called dysphemisms.

The example of the rainbow shows well that we can use language to explain the world to others — but it can also be the other way around. Language is also used to convey something to us.
The danger is that a supposedly neutral message already carries a value.
Such a dysphemism can be used synonymously with another word — even though they carry different values:

Facilitator instead of escape helper.
Killer whale instead of orca.
Rebel instead of Freedom Fighter.

But it also works the other way around. A term can disguise a rather unpleasant thing: Put to sleep, instead of euthanasia.

Language is power. Think carefully about which terms you find appropriate.

Know the rules of the language

Every day we travel in different worlds. As Wittgenstein says, these worlds are limited by our language. He calls the use of language in a certain context a language game. There are rules for such language games.

The word “pig” can be used as an insult. If you use it, someone may be offended by it.

But the word could also be used to refer to the animal. Depending on the culture, even the animal can stand for different things — for some typical food, for others unholy and dirty because of religion.

Depending on the rules, language has different meanings. To use language without problems, we must first know the rules.

Conclusion

That was a little excursion into the philosophy of language. As you can see, there is more to everyday things than we usually realize. I hope you were able to think more deeply about language and why it is so powerful.

Thanks for reading & all the best!
- Louis

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