The Hidden Power of Language In Shaping Thought


Language. Has. Power. It can persuade, it can condemn. It can incite war, and quell rebellion. But we know this already. What you might not have considered, however, is the hidden power of language over our unconscious minds, and how they shape the very way we think and feel.

This blog post will firstly consider the connotations of language being the medium of conscious thought; how words shape our attitude and actions. Next we will explore how language may be employed as a weapon (and how it is already being done so) and finally we will delve into the limits of language.

What is language?

A (very) brief history

Language evolved as a means of gossip. It allowed us to discuss whether others are trustworthy, and therefore maintain much larger social groups, a distinct advantage in the wilderness.

Language soon developed into a tool for effective collaboration. We were no longer limited to alerting others of nearby danger (as many animals can), but could now communicate the fact that there is a lion crouched to our left near the Baobab tree.

The real power of language, however, is that it allows the discussion of the imaginary, early on things such as myths and gods, and now later companies, nations, taxes etc. A company for example is not something innate and physical, but a construct. If we all stop believing in Apple, will it not cease to exist, becoming merely a haphazard collection of buildings and people? Likewise with our leaders, is it not our collective belief that they have the right to rule that keeps them in power, rather than some innate law?

This feature allowed humans to thrive, as we could rally behind these collective imaginations. A politician can describe an imaginary possibility, and rally thousands to his cause to implement it (as Robespierre did in the French Revolution), all driven by a common belief. Or an entrepreneur can describe the imaginary future success of his company, and thereby unite investors to support him. This is the power of language.

But what is it actually?

Language is more than a form of communication. It is a system of categorizing the world into distinct ideas, which may consequently be easily expressed and discussed in relation to one another.

Language is a method of communication, cooperation and categorization.

The power of language in shaping thought

The impact of different languages

The linguistic relativity hypothesis questions whether different languages affect our perception of the world. Results are mixed, but researchers seem to agree that while different languages do not prevent us from thinking certain things altogether, they do place emphasis on different information. They thereby encourage us to view the world differently.

For example the Guugu Ymithirr tribe of Australia do not think of direction in terms of themselves, i.e. left, right et cetera. Rather they describe cardinal directions; north, south, east and west.

From an early age they develop an internal compass, and have superb navigation and spatial memory. Does this betray the egocentric nature of Western thought, thinking of everything in terms of themselves? Are these tribe members less self-centred and selfish? Maybe.

How language shapes our thought

Language is the medium of conscious thought. Thought may occur without language, but for us to be aware of the idea, it must be manifested in words. Language must therefore influence thought, as language gives an idea form; the thought must take the shape of its vessel.  

I think of language as a filter for thought. The raw thought (which is amorphous as it has not been clearly expressed in words) must take the form of the words we know. If we only know one word (represented by the rectangular shape) then all our thoughts will take the form of that word.  

I speak more about the power of language and how writing can aid thought here.

The importance of vocabulary

A large vocabulary aids thought

We must give thoughts form before we can interact with them meaningfully. Each word therefore opens up a new path for thought to follow, a new possibility.

The more words we know, the more ‘shapes’ we have to construct our thoughts with, as there are more forms for the idea to assume. Through this we may more accurately represent the raw thought, capturing its details and nuance. The ideas we think, write and speak about become more complex.

More effective communication

As our vocabulary increases in size, so will the quality of our communication increase. This is because words begin to acquire subtle variations in meaning, and the shapes become more specific (like a square versus a pentagon for example). We can give form to ever more detailed ideas.

A good demonstration is the difference between generous and magnanimous. The former means to give freely, while the latter means to give freely to a less powerful person. The use of the word magnanimous has a few pronounced benefits:

  1. It is a subtle remark that one is superior to another. You weave in a subtle undertone, which is more skillful, concise and delicate than explicitly stating their relationship.
  2. The use is more precise, which eliminates the vagueness of a word like generous.

Thoughts must don the garments of language; words not only dictate the shape of thought, but the appearance of its exterior. A large vocabulary allows us to embellish this patina, which may not make communication more effective, but does make it more beautiful and persuasive.

How words change our perception

The words we use greatly influence our attitude and actions. A prominent example is the throwaway phrases we use on a daily basis. Things such as “I don’t have time”, or “I don’t have the motivation”. Most often these are excuses that our mind tends to jump towards, as they are easy. These words influence our actions.

Let us hone in on the example of motivation. It is not something successful people have an abundant supply of. Rather, they rely on good habits. Link to habits blog post after posting to website. Motivation is a myth; it is a word we use to justify our laziness. If you stop using the word, you can change your attitude and actions, relying on yourself, not some mystical Muse, to get things done. The power of language extends to our actions.

Language as a weapon

How advertisers use language

Francis Bacon compiled a list of four biases, the primary perpetrators of perverse thought, the “Idols of the Mind”. One of thse is “The Idols of the Marketplace”, this idea that different people attach different connotations to words based on prior experience.

Advertisers can manipulate this to their advantage by using words that convey a certain meaning, but do not explicitly state it. They know the connotations people will attach to the words, and thereby suggest things about their products that may not be true, avoiding all legal repercussions. It becomes a game of psychology, of subtle, subconscious manipulation.  

The threat of censorship

1984 paints a bleak picture, of a society throttled by the iron grip of the Party. One of their foremost techniques for control is the official language, Newspeak.

Don’t you see that the whole aim of newspeak is to narrow down the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it – George Orwell

Newspeak is constantly refined, with words being replaced, and subtle variations in meaning being eradicated. For example “rebellion” and all words that allude to the notion of rebellion would have been removed. How then does one express dissent?

The final goal of the Party is to have a few stark and simple words that express everything that is necessary. All thought is filtered through these words; they dictate not only what can be said, but what can be thought. It is a form of mind-control.

In a secular society that values free speech, there is no general right not to be offended – Paul Chadwick, the Guardian’s readers’ editor

This danger is by no means limited to fiction. Censorship of words is occurring in the real world, mostly under the guise of political correctness (while it must be said that there are words which deserve to be removed, this is a very small list in my opinion). People do not have the right to avoid (all) offense if they wish to preserve free speech.

Many English words are being phased out due to increasingly petty justifications. While it is not of major concern right now, it may be in the future. We may even start to notice a limitation in the ideas we not only express, but think about. The censorship of language is a rising issue.

The limits of language

Language has limits due its nature as a rough categorization of reality. It fragments the world into ideas that are easy to manipulate and convey, but cannot perfectly portray the world. Additionally, these ideas are relative only to us: we may call something food, but is that its objective nature? What if it is poisonous to all creatures save for us?

Language cannot capture the truth?

Many philosophers have written about this idea that language prevents us from true knowledge. Spinoza believed that we should strive to see the unity in all things; by thinking only in terms of language we fragment the world and do not make progress. Is true knowledge of the world deeper than the intellect? Is it more fundamental than language, something we must feel?

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Taoism talks extensively about the Tao, the way we must follow to live a good life, the truth of all things. Lao Tzu teaches that we cannot describe the Tao in words, but must rather feel it. It is spiritual journey rather than an intellectual one. Do words limit our knowledge of the truth?

Language is a flawed medium of education?

In “On Education” Rousseau speaks about, well, education. He reflects on the limitations of learning through books, and laments that we cannot educate children through experience.

He believed that we can attain greater knowledge through experience untainted by the corruption of society. Words force us to think in certain ways. We must seek not to educate the mind through words, but the heart through experiences.

A limited form of communication?

Language is indispensable for cooperation, allowing for precise coordination of groups. However it may fall short in commucating certain aspects of our lives.

Can language effectively express emotion, or will words never be able to capture what we feel? Maybe art is more suited to express the ideas of the heart, the more fundamental aspect of humans.

Aristotle describes art as catharsis, a release of pent up emotion. Good art elicits an emotional response because it portrays the emotion of another, it reflects their inner state. Is art a better method of conveying emotion, a better therapy than mere words?

Language is a tool we often take for granted, but realizing its role in shaping our unconscious thought, the control of words over us, is decidedly valuable. So I encourage you, equipped with knowledge of the hidden power of language, think about how the words you use shape and define you, and I sincerely hope you come off a better as a result of it.  

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Brian Scoles
1 year ago

As a pastor I’m reminded on an almost daily basis of the power of language.

As you might expect, the Bible has much to say about importance of the tongue, both for good and for evil.

In the book of Proverbs we read, “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply, and how good is a timely word.”

Meanwhile, in the New Testament, James writes:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”