The Cage of the Language

Wittgenstein: Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.

Passer-by: Where's that guy from? Is he Dutch?

I've never thought much of the Wittgenstein's argument. First, there's non-verbal thinking that can be used to escape the limits of the language. Second, once the knowledge is gained by non-verbal thinking, it can be used to extend the language itself and thus extend the limits of everyone's world.

However, I've been writing newspaper articles and a blog in Slovak lately and the experience made me think of the Wittgenstein quote.

Namely, I had hard time expressing some ideas and making some arguments. Slovak, you see, is a language of 5 million speakers, with ~200 years of history as a literary language. A lot of terms that one can use in English simply do not exist.

I can't say, for example:

I support policy X because it enables economies of scale and I am against polcy Y because it introduces a single point of failure.

There are no widely accepted equivalents to "economies of scale" and "single point of failure".

I can say:

Som za X, pretože umožňuje úspory z rozahu a som proti Y, pretože zavádza jediný bod zlyhania.

It's hard to relate how that sounds. Enough to say that "úspory z rozahu" doesn't literaly translate to "economies of scale" but rather as "savings from the extent". One gets an impression of a crackpot speaking gibberish, making a crackpot argument.

It should be said that this is not a problem in one-to-one conversations. One can use the English term if the other is aware of it, or, if not, he can clarify the meaning of the term in advance. Where the problem hits is the public discussion. There you can't expect the prior knowledge or afford extensive explanations. Attention span in public discussion is, after all, very limited. If you waste your one minute of public attention by explaining what a single point of failure is, you've already lost.

It can be argued that the problem lies not with the language, but rather with the language speakers: Slovaks are simple people, uneducated, they don't have the concept of encomies of scale. Therefore, they should be educated and the the term would force its way into the language all by itself.

But that, while true, is missing the point.

Most English speakers don't know what encomies of scale are either. Yet, with 1.5 billion English speakers there's a large enough minority that does. They use the term, they write about it, they discuss it. If you encunter the term and you are not sure what it means you can google it and find out that there's a lot of hits, that some pretty serious people are discussing it, you can even learn what it means yourself. In any case, there's none of this "lonely crackpot" perception that you get if using a small language.

All in all, in small language communities, the limits of the language are the limits of the Overton window. Some policies are not on the table not because people are oposed to them but bacause they can't even discuss them.

It reminds me of what Joe Henrich says about small populations:

There are these great cases in the ethnohistorical record of groups like the Polar Inuit who get cut off from the rest of the Inuit population. Then they begin to lose valuable tools and technology because their own brains remain the same size, but their collective brain became severed. They’re not able to maintain as much know-how in the population.

April 13th, 2022

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