The Invitation to Linguistics: 6 Revelations About the Power of Language

I recently reread “The Invitation to Linguistics”, which is truly an exceptional book that was belatedly appreciated due to its title. It is unrelated to linguistics. Instead, it elucidates, as the author articulates, “the circumstances in which language serves as a tool for exchanging knowledge, emotions, and more, as well as the circumstances in which language exercises control over us.”

The Taiwanese translation title, “Language and Life,” proves more fitting.

During my initial perusal, I focused on honing critical thinking abilities. However, upon revisiting it, the book provided copious inspiration in terms of contemplation and existence.

Revelation 1: Language is not reality, and maps are not the territories they represent.

In our lives, we frequently conflate language with reality.

For instance, in a particular study, a patient displayed an allergic reaction to rose pollen. During an experiment, the researcher unexpectedly presented a bouquet of roses, causing the patient to experience an allergic response. Subsequently, it emerged that the bouquet consisted of mere paper flowers.

The patient’s nervous system automatically disregarded certain characteristics of the flowers, deeming them genuine.

Likewise, when we form words, our language overlooks many features inherent in objects.

Consider the example of referring to someone as a “female driver” or discussing the general traits of individuals from Henan or Shanghai based on a map. Such language disregards numerous other qualities possessed by the person in question.

Since childhood, we have encountered two worlds. The first is the “external world,” perceptible to our senses—the world unfolding before us, encompassing the morning sun we witness, the wind we feel, and the people we encounter.

Yet, this world is remarkably limited. It grants us access solely to the occurrences within our immediate surroundings. We remain oblivious to other cities, the landscapes on far-flung shores, and events transpiring millennia ago.

The second world is the realm of words. Through language and writing, we glean insights from our loved ones or indirectly acquaint ourselves with the world through books, television, and the internet.

The verbal realm is akin to a map of the external world. However, in the process of charting this map, numerous intricacies are inevitably omitted.

This particular revelation holds utmost significance and bears strong ties to the subsequent ones.

Lesson 2: Permitting excessive influence from others’ judgments breeds feelings of inferiority and insecurity.

We possess diverse self-descriptions.

“I prefer staying at home,” “I possess physical attractiveness,” “I am terribly unattractive,” “I am generous,” “I have a volatile temper”… These words, when juxtaposed with the “territory” of our being, can be deemed either relatively accurate representations or gross misinterpretations.

Certain individuals excel in crafting more accurate self-descriptions, earning them the accolade of “knowing oneself well.”

Psychologist Carl Rogers referred to these “self-descriptions” as one’s “self-concept.” However, one’s self-concept inevitably omits a substantial portion of their true self since it is impossible for us to fathom ourselves entirely.

At times, we construct unreal self-concepts because realistic portrayals render us apprehensive.

This apprehension stems from judgments imposed by others (be it family, friends, colleagues, or our perception of their judgments), which we have not thoroughly examined.

Others’ judgment of us merely constitutes a “map,” not the “territory” itself. Allowing undue influence from others’ judgments (and our perceived judgments) constitutes a significant source of inferiority and insecurity.

Consider an individual earning $3,000 per month who, upon encountering online discourse stipulating that a truly capable person should earn $10,000 monthly, proceeds to harbor dissatisfaction with their own earnings.

To lead a fulfilling life, it is imperative to differentiate between the “map” and the “region,” regardless of whether the map originates from our own perceptions or from others.

Revelation 3: Our notion of “understanding” entails imposing order on the world.

When we assert that a scientist “understands” something, we imply that they have objectively and descriptively expounded upon it. By integrating observations and abstract reasoning, they have devised an applicable framework, encapsulating several profound principles to establish connections across various abstract levels.

Similarly, when we claim that a revered religious leader or philosopher “understands” life, we insinuate that they have organized their observations into a set of profound insights, which they express through simple yet impactful instructions.

Likewise, when we declare that a novelist “understands” human existence, we imply that they have meticulously arranged their observations spanning diverse levels of abstraction—ranging from specific and concrete to universal—awakening our own understanding.

Revelation 4: Exercise caution while comprehending knowledge: one can never entirely forgo high-level abstraction nor solely dwell in superficiality.

The nature of “Ahua,” a cow, remains in constant flux. Yesterday’s Ahua differs from today’s, just as this moment’s Ahua contrasts withthe Ahua of the future. Ahua, like all phenomena, is continuously changing.

When we attempt to grasp the essence of Ahua, we face a conundrum. If we delve too deeply, engaging in high-level abstraction, we risk detaching ourselves from the specific and concrete aspects of Ahua—its smell, its appearance, its temperament. We lose touch with the cow itself.

Conversely, if we solely fixate on the superficial aspects of Ahua, we fail to recognize the underlying patterns and universal principles that govern its existence.

Knowledge is akin to a spectrum, encompassing both high-level abstraction and the specific and concrete. To truly understand Ahua, we must strike a balance between these two ends of the spectrum. We must explore the intricate details while simultaneously seeking the universal principles that underpin its being.

Revelation 5: Language, as a tool, can emancipate and oppress.

Language possesses immense power. It serves as a medium through which we exchange ideas, express emotions, and shape our understanding of the world. Language can be a liberating force, enabling us to communicate, connect, and collaborate.

However, language can also be a source of oppression. It can be used to manipulate, deceive, and control. Certain words can marginalize, discriminate, and perpetuate inequality. Language can shape our perceptions and influence our behavior, both individually and collectively.

Being aware of the power of language allows us to wield it responsibly. We can strive to use language to foster understanding, empathy, and inclusivity. We can challenge oppressive language and promote dialogue that respects the dignity and diversity of all individuals.

Revelation 6: Language and reality are intertwined in a complex dance.

While it is true that language is not a perfect reflection of reality, it is also true that language shapes our understanding of reality. The words we use influence how we perceive and interpret the world around us.

Language provides us with a framework for organizing our thoughts, categorizing our experiences, and constructing narratives about ourselves and the world. It allows us to create meaning and make sense of our existence.

At the same time, our experiences and interactions with the world inform and shape our language. As we encounter new phenomena and expand our understanding, our language evolves to accommodate and express these new concepts.

Language and reality are intricately intertwined, each influencing and being influenced by the other. It is through this dance between language and reality that we navigate our existence and strive to make sense of the world.

In conclusion, “The Invitation to Linguistics” offers profound insights into the nature of language, its relationship with reality, and its impact on our lives. It reminds us to be mindful of the limitations of language, to critically examine the influence of others’ judgments, and to strive for a balanced understanding that encompasses both abstraction and concreteness. It emphasizes the power of language to both liberate and oppress and highlights the intricate dance between language and reality. Overall, it is a thought-provoking book that invites contemplation and reflection on the fundamental role of language in our lives.

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