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The Bias of Language -- How Language Interacts With Meaning and Vice Versa

Updated: Feb 22

A young land holdina a colorful designed object.



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How Language Shapes Our View of the World


When it comes to the quest of seeing things "objectively," there is a great problem that could easily stand in anyone's way, no matter how dumb or smart they are: Their own specific language or languages. That is because a language is more than just a means of communication; it is a product of history, culture, and countless local interactions, which in turn give different meanings to the same objects of which we speak.


Using an old example, the first book of Harry Potter was called "The Philosopher's Stone." Funnily enough, in Hebrew it was translated, and rightfully so, to "The Stone of the Wise" (Even Ha-hamim). The reason for this is because philosophy has different meanings in at least these two languages. In English, it is the combination of "love" and "wisdom," while in Hebrew, its original meaning is simply "creation" or "composition," AKA "Hagut."


While the "textbook" philosopher is a lover of wisdom, the "Hebrew" philosopher is simply a "composer of thoughts" or "Ho'ge De'ot." In more archaic form, the philosopher is also a sage, both of which translate to "Haham", even though the philosopher and the sage are not identical.


This seemingly trivial difference highlights a profound truth: The way we talk about the world shapes how we perceive it. The conceptual categories and nuances embedded within our language act like filters, directing our attention to certain aspects of reality while obscuring or overlooking others. In the case of philosophy, English (and Greek originally) emphasizes its pursuit of knowledge and understanding, while Hebrew focuses on its creative and transformative power.


This is not to say that language is a prison that confines us to a specific worldview. Rather, it is a lens that allows us to see the world in a particular light, highlighting certain features and colors while muting others. As we become aware of these linguistic biases, we gain the ability to adjust our perspective and seek out alternative interpretations.


The next time you encounter a term or concept that feels foreign or ambiguous, remember that it might be reflecting a different way of seeing the world. Of course, language is mostly a product of a specific group or groups of people, with their on history. That's unless the language is international, like English, which can be more easily shaped, and is less prone to biases of specific culture/s.


Instead of dismissing a term as wrong or irrelevant, use this opportunity to expand your own understanding, and even appreciate the richness of human experience through the diverse lenses of language/s. A case example: "Robotically" can be dismissed as irrelevent when something was not made by a robot, while in reality, "Robotically" can also mean "with little to no emotion or spirit". Being able to clearly spot the difference between the aspects of the same word is not always an easy task.


More specifically, not being able to read the true intention behind a written communication can negate its original meaning, which serves as evidence that the language and it attributed meaning are not the same. Automatically picking up the meaning we theorize to be correct, with the presented form of communication can lead us to over-dependence over our faulty understanding. That understanding is something's that can be improved.


How Language Assigns Specific Value


This difference between language and perception has profound consequences. An English speaker might readily accept that many people are smart, but only a select few qualify as sages, implying exceptional wisdom and virtue. In Hebrew, however, the line blurs. Since all people who are "smart" are technically "sages," as the term is identical: Hacham. Furthermore, in a certain Jewish ethnicity, it is synonymous with Rabbi, which can be translated to the honorific of "Master". As such, the Hebrew terminology loses its specific exalted status of intelligence that's present in English, becoming a mere descriptor for someone who is a deep thinker/knowledgeable.


And here lies the power of language. The meaning of "sage" in English is embedded with connotations of exceptional wisdom, while in Hebrew, it's simply another personality trait, potentially as common as "brown hair" or "loves dogs." This linguistic divergence subtly shapes our perception of such individuals.


This influence extends beyond single words. Consider the "English" term "solitude," a borrowing from Old French. In English, it carries largely positive connotations of peaceful introspection, a welcome respite from the bustle of daily life. However, in French, the word "solitude" retains a more negative connotation of loneliness and isolation. For example, the expression of "souffrir de la solitude" means "to suffer from loneliness". Loneliness, in English, is the negative form of solitude, often referred to as a contemporary epidemic which I've tried logically solving before.


This linguistic nuance paints a different picture of someone choosing being alone. In English, they're enjoying, while in French, they might be feeling sad for having no friends. See how the knowledge of different languages, shape the specific value we may attribute to the same concept. As such, having poor understanding of a language could easily lead to a misunderstanding that ignores specific cultural contexts.

As a philosopher who navigates both Hebrew and English audiences, I've personally encountered this phenomenon. After years of public service, I've received numerous accusations of "pretentiousness" from English-speaking audiences simply because I engage in deep thinking, a natural part of my profession.


By the same token, no such accusations have ever surfaced in my Hebrew interactions, even with doctors specializing in philosophy and humanities. This remarkable contrast suggests the influence of language in shaping how we perceive and judge others, often without conscious awareness. Consider the associations in English with the word "intellectual". Sounds pretentious yet? Hebrew, originated from a rich history of an ethnicity of scholars in many areas. This applies to both Ashkenazi Jews and Sepharadim Jews in their own respective ways.


Language, Culture, and Pluralism's Promise


Understanding the intricate interplay between what we value as individuals and the overall cultural imapct on our system of values, can be extremely complex, but could yield crucial insight for fostering deeper, cross-cultural understanding and communication. By recognizing how our languages shape our values, and hence our morality and belief systems, we can break free from their limitations and embrace the richness of diverse perspectives from various of people worldwide.


The quest for objective truth may be fraught with challenges, but by acknowledging the subtle influence of languages, and the ethnic trail that follows in the course of history, we can take a step closer to seeing the world through a lens of wider understanding and appreciation. As such, pluralism isn't only important for diversity's sake but also for a wider understanding of reality. Lastly for this segment, this further hallmarks the dangers of communicating within metaphorical echo chambers.


In order to enhance our understanding we must question our current understanding of reality and that can be done by diverse exposure to content and discussions. Therefore, pluralism is also a very underrated intellectual value, as its worth is ignored through intolerance.


The gatekeeping of knowledge through academic institutions can easily lead to loss of a wider exchange of ideas and therefore is unwise to rely entirely on academics, particularly in the fields of humanities. This is merely an application of this segment's logic to the academic department. I myself am not an academic, despite considering myself educated.


How Innocence Backfires in Language


My personal experience with people of different demographics online, further underscores the intricate dance between language and perception. The external world seems to harbor a curious wariness towards words associated with wisdom, as modesty is considered a value in many cultures worldwide (and thus an "objective value" above authenticity).


The mere name of my now-defunct "Museum of Wisdom", a very large community I managed in 2020, was met with a rejections. These rejections of course ignored my innocent usage of the word, intending to make a archive of insight (like Philosocom). Using terms like "wisdom" felt natural and unpretentious to me, yet they triggered suspicions of arrogance and pomposity among non-Hebrew speakers. Perhaps a less resonant term, like "Hall of Insight," would have been more embraced?

This episode highlights a critical truth: mastering a language requires not only its mechanics but also the subtle power dynamics embedded within its words. The meaning woven into a native speaker's understanding of a word can be vastly different from what a second-language speaker perceives. This inherent subjectivity challenges the very notion of objective truth, as the meaning becomes inseparable from the language itself.


The same applies not only between users of different languages but within the same language as well. You may find that philosophers are very blunt because they might ignore the emotional value associated with certain words. They may claim that what you said is a mess of nonesense merely because it contained no logical reasoning. However, you might be offended and take it personally to your own self-worth.


Words, yes, like "irrelevant" do not necessarily mean to offend the other person but simply state that something -- or them -- have little-to-no connection to a larger context. Regardless of what one feels, that statement can be backed up by both logic and evidence, AKA the components of truth. While the irrelevant person might feel that his or her emotions are "being cancelled", it's just that their perception of the same word, "irrelevant", is simply different due to the bias of language and their perception of it.


As I learned myself language isn't to be taken personally. Taking the usage of language too personally and we may be offended easily and unnecessarily.


Conclusion


Navigating the landscape of language demands more than just grammatical accuracy. We must cultivate a sensitivity to the cultural nuances and emotional baggage that words carry, particularly when crossing linguistic borders, but not exclusively.


Recognizing the potential for misinterpretations and embracing diverse perspectives are crucial steps towards bridging the gap between languages and fostering genuine understanding.


Ultimately, the quest for clear communication lies not in achieving absolute objectivity, but in acknowledging the power and peril of words, and using them with an awareness of their multifaceted meanings, and their potential to shape both our own perceptions and the way others perceive us.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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