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Aims + success of policy



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Language is generally where we begin when we try to explain a concept. But it’s hard to know the exact boundaries of the term ‘language’. Is it written, oral, or all forms of communication? Love, for example, is sometimes described as the universal language; music has been described similarly. So what are we actually talking about? The OED says…



 noun 1 the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way. 2 the system of communication used by a particular community or country. 3 the phraseology and vocabulary of a particular group: legal language. 4 the manner or style of a piece of writing or speech. 5 Computing a system of symbols and rules for writing programs or algorithms.
— PHRASES speak the same language understand one another as a result of shared opinions or values.
— ORIGIN Old French langage, from Latin lingua ‘tongue’.

This fits in pretty well with what we take language to be in theory of knowledge: human communication, either spoken or written. Having said that, we will not only try to consider what part these aspects play in how we acquire knowledge, we will also try to think about other forms of communication that are not written or spoken, since there are so many of them.
Questions we need to think about, amongst other things, are how human beings first acquired language, how language shapes the way we think and the extent to which it manages this, and how far does language assist or limit us as we search for knowledge.

How did language evolve?



Human language can be divided into two types: natural languages and constructed languages. The former are our ‘native’ languages, the ones we learn to speak from an early age (in fact, a new study has suggested we begin to learn before we are even born – see later notes), and which have evolved over a period of many centuries into their present form. The latter are languages that have not evolved over a long period of time, and have been ‘made up’ by humans. They include computer programming languages, and new languages such as Esperanto. In TOK, we are primarily interested in natural languages, though we must not overlook the second form of communication entirely.

When did humans first start to talk?

Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure when language was first used. Estimates vary wildly from the time of Homo habilis 2,000,000 years ago, to the time of Cro-Magnon man around 30,000 years ago. For obvious reasons, it’s very hard to know for sure when human beings (or earlier forms of our species) first started talking to one another. There is some sort of consensus, however, that spoken communication was definitely being employed approximately 50,000 years ago at about the point when humans began to disperse from Africa, moving to other regions around the globe.

Since then, different forms of language began to evolve, and today there are around 7000 different languages being spoken by the 6 billion or so of the world’s population. Many of these can be grouped together into a language family, based on similarities in such elements as vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

Examples of language families are the Indo European languages, spoken by around 3 billion people (including English, Spanish, Hindi, and Urdu), the Afroasiatic languages, spoken by about 350 million people (including Arabic and Hebrew), and the Sino-Tibetan languages, spoken by around 1.5 billion people (including Cantonese, and Burmese). There is a great deal of debate over the taxonomy of language, and what should be the basis for organizing languages into different families. To give some idea of the complexity of the issue, the diagram below left shows the ‘family tree’ of the Indo-European family tracing all the languages back to a common ancestor, whilst the chart below right illustrates the vast complexity of what human language covers with its depiction of how language evolved from its African roots all the way through to the New World
















So where does this leave us? Clearly, the origins and evolution of language are an extremely complex issue. But we are not yet addressing the real questions about the history of language, which may give us an insight into the role it performs.

Why did humans start to talk?

The first thing to think about here is that in order to talk, you need, to possess the physiological ability to talk. Critical in human language is the fact that our larynx is situated relatively far down our throat, which means that our vocal tract is much longer than in other animals, allowing us a much wider range when it comes to articulating noises. Think about the string on a musical instrument: if it is very short, there’s not much you can do with it; a longer one, however, is more versatile, according to where you pluck it.

The British anthropologist Roger Lewin has suggested that new technology used by humans, such as stone tools used to hunt, was one of the ‘driving forces’ in the evolution of the brain. In other words, there was a need to name and label the different tools and the methods used to construct them, and this need occurred at the same time as the brain was enlarging.

Another possible cause – acknowledged by Lewin along with other anthropologists – is that language arose out of a more complex social world, where relationships and interactions were becoming more sophisticated than the proverbial bash over the head with a club, and the future wife dragged into the cave.

Of course, there is no reason why all these reasons together could not be the reason for the appearance of language. As Steven Pinker, the world famous cognitive psychologist puts it:

This triad – language, social cooperation and technological know-how is what makes humans unusual. And they probably evolved in tandem, each of them multiplying the value of the other two.

Indeed as Yuval Noah Harris, author of the bestselling Sapiens, has argued, this amounted to a Cognitive Revolution in which our evolution into the predominant species on the planet was based upon our developing linguistic abilities.

This crucial development in our cognitive faculties, or ability to know and think, was reliant upon our developing use of language as outlined in the table above right.  This is because it started to allow us access to knowledge in a number of different ways, and as a result allowed for individuals humans to start exploring the potential of humanity:

  • Transmitting larger amounts of information about the world around us allowed us to deal more effectively with our world and therefore also saw the development of language as an important factor in what we knew about the world.  This raises questions concerning the degree to which language actually determines what we know - we shall be looking at this in our section Language as Thought 

  • Transmitting larger amounts of information about each other allowed for us to develop much more complex social bonds and made complex tasks easier.  It also saw us developing ever increasing complex relationships with one another, with the use of language central to how we transmit knowledge to one another, how that knowledge is transmitted down the generations and how we validate knowledge passed from others - we shall examine this in our section Language as Communication

  • Transmitting information about things that do not actually exist in the real world such as spiritual and religious belief systems or theoretical ideas has allowed large numbers of us to bond and facilitates cooperation regardless of our 'real' lives.  This in turn raises questions about the extent to which language allows for the use of knowledge in the manipulation of others - a subject we shall tackle in our section Language as Power

The assumption so far is that language was invented by humans, then developed as our need for more complexity has increased. Our brains, in turn, have adapted to be good at learning language. A different approach has been taken by researchers at Edinburgh University, who are examining the theory that it is language that has done the adapting – rather than our brains – to be easily learned by us.  In the words of the research team:

Language, because it is culturally transmitted, is an evolutionary system in its own right. Many of the adaptive features of linguistic structure arise from this process rather than having to be encoded specifically in our genes. Of course, the human brain provides the essential scaffolding for the cultural evolution of language in the first place, but it need not specify all the details innately.

Our last section, Language as a System therefore will be looking at how created languages can help illustrate this key characteristic of language  - a characteristic that may reveals language's true nature once it has been stripped of its uniquely human characteristics.....

Language as Thought (or language determining knowledge....)

The relationship between language, thought and reality has occupied philosophers, linguists, anthropologists and psychologists for centuries.  Dating back to Plato and his theory of forms, he ultimately describes language as being based on reality (which for him was a world beyond ours + of universal meanings).  Similarly John Locke, writing in the 17thC describes the relationship between reality and language, albeit a reality which for him was much more rooted in this world:

Our senses, conversant about particular sensible object, do convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things according to those various ways wherein those objects affect them.  And thus we come by those ideas we have of yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet and all those which we call sensible qualities; which when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces those perceptions

(Essay Concerning Human Understanding, book 2, chapter 1 (1690)).

However, it took the life and works of Ludwig Wittgenstein to 

bring this traditional understanding into a more analytical light

with his two key works transforming long held assumptions about

language and our relationship with it.

- Watch the introductory video below for an introduction

- Click on his picture, right, read and start to complete the activities

  using the information underneath the video...








Theory of Linguistic Relativity - Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis - language determines what we see as knowledge


Contrary to the traditional beliefs among philosophers concerning language, a well-known German scholar and diplomat from the 18th century, Wilhelm von Humboldt equated language and thought as inseparable, as language completely determining thought, in a hypothesis known as the Weltanschauung (world view) hypothesis.  


Although little attention was given to this extreme view at the time, this same idea influenced Wittgenstein's Tractitus, and ultimately drew much interest and criticism in the 1930’s with the emergence of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of Linguistic Relativity.  


This hypothesis was rooted in Edward Sapir’s study of Native American Languages, which later drew the particular attention of Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf.  What caught the attention of many scholars and non-scholars alike and has stimulated comparative research among many different languages was a paragraph that Sapir read to a group of anthropologists and linguists in 1928:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society… The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group.  No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.  The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached

(Salzmann, 1993:153).


Sapir was saying that because different languages represented the world differently, the speakers of those languages would also perceive reality differently.  This statement and similar ones by Whorf, attempting to illustrate that language is the medium by which one views the world, culture, reality and thought have aroused an intense desire in not only scholars but also for non-scholars to validate or disprove this hypothesis that language determines, or at the very least influences, our thought processes.

So what does this mean?

So is language the determining factor in what we each individually see as knowledge, or more of a tool that everyone has in their innate hard wiring that allows us all access to the ability to interpret and transmit knowledge?  What role does language play in determining thought and therefore knowledge?

Open the Word document next to the title Theory of Linguistic Relativity - Sapir-Worf Hypothesis at the top of this section

- Read through, paying attention to the highlighted sections

- Language determines thought - What are the arguments for this? (note down evidence that supports this)

- Language does not determine thought - What are the arguments for this? (note down evidence that supports this)

- Language determines thought to some extent - What are the arguments for this? (note down evidence that supports this)

Which approach do you believe?  To what extent for you does language determine thought?

Choose one and explain your choice using argument, evidence and examples from your own life both inside and outside of school - your life experiences, your studies, your interactions with others....complete googledoc on the right

Language as Communication (or language allowing knowledge transmission....)

Theory of Universal Language - Noah Chomsky - language as a universal tool to access universal knowledge

In the 1960s, a decade on from Wittgenstein's posthumous Philosophical Investigations, linguists became interested in a new theory about grammar, or the laws of language. The theory was popularized by an American linguist named Noam Chomsky who often focused on the effortless language learning of young children.

Chomsky didn’t believe that exposure to a language was enough for a young child to become efficient at understanding and producing a language. He believed that humans are born with an innate ability to learn languages. According to Chomsky’s theory, the basic structures of language are already encoded in the human brain at birth. 

This “universal grammar theory” suggests that every language has some of the same laws. For example, every language has a way to ask a question or make something negative. In addition, every language has a way to identify gender or show that something happened in the past or present. 

If the basic grammar laws are the same for all languages, a child needs only to follow the particular set of rules that their peers follow in order to understand and produce their native language. In other words, their environment determines which language they will use, but they are all born with the tools required to learn any language effectively.

Conversational Implicature - Paul Grice - universal language features that allow for easy exchange of knowledge

Conversational implicatures are, roughly, things that a hearer can work out from the way something was said rather than what was said. People process conversational implicatures all of the time and are mostly unaware of it. For example, if someone asks “Could you close the door?” the hearer does not usually answer “Yes”, instead they perform the non-linguistic act of closing the door. In this case, although the speaker used a form of words that is conventionally a question, the hearer can infer that the speaker is making a request.

Grice was the first to note this ubiquitous feature of language use and also the first to present a philosophical analysis. He begins by noting that conversations are usually to some degree cooperative enterprises.  He then formulates the Cooperative Principle: “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged” (1989, 26).

At a more detailed level, he distinguishes four categories with more specific maxims - Quality; Quantity; Relevance; Manner

  • Quality - Be Truthful

        - Do not say what you believe to be false.

        - Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

  • Quantity - Quantity of Information

        - Make your contribution as informative as is required for its purpose.

        - Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

  • Relevance - Be relevant...although this can sometimes be tricky!

  • Manner - Be Clear

        - Avoid obscurity of expression, rarely used words etc..

        - Avoid ambiguity, unclear language

        - Be brief (avoid unnecessary words).

        - Be orderly, not all over the place...


So what does this mean?

So is language's key role in our evolution and existence that of universal tool which allows us to quickly and effectively communicate knowledge about ourselves  - and so enable both factual information to be transmitted, and social bonds to be formed with one another by establishing common do's and don'ts?

- Click on his picture, right, read and finish the activities

  using the information you've looked at in this section...

Once you have completed the Wittgenstein sheet and saved it,

then move onto the googledoc far right via the question mark..

Explain your opinions about Chomsky and Grice's theories and whether you agree with them or not.

Then, especially with Grice's theory, note down some examples from your life of this in action.  Can you recall this theory enabling you to understand a situation without everything about that situation being explained in the tiniest exact detail? 

(If you're struggling, watch the Big Bang clips, the CCWPhil episode, and the first few minutes of Steven Pinker's cartoon)

Language as Power (or language manipulating what is seen as knowledge)

​Politicians and advertisers are very much aware of the power of language. A clever use of language may influence what people will accept as true knowledge. The connection between language, knowledge and (the abuse of) power provides excellent material for TOK discussions. Language can reinforce relationships of authority, oppress marginalised groups and manipulate thoughts of less knowledgeable people.


Political propaganda, euphemistic language, and the censorship of expression(s) demonstrate the connection between language and power. The history of mankind is thronged with examples of cultural imperialism through language.

Language as reinforcement of prejudice - how what we say and hear can perpetuate inequality, discrimination


Which dialect of your mother tongue do you associate with:

- wealth and access to education (poshest)?

- a lack of wealth and access to education ('roughest')?

Share your findings with others - is there a pattern to your choices?  Why is that?

Are we, albeit subconsciously, using language to reinforce social class, gender boundaries & ethnic hierarchies?

To investigate this further, watch the video clips below, left to right, answering the following questions as you do so

Video 1 - Which UK accent is the 'poshest' and which is the 'roughest'?  Why do you think you see this as the case?

Video 2 - Which UK accent again is poshest and which is roughest?  Why do you think this is the case?

Video 3 - Which UK accent is once more poshest?  Which one is roughest?  Why do you now believe this to be the case?

Feedback to one another and then back to class - which accent is poshest and which is roughest - why do you think this?


Language as Newspeak - how use of words and controlling popular discourse can reinforce power structures


The brilliant book 1984, by George Orwell, really makes us think about the relationship between language, thought and power. 1984 is a dystopian novel which imaginatively explores the possibilities of a totalitarian society in which free choice and individual thought are controlled by the state ['big brother is watching you']. The novel explicitly discusses the power of language as a tool to gather, limit or control knowledge. The following quote from the novel illustrates this point:

"The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought -- that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc -- should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.


To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as 'This dog is free from lice' or 'This field is free from weeds'. It could not be used in its old sense of 'politically free' or 'intellectually free' since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. Newspeak was founded on the English language as we now know it, though many Newspeak sentences, even when not containing newly-created words, would be barely intelligible to an English-speaker of our own day."


- George Orwell, '1984' - Appendix

- Orwell wrote his final novel in 1948 (84..?) in despair at the way the world was

  spiralling into Cold War following WW2 and hoping to warn of the consequences

  of the policies being enacted by all sides.  It remains frighteningly relevant now.

- His book details the growing awareness of Winston, a rewriter of historical 

  documents, of the corruption of his totalitarian world, including how language is being manipulated via Newspeak

- This Appendix is included at the end of the novel, and highlights what Newspeak hoped to achieve and how...

- The first book icon is the Appendix + Newspeak glossary in full: the second - 1984 quotes applicable to our lives and times.


  1. Read the first link and note down particular words which you think are the best examples of language as power.

  2. Read the second link and try to use your list of words from Q1 to find the quotes you think have impact now in the 21stC

  3. Explain why these fictional quotes using a fictional glossary have resonance, or have relevance, to your real life world.

  4. Find some equivalent statements taken from your 21st century world to illustrate your answer to q3.....see below for egs

download (2).png
..especially from 09.30 onwards

Language as Protest - how can words change the way we think about our world and make us want to change it?


Access the link via the book icon on the right and read about how to write a protest song

Watch the videos below one by one and explore how each one protests effectively, noting down:

- what are they protesting about?

- how they use language to do so and

- which examples of language use are most effective


Note these down in the googledoc accessed by clicking on the question mark on the left....

Finally, discuss with others and research independently - what historical change can these songs be said to have played a role (albeit a small role) in bringing about?  How can you link the language used, and how it is used, to these historical changes?  Can you think of any other examples of protest language helping bring about change in the world that you live in?


Language as Assault - how words are used to communicate hostile intent and inflict harm

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