My Exploration of the Mystery of Language

“We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”

— Alan Watts.

Many people believe our perception of language creates reality, but perhaps language creates reality.

 

The Roman emperor, Charlemagne, once said, “To have a second language is to have a second soul.” And he’s right.

When I speak in Spanish (my first language), I enter a world of culture, family bonds, childhood, closeness, traditions, and humidity. When I speak in English, I enter a world of capitalism, dreams, determination, individualism, and ideas.

When I started learning English three years ago, I began to see and think about reality differently. I couldn’t understand why speaking different languages would allow you to see, think, and behave differently.

I will take you through my exploration of how language affects reality. Ready? Let’s go!

Before we start, here’s an overview of the places we will visit together:

  • Different Languages, Different Realities

    • The Framework to Perceive Reality
  • Best Language to Understand Reality?

    • English Domination

      • Bias in Research
    • The Hopes of the World’s Second Language

  • Why Don’t We Create New Words?

  • Why Perception Matters

    • What Plato & The Matrix Taught Us About Perception.

    • Why Language and Culture are The Same

  • How Computers’ Communication Will Change How We Perceive Reality

  • Language is Another Example of a Greater Truth 

Language plays a crucial role in our reality. Language is all about duality. When you label, you automatically separate and constrain. How would we perceive reality if we had no words to describe it? No language in which to think about it? 

Would reality still exist as it seems to do now?

There are over 7,000 languages. Some languages have different sounds, different vocabularies, and different structures. Each language opens up a different world. 

Different languages not only let you enter different realities but also customize each reality. The cognitive scientist and professor Lera Boroditsky mentioned in her TED Talk some examples of how she and her team used scientific data to answer the question of how language shapes our reality. She talked about orientation and how certain people only had cardinal directions in their language. Therefore, they would stay oriented well.  

Another example was time. If you ask an English speaker to organize time, they might lay it out from left to right, but if you ask a Hebrew or Arabic speaker, they might do it from right to left. Dr. Boroditsky mentioned math. Most people use numbers to count. However, some languages don’t have numbers so they have trouble counting and keeping track of quantities. Just having numbers in the language, a whole new world (the world of mathematics) opens up. 

Lastly, she mentioned the color spectrum and events. In certain languages, there are words for different tonalities of color so people who speak these languages (like Russian) can see more colors. While, English speakers, for example, might not even be able to notice the difference between different tonalities of the same color. 

Events are even more interesting. Dr. Boroditsky says that if you have an event like an accident, she says, “In English, it's fine to say, "He broke the vase." In a language like Spanish, you might be more likely to say, "The vase broke," or, "The vase broke itself." People who speak different languages are more attentive to different things. Dr. Boroditsky showed the same accident to English and Spanish speakers. English speakers remembered who did it, while Spanish speakers are more likely to remember if it was an accident. Two people watch and witness the same event, but remember different things about that event. 

Language affects how we see and perceive the world. Different languages also expand your world and give a different framework to perceive reality. Like me, the storyteller and futurist Jason Silva was born in Venezuela and learned English at an early age.

In one of his YouTube videos, he says, “Perception is essentially linguistic. The world is made of language. Reality is kind of written into being inside of these cultural mindware environments in which we live.” We rarely think of language as something significant or how different languages are throughout the world. 

Later in the same video, Silva says, “In order to deal with violence, in order to practice tolerance, in order to fix the maladies of the world, we first need to realize just the fact that all of us are living in different universes, and different cultural worldviews.” 

I have never thought about how people living in South Africa might see the world differently than people who live in Greenland. Or even worse, we think we see the same and agree, but we are seeing different things. It’s like seeing the number 8, people in Cambodia might see it as infinity, but people in Chile see it as the number that results after adding 4+4. 

What if there are other implications to this question? Could this be the answer to our miscommunication problems? Possibly. We as a society always focus on the big problems (war, poverty, etc), but we rarely look at the small (language & miscommunication) problems that may cause a butterfly effect. 

Is there such a thing as a better language to understand reality? 

English has been established as the lingua franca in our world, and because of its powerful network effects, most of the world will speak English, eventually. However, as much as we all might like English, we might become blind, meaning that we might not think about other aspects and factors other languages would have thought about. Five hundred years ago, between five to eight million people spoke English. Now, almost half of the world’s population speaks English.

How did this happen?

This growth has nothing to do with its qualities, and everything to do with politics. English was taken around the world by the British empire. When the Puritans arrived in North America, they were not alone. In fact, other languages such as Spanish, French, German, and Dutch were widely spoken. 

When the Founding Fathers chose English as their language, they understood the importance of language for national identity. English just happened to be the majority language. Without the rise of the United States, the language landscape would look different.

English was also the “trading” language. British businesses, then American businesses' influence have made English the language of international trade in the 21st century. English didn’t just mean “trade,” it also meant success and confidence. American culture was spread throughout the world with movies, music, and technology. 

People learn English to get ahead in life and have access to knowledge. Most knowledge in the world is only available in English, and not only that but also most of the research is done by American English-speaking undergraduates. 

Our research and science are narrow and possibly biased. Science has to do better and should encourage this diversity of language throughout the world. Since the 1970s, the world has seen a big stagnation of progress in the world of atoms. 

Could the reason be that most scientists only know or think in English? It might be. 

Great scientists spoke different languages or barely spoke English such as Albert Einstein (German), Leonardo da Vinci (Italian/Latin), Galileo Galilei (Italian/Latin), among many others. There were also fantastic English-speaking scientists such as Isaac Newton (Latin), Richard Feynman, and Charles Darwin, among countless others. 

This viewpoint might even be foolish, and correlation does not imply causation. But it’s possible that English could be good for physics and biology. Italian could be good for architecture and painting. Spanish could be good for literature and music. Chinese could be good for philosophy and order. There’s no such thing as the best language, there are instead the best languages for certain outlooks. 

Interestingly enough, in 1887 L. L. Zamenhof attempted to create a universal language that would serve as the world’s second language to foster peace and international understanding. This language was originally called “the international language,” but early speakers called it Esperanto. Since its creation, Esperanto was never embraced by large groups of people so it never became what was expected. In the 20th century, Esperanto grew as a language and as a linguistic community. Despite tough challenges such as speakers facing persecution in regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union with Stalin, Esperanto speakers kept trying to keep the language alive by publishing periodicals and establishing organizations.

In the 21st century, Esperanto seems to be gaining popularity. The language learning platform, Duolingo, included the language and caused a significant impact on the language. With approximately two million speakers, Esperanto is the most widely spoken constructed language in the world. Since its creation in the 1880s, Esperanto never reached its goal of becoming the world’s second language. Should we try creating a language again?

Perhaps, the answer might be the creation of a language that takes the best and/or most important qualities and combines them into one language that ignores the least of each reality. 

A language that would be optional to include gender, height, religion, eye color, and profession. A language that would make it impossible to include harmful or problematic information. A language that would include information only when it’s useful, decreasing misunderstanding and ambiguity. A language that would allow us not to see more, but to ignore less

Language Isn’t Fixed

A better alternative could be the creation (invention) of new words and concepts that seem wrong and absurd so that that way we’re able to test and explore new frontiers, discovering a new way to understand our world. Or taking the best qualities of each language and creating words for each specific language after, allowing us to unblind ourselves. 

What could those words or concepts be? Aren't all words invented? Not quite.

We call “real” the things that exist now, present. Not the things that existed in the past or things that will exist in the future. We say things “were” real or “will be” real. Presentism is the idea that only the present is real, and the past and the future are not. Philosophers believed that reality evolves from the present to another.  Then, there’s another alternative called Eternalism, which believes in the idea that flow and change are illusory: present, past, and future are all equally real. 

Both ways to understand reality are not exactly right 1) Presentism does not work because the “present” is not defined globally, it is defined only in our vicinity. If the present that is far away (billions of miles..) from here is not defined, what is “real” in the universe? Physicists in the twentieth century also showed that our world is not described by presentism because an objective global present does not exist.  2) Eternalism, also called block universe, describes the past, present, and future as a single present, all existing in the same way. Eternalism believes that nothing changes, but change, as we know, isn’t an illusion. The fact that we cannot simply arrange the universe in an orderly sequence of times does not mean that nothing changes. It means that changes are arranged in a more complex way, rather than just a single linear succession of instants.  

If we ask ourselves what is “real,” it’s all very subjective and becomes a grammatical question. The grammar of several modern languages conjugates verbs in the “present,” “past”, and “future” tense. It’s not well-adapted for speaking about the real structure of reality, which is more complex. Our grammar may have developed from our limited experience before we realized the complexities of the universe. It is our grammar that is not allowing us to make more discoveries and make sense of reality better due to our antiquated grammar that only distincts the “past/present/future’ in our immediate vicinity. 

We say an event “is,” or “has been,” or “will be.” We do not have a grammar adapted to say an event “has been” in relation to me but “is” in relation to you.  The fantastic author and physicist Carlo Rovelli writes in The Order of Time, explaining an ancient text referring to Earth’s shape. 

He says:

For those standing below, things above are below, while things below are above . . . and this is the case around the entire earth.

On first reading, the phrase is a muddle, a contradiction in terms. How is it possible that “things above are below, while things below are above”? It makes no sense. It is comparable to the sinister “Fair is foul and foul is fair” in Macbeth. But if we reread it bearing in mind the shape and the physics of the Earth, the phrase becomes clear: its author is saying that for those who live at the Antipodes (in Australia), the direction “upward” is the same as “downward” for those who are in Europe.

He is saying, that is, that the direction “above” changes from one place to another on the Earth. He means that what is above with respect to Sydney is below with respect to us. The author of this text, written two thousand years ago, is struggling to adapt his language and his intuition to a discovery: the fact that the Earth is a sphere, and that “up” and “down” have a meaning that changes between here and there. 

I thought terms and words always had a universal meaning and that they never changed. Time relativity was discovered more than a century ago, yet we’re still struggling to make sense of it. The simple fact that the “past” and “future” do not have a universal meaning. Instead, they have a meaning that changes between here and there.  

That would be one of the first terms or words I would create and implement in a newly created language, and possibly all languages. A word or set of words to take into account the distinction between how events happen in relation to individuals.

If You Know the Words, You Know the World 

“The world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish,” said Terence McKenna as he described the magic of words to fathom the mystery of reality.

What if language creates our reality? 

Reality is not what it seems, but what we think it is. Our perception is what matters. One of my favorite books ever is Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, where one of the “agreements” is to “Be impeccable with your word,” meaning that one should focus on the significance of speaking with the highest integrity and carefully choosing the words before saying them aloud. Don Miguel Ruiz’s tribe believed that your words help you create the reality you want to see. For instance, if you want to be successful, your words should be related to success, and not to failure. If you want to be happy, your words should be related to happiness, and not nihilism, and so on. Regardless of whether you believe in this tribe or knowledge, this skill holds lots of value for us. 

This theory was scientifically proven by Lera Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau. In a series of experiments, participants were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in a fictional city and answer questions about the city. The researchers then assessed how people answered the questions based on whether the crime was described as a beast or a virus. In one study, 71 percent of the participants called for more enforcement when they read a crime described as a beast. When the metaphor was changed to a virus, the number dropped to 54 percent. 

This is one of those aspects that intrigue me a lot about language. We can change people’s reality by changing certain words. In the study above, just by changing a word, the percentage dropped almost 20 percent. Imagine if we change the entire language. Perception would be atypical and unassociated with different people in different languages.

Can human perception be that fooled?

This reminds me of Plato's Cave and the Matrix, both concerning human perception. Plato claimed that knowledge gained through the senses is only an opinion and that, to have real knowledge, we must gain it through philosophical reasoning. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato distinguishes between people who mistake sensory knowledge for the truth and people who see the truth. 

While the Matrix focused on Rene Descartes’ questions about the ability to think for oneself. Descartes understood that his sensory experiences did not always match reality. The Matrix suggests that everyone has the individual responsibility to make the choice between the real world and an artificial world. While I’d like to think there are no malevolent forces deceiving us about reality, it is often our senses and our brains that deceive us by providing the limited information on which our perception of reality is based, and we use that information to construct models of the world. The truth is we do live in the Matrix, one composed of 86 billion neurons, and 100 trillion synapses. 

Language & Culture

In the early 1930s, a language hypothesis was developed. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or the hypothesis of linguistic relativity. This is a principle that claims the language structure affects its speakers’ worldview or even cognition. Therefore, people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language. The principle is often defined in two versions. The strong hypothesis says that language determines the thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. The weak hypothesis explains that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions. 

The strong version is highly criticized and not well-liked by the scientific community. One of the strongest opponents to that view is the American linguist known as the “father of modern linguistics,” Noam Chomsky. He and others such as Bloomfield believed that they could study language independently from both semantics and culture, they believed that linguistics is the study of lifeless forms. On the other hand, Sapir and Whorf believed the opposite: language and culture are two sides of a single coin. 

Many of the critics just don’t understand the hypothesis well enough as most of the objections reflect prejudices and misinterpretations. 

How Computers Perceive The World

The smartest humans are worried about A.I., and its dangers of taking over the world. A.I. is not just a single robot, and if they want to take over the world, they'd have many robots, and for that, they need to communicate. Have you ever asked yourself how machines communicate with each other? There are lessons for humans to learn. 

Language is all about duality. Humans use labels to separate and constrain. That’s how our brains function. We require labels to say whether a person is of the same race or gender. Machines do not need to use labels. They do not name things. All machines need to do is clustering, which is a machine learning technique that involves the grouping of data points that have similar properties and/or features. The computer might not know if you are a man or a woman, but the computer can take other people that look like you, and make decisions about your gender easily. Instead of saying, “She is a woman.” Computers just have to say that Cluster 1 is similar to Cluster 3

Machines can look at humans with the freedom of not having to use labels, just clustering. They function without labels. That’s the ultimate computer thinking. Humans think in labels, but computers don’t need that. They’re free of the constraint we humans are limited by. 

What if we can get rid of that limitation?

In the future, we will create brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers, which leads me to think about how our language will change and if our language will include computer perception. 

This is both fascinating and scary because we would all be smarter, but we would not be the same, meaning that we can know all the world’s information, but our thoughts could easily be manipulated and distorted. 

How will this technology work?

The tech startup Neuralink began building implants that connect human brains with computer interfaces via artificial intelligence. This has the potential to create a brain-machine interface (BMI) system, connecting the brain to an external device to form a brain-machine interface. This could be a way to enhance our brains, allowing humans to merge biological intelligence and digital intelligence. 

No one knows how brain-machine interfaces will impact our perception of reality and language. 

Would your new language include computer perception?

I’d assume that we would still speak English, and if someone doesn’t know English, perhaps it could be downloaded to them. What could dramatically change is our thinking. We will think faster and we will see our reality in more detail. Perhaps, what Neuralink is trying to do is create the Iron Man Suit, allowing communication and real-time interaction between the human brain and electrical devices.  Tony Stark’s technologies are an excellent estimation of what future development could look like. 

Beyond Iron Man, what will likely happen because of this symbiosis is that we will get to a point where speaking will not be necessary. We will telecommunicate and understand each other's thoughts. If this happens, the compression, ambiguity, and cultural influence of information will be eradicated from language. 

Language is Just Another Example

I’m astonished by similar topics that can be explored using Peter Thiel’s answer to the question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” His answer is, “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.” This is just an interesting framework for life and even science. 

If you think I'm wrong, I'm probably right but even if a very few of you think I'm right. I'm wrong. What's the goal here? Being wrong. I want to be wrong. Hypothesis tests should always try to be proven wrong, rather than proven right.  

To me, x = perception of language creates our reality, and the opposite of x = language creates and affects our reality.

There should be a law that could explain how x is actually the opposite of x. This should be a physics law that everyone should understand. It would be interesting to research and come up with some form of an equation. 

Paradoxical truths are interesting because they are often the exact opposite of what we think. 

When I began writing this essay, I knew there had to be some correlation between language and reality. Then, I realized that our perception plays an even more important role. Not only our perception, but we think other people are understanding what we are saying when actually they’re seeing something else because of how reality is written inside these cultural environments that are essentially different universes. 

Later, when I asked myself, “Why is English the dominant language?” I understood what had occurred. English just happened to be what powerful people decided to use. 

A logical question would be, Why don’t we create a new language? That’s when I found Esperanto and its promises. After I realized that creating a language is troublesome, a better alternative would be the creation of words to see and understand reality better.

I wanted to discover in-depth how crucial perception is. I went back to the times of Plato, and even the times of The Matrix. That is when I realized when we do live in The Matrix, one composed of 86 billion neurons, and 100 trillion synapses. 

Brain-machine interfaces are coming soon, so I wanted to understand how that would affect our language. I explored how computers make sense of the world and how merging our intelligence with theirs would look like for us (Hint: we probably won’t need to speak).

Language is beautiful. It defines, shapes, and transforms us. Yet, what was developed to facilitate communication between each other needs to change and evolve. The first step is to realize the implications that language has on our perception of reality. Secondly, we need to acknowledge that English might not be the best language for research or business, perhaps we need to create more words or change the language. Lastly, we need to embrace our ignorance as language might seem shallow, but its implications change the lives of all of us. 

...

 

If you’d like to receive future essays via email, subscribe to my newsletter.

 

Thanks to Joseph, Hal, Daniel, Adam, Pranav, Shamay, Johnny, and Charlie for their amazing feedback on this essay. Super grateful to you guys!