Our vocabulary is the set of words and their meanings that we possess and are able to use. It is an instrument for verbal communication used to acquire knowledge through language, both written and oral. Our vocabulary allows us to spread information and communicate it not only to others but to ourselves. As a powerful tool that we often use to share and obtain knowledge, vocabulary, or lack thereof, will have an effect on our knowledge, but to what degree? According to the claim in the title, our vocabulary affects our ability to know to a large extent, and is capable of shaping, or in other words, confining and influencing, our knowledge and its scope. This essay will explore the validity of this claim by examining the roles and limitations of vocabulary in knowledge acquisition for different areas of knowledge, and the extent of these roles and limitations.
Although vocabulary is a useful medium for communication, it does not always communicate knowledge effectively. A single word can have so many different meanings, yet no two different words are identical. Even synonyms differ in their secondary meanings and connotations. This characteristic of vocabulary causes confusion in both communicating and receiving information, and has the power to distort and shape what we can know. Consider the framing effect in psychology, in which people alter their decisions when the presentation of identical options is manipulated in different ways such as word choice. This phenomenon has been observed in many surveys. In a study on public opinion of synthetic biology, participants showed more opposition to the field when "create" was used to describe it compared to "construct" (Pearson). Words are symbols that represent ideas in reality, yet the two cannot be equated because there is a difference between word and idea. Two identical words could have different meanings in different contexts; different words could represent an identical idea.
Here, “create” and “construct” represent the same reality, but the connotations associated with the words are different, resulting in a different response from survey participants. “Create” implies a greater degree of risk and spontaneity and can be connected directly with “playing God”. Vocabulary can limit knowledge because words, with their multiple meanings and connotations, are not always a full representation of reality.
The claim that vocabulary shapes knowledge can also be examined with respect to different languages—each has a unique lexicon with words that have no equivalent in another language. As an English and Chinese speaker, I have noticed the significance of this. In Chinese, the titles used for family members are often more precise than in English. I could call both my mother’s younger brother and my father’s older brother using the same word in English: “uncle”. But if I wanted to address my uncle in Chinese, I would have to consider whether he is my maternal or paternal uncle and whether he is the...