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Tuesday, March 26
6:15 pm - 8:15 pm

Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Neighborhood Library
1630 7th St NW
Washington, DC 20001 US

Get Directions

Organized by:
Center for Inquiry–DC (CFI–DC)


This month’s discussion topic is: Culture and language

Language is, arguably, a distinctly human invention. Human language allows speakers to express thoughts in sentences comprising subjects, verbs and objects—such as ‘I kicked the ball’—and recognizing past, present and future tenses. Non-human communication, in contrast, is limited to immediate needs. Most ape sign language, for example, is concerned with requests for food. The complexity of language has allowed humans as a species to transmit information, work collectively, and organize social relationships.

However, language can imbed cultural biases. Cognitive semantics holds that language is part of a more general human cognitive ability, and can therefore only describe the world as people conceive of it. Different linguistic communities conceive of simple things and processes in the world differently (different cultures). A relatively innocuous example is counting/numbers. Old and middle English, for example, would commonly place the ‘one’ unit before the ‘ten’ unit. English speakers have largely abandoned this, outside of relics in poems from that era, like “Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie.”

Less innocuously, the second wave of feminism in the 1960’s and 70’s drew attention to gender bias in language, including the gendered nature of linguistic rules and norms in English. Even absent an explicit linguistic limitation, the assumptions we carry into language can affect how we understand a statement. For instance the word “doctor” in English is technically gender-neutral, but a listener will often infer a male-gender if used in a sentence if there are no other limiting characteristics.

How much does language define our perception of the world? To what extent can we modify our language to avoid its biases? Can we change language to address the implicit biases that may be embedded in the words and linguistic rules? To what extent is human language needed to convey ideas, flawed though its expression may be?

After the discussion we will head over to Beau Thai down the street for those who wish to have food and continue the conversation.