If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he “felt impelled” to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: “[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.” You see, he “feels impelled” to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

15 thoughts on “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”

  1. Linguistic relativity:


    “The idea of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (/səˌpɪər ˈhwɔːrf/ sə-PEER WHORF), the Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language influences its speakers’ worldview or cognition, and thus individuals’ languages determine or shape their perceptions of the world.[1]

    The hypothesis has long been controversial, and many different, often contradictory variations have existed throughout its history.[2] The strong hypothesis of linguistic relativity, now referred to as linguistic determinism, says that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and restrict cognitive categories. This was held by some of the early linguists before World War II,[3] but it is generally agreed to be false by modern linguists.[4] Nevertheless, research has produced positive empirical evidence supporting a weaker version of linguistic relativity:[4][3] that a language’s structures influence and shape a speaker’s perceptions, without strictly limiting or obstructing them.”

    More at the source.

    This is how I first ran into Sapir-Whorf:

    “The Languages of Pao is a science fiction novel by American writer Jack Vance, first published in 1958, based on the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which asserts that a language’s structure and grammar construct the perception and consciousness of its speakers.[1]

    “In the novel, the placid people from the planet Pao rely on other planets for technological innovations and manufactured goods and they do not resist when an invading force occupies the land and levies heavy taxes. To expel the aggressors and make the planet more independent, three new languages are introduced. A scientific language induces its speakers to innovate more; a well-ordered language encourages its speakers to be industrious; and a warlike language induces competitiveness and aggression. The new languages change the culture and Pao ousts their overlords and develops a sophisticated modern economy.”

    Relevant to the current phase of the culture wars.

    • I’m reading through the Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh again, and the human character is constantly talking about, and demonstrating, that humans and Atevi are not built to understand each other. That communications is a dangerous minefield that can lead to war.

      I’ve spent my whole life trying to understand why people cannot see what is right in front of them when I have been explaining changes in technology. They invariably give me a bizarre answer when I push, then a year after they have adopted the technological change and I have pointed out, “See, I was right”, they always say that the change was obvious and everyone knew it, when that was patently untrue.

      – I have stumbled across many examples of that happening, with it being a recurring Theme in much of my stuff.

      Hans Rosling saw the same thing while he would lecture and could not understand what was going on. He would do quizzes during the lectures and display the results, constantly asking, “Why did you answer that way.”

      He tried to understand it in his book Factfulness, never had a real explanation, just examples.

      Lately I have considered that Sapir-Whorf may explain what is going on.

      I watched an episode of Horizons years ago that demonstrated using a color wheel, that if the language did not have a word for a color, people could not see it. I can’t find a copy of the video on YouTube to demonstrate it, but this site has an example of the color wheels and the discussion.


      This has larger images of the color wheels.


      A simple example is color blindness.

      No mater how hard you try, you cannot get a color blind person to see red or green.

      • There has long been a question about how the ancient greeks perceived the color blue since they had no specific word for it:


        “Although Greece is full of many shades of blue—iconic blue roofs found across the islands, rich sapphire seas, and bright blue skies—linguists and experts on the ancient world have long been puzzled by the conspicuous absence of a distinct word for the color in Ancient Greek.

        Yet does this mean that Ancient Greeks could not see the color blue, as some argue, or that they just saw it differently, considering it not as a distinct color, but as part of a spectrum of shades?

        We know that language, especially regarding colors, has a significant impact on the way we experience the world around us. As linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

        Sapir-Worf isn’t absolute but language definitely influences perception, thought, and expression, as neologisms regularly demonstrate. Dynamic societies have constantly mutating languages with nouns becoming verbs and adjectives and vice versa. Others, not so much.

        Not everybody is limited as Wittgenstein but a strong majority of the world is.

        • Thanks for the link, I’ve added it to my Story Folder.

          Here is another article. There are a bunch of links to follow in the article and beyond, plus a Ted Talk. Watch the Ted Talk many times, and understand what she is saying.

          – That is the heart of so much of my stuff.

          Words are Magic – How the Language You Speak (and Hear) Changes Your Reality

          Look at my comment at the bottom of that page where I talk about something that happens to me way too often.

          BTW, This is another way of looking at this stuff.

          Is Reality an Illusion? | Dr. Donald Hoffman | EP 387

          Anything by Donald Hoffman blows my mind. He has a ton of YouTube lectures, and a book about this stuff.

          But I digress.

        • Still wondering about this, as I remembered one of Athena’s epithets had to do with her eyes, and I couldn’t remember if she was “the grey-eyed one,” or the “blue-eyed one.” Googling it brought me to this rabbit hole:

          Why is Athena “gray eyed”?

          The gist is that “grey” is not a given, she may have simply been “bright-eyed” or “owl-eyed.” I favor owl-eyed, since she’s associated with owls. In Greek myths women are forever referred to as “cow-eyed,” a compliment that has always mystified me, but owl-eyes make metaphorical sense 🙂

          Besides that, if we accept that “blue” was not on the table for Greeks in spite of having both the sea and the sky, blue-eyed people, and also knowledge of sapphires and lapis lazuli, then it’s even less likely “grey” would have been an option, either.

          So it’s “Zeus’s bright-eyed daughter” or “Zeus’s owl-eyed daughter,” but likely not his grey- or blue-eyed daughter. I will check translations accordingly …

      • I share the skepticism of the Thomas fellow in the comments at the second link. I’ve seen it mentioned several times that there are people with apparently normal eyesight who don’t see “blue” or whatever because they don’t have a word for it. And yet. The sky is blue. The grass is green. If I’m going to buy this, I have to know whether or not the subjects of these experiments truly think the sky and the grass are the same color. That’s it.

        Put a green hellebore and a Virginia bluebell next to each other. Both are flowers, do the subjects think these are the same color? Or maybe the flower test isn’t very good; garden catalogs routinely refer to straight up purple flowers as blue for some reason. But still. Purple cannot be mistaken for green if your eyes are functional.

        Someone pointed out the experiments used tiles or colorwheels, and suggested those are not normally used by the Himbas. But skies, grass, and flowers are definitely something they would encounter. The deal with experiments is that you have to be sure of what you’re testing, so I want to see a more robustly designed experiment here.

        • How many shades of white do you know? You don’t have to think it’s the same shade to talk of them as the same color.

          The theory isn’t that they didn’t physically see them as different; just that they didn’t distinguish the shades enough to asign a separate word for those shades. How many shades in the rainbow deserve a separate name?

          Think of this spectrum, where do you draw the borders?


          Or in contrast, think of a big fat box of CRAYOLA.
          How many colors in there? How many do you need? How do you describe them?
          Language influences thought but so does environent. Maybe they didn’t *need* a separate word for blue in theirs.

          • I mean, I used “albescent” in a sentence once. And when I wanted to repaint my room as a teenager my mother annoyed me by bringing beige or off-white paint instead of white. (When a design show on HGTV said beige is the most common color in the universe, I thought that was the most depressing thing I ever heard). Beige! Blech! I don’t think of cream and snow white (for instance) as being interchangeable colors. And I prefer ruby (blue-toned) red to vermillion (orange-toned red). I’ve warned my mother against wearing chartreuse or olive drab.

            In other words, the idea of not distinguishing colors on a spectrum is alien to me; plus I’ve recently had to spend a lot of time trying to create color palettes that have contrasting – complementary colors). HSL, now LCH. What Ms. Verou is saying here is stuff I’ve said to myself when working with web colors, so I’m gonna have to go with, Maybe they didn’t *need* a separate word for blue in theirs.

            Necessity to describe a color being the limiting factor makes far more sense than the claim that people somehow didn’t notice the difference between a blue sky and green grass.

        • Jamie said: If I’m going to buy this, I have to know whether or not the subjects of these experiments truly think the sky and the grass are the same color.

          Found it.

          Horizon Do You See What I See Part 4-4

          It’s easier to see the problem when you can see the people reacting to the screen. I still can’t see the different green square, but the blue square pops right away.

          I was able to harvest the video. That goes into my Story folder.

          This demonstrates so many things. There is the old concept that something can look so alien, that you can’t even see it.

          I had that happen to me at a New York style deli. There was a display counter filled with objects that simply did not make sense to me. I could not focus on the objects. Then I saw the little signs labeling corned beef, pastrami, etc… They were the various meats in their original form, not processed into a loaf.

          – When I understood what I was seeing, I could actually see the meats.

          The old concept, “Seeing is Believing” is false.

          It’s actually “Believing is Seeing”.

          That is fundamental in SF/F/H where the object or creature is so alien to what you know that you can’t “See” it.

          Watch the movie Annihilation for an example.

          Annihilation (2018) – Official Trailer – Paramount Pictures

          • Okay, I saw the video. I’m calling shenanigans on the first researcher because “For the Himba, it was easy to see the green that was different.” Duh, because it’s obviously different! I’m talking about the screen at the 3:07-16 mark.

            And I note the first researcher testing this is a man. No offense, but I don’t think most men would say they prefer emerald to peridot green, jade to chartreuse. I used “carmine” and “vermilion” in my example above because I remember the insurance agent’s remarks when I brought him my first car.

            “This car is red! It is not scarlet or carmine or whatever, it’s red!”

            I laughed because I thought of it as one of those adorably silly things guys say.

            But a woman: “I distinctly said cornflower blue, not baby blue!” And this is a perfectly rational thing to say in my book, notwithstanding the woman’s attitude when she says it.

            I am skeptical the first researcher would have made this claim if he had used Western artists of either sex as his control group. I mean, just walk into the paint section of Home Depot, or the hair dye aisle, or the cosmetics aisle and see the colors of red lipstick. That’s what I mean about a robust experiment; I want to first establish a baseline control group.

            The second researcher seemed on firmer ground, by linking utility to whether or not a color was distinctly named. I’m shocked the Welsh did not originally have a word for brown, given that brown-haired people exist in Wales, and so does dirt … but if everyone you know has brown hair, you may not feel a need to describe it. Perhaps the reason French have “blondes and brunettes” in their language, but the English don’t, is because blonde hair is relatively rare amongst ethnic French people, but more common in English people. This map shows the Welsh part of Britain has more darker-haired people, so the idea tracks.

            The third researcher (who seemed more artistic) noted that women were better at spotting color differences. And it doesn’t surprise me that a woman who thinks less of herself (or powerless) would wear something drab. Like Ekaterin Vorsoisson wearing dun-colored clothes during her marriage to Tien. I think movies play around with this trope, too. Pay attention to how scenes are lit or filtered, and you’ll see it. Bright and candy coated for fun and cheerful, or steel blue (cold and serious)

            • Jamie said: Duh, because it’s obviously different! I’m talking about the screen at the 3:07-16 mark.

              HA! I still can’t see a difference in the green squares, and the Himba still can’t see the blue square.

              It is very possible that you are one of those few people who have an extra color sensor in your eyes that lets you see a factor more colors than normal.

              I am skeptical the first researcher would have made this claim if he had used Western artists of either sex as his control group.

              But that’s the point, he is testing the Himba, not western artists.

              What is fun, the fact that you can see the green square and I can’t, shows me examples I can use in Story. This is actually more profound, and useful, than I can explain.


              BTW, I worked with people who were colorblind. They were drafting technicians drawing in black ink or black pencil. Then we transitioned to CAD systems that used “color” to differenciate the line work.

              I would say, touch the red line to select it, and they could not see red. They would not say that they were colorblind. If they told me that they were colorblind I would have found another way to help them.

              Think about what I am saying, and maybe you will “see” what I mean.

              But I digress.

            • I favor utility myself.

              I don’t think Ekaterin’s atire got much brighter after A CIVIL CAMPAIGN since the Vorkosigan house colors are brown and silver (light gray, basically). And Miles favors gray. More, Barrayarans are a pretty dour people in their time. It’s not a welcoming panet. 😉

              (Pity whichever family ended with chatreuse and green house colors. With 60 major clans looking for unique combos most ended up with garish mixes.)

              Since we keep bringing up Barrayar:

          • Oh, for your story folder: there was this telenovela with a character who absolutely puzzled Americans. She wore this fuschia skirt ensemble in every episode. American viewers kept speculating on why she wore this ensemble all the time.

            Was she pulling an Einstein and just buying identical skirts / blouses, and floral scarves so she didn’t have to think of what to wear? Was she bootstrapping herself by wearing the same outfit every day, because she couldn’t afford more? Except her parents didn’t seem poor, and she was living with them. Was she just quirky, or obsessed with fuschia? And her boss was so understanding, too!

            Then a second character appeared months into the show, and she was wearing the same skirt ensemble. Same fuschia skirt and blazer, same floral scarf. Record-scratch moment, because how could both characters be insane in the same way? Then a Mexican woman showed up in the comments section of that forum and helpfully explained that in Mexico, secretaries wear uniforms.

            We all saw the woman wearing a uniform, yet completely failed to understand what we were seeing, because we had no cultural context for a uniformed secretary. That has to be useful for a first-contact scenario.

            • Jamie said: That has to be useful for a first-contact scenario.

              Yes, I can see the possibilities:

              – One character puts on the uniform and feels proud at what she has achieved.

              – Another character puts on the uniform and feels shame that she has fallen in social status.

              That opens up some interesting stories.


    • Language, culture, and physical reality are all intertwined. Change one, and the other two will also change. (Yes, even physical reality – we humans change it all the time.)

      There are limits, of course, to all three. Language is limited by the “data storage” of humans – even those with an extremely large vocabulary constantly encounter, new (to them) words. Cultural basics can only change so much without self-destructing. Physical reality, of course, has its hard limits.

      (Note – most languages do get around the limit of “data storage,” to an extent, by substituting “processor cycles.” Some more than others. But there is a limit to that, also, except perhaps for humans like Heinlein’s “New Men” as postulated in his novella “Gulf.”)

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