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5 famous quotes about language – and what they mean to you

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What do you call a LEGO language?

Language allows you to speak about anything. But what happens when wise men (and women) begin to speak about language itself? Is it mainly hot air and super-complicated theory, or can “normal” people actually benefit from their musings? Let’s find out: here’s a selection of quotes by writers, philosophers, and a boy with his tiger.


1. Language as a spectacle

Language is the best show a man puts on. (Benjamin Lee Whorf)

We kick off with a quote from one of 20th century’s most eminent linguists. Already, this sounds surprising: surely a person whose livelihood depends on serious study of language shouldn’t downplay its importance and seriousness? You’d expect words like “miracle” and “achievement” from linguists, but putting on a show? Come on, Mr Whorf…

Actually, the thinking behind it is more serious than it appears. The Whorfian hypothesis – which our first speaker was kind enough to co-develop – suggests, in brief, that language affects our thought, and that the structure of our language affects the way we think about the world. It’s much too complicated and fascinating to study here – let’s just say this: for Whorf, as for many linguists of the 20th century, language was a force that did things to people. So when we read about a “show a man puts on,” let’s think about what language allows us to do.

What it means to you: Think carefully about your words when you ask for your next raise. And enjoy using them!


2. Language as a distinctively human trait

There is no mode of action, no form of emotion, that we do not share with the lower animals. It is only by language that we rise above them… (Oscar Wilde)

Look for Oscar Wilde’s other famous quotes, and you’ll find that the one above is perhaps his least provocative and controversial. Whilst it is true that we can teach parrots to imitate speech – and even teach monkeys sign language – we are so far the only species using language so proficiently. Stephen Fry’s recent TV programme series explored the reasons and effects of this state of affairs – go and watch it to find out more.

What it means to you: If you can read this, you’re privileged species. Make the most of it.


3. Language as a source of weirdness

Verbing weirds language. (Bill Watterson)

 Calvin and Hobbes should know a thing or two about weirdness, and they did on occasion spot the confusing qualities of language. But this quote is perhaps the most succinct example of how language can be used to bring about some new perspectives. And as for Bill Watterson, I think he knew a thing or two about new perspectives.

What this means to you: Use languages to clarify or to confuse, to explain or obfuscate. Each language gives you a chance to do both.


4. Foreign languages as key to your own

Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiss nichts von seiner eigenen.

He who is ignorant of foreign languages, knows not his own. (J. W. von Goethe)

Now we’re getting somewhere!

This German quote is provided in translation. You can read both versions, compare them and start thinking. Probably, you would need some time to come to any conclusions, but here’s what would happen sooner or later if you kept doing that with more examples: you would start noticing differences and patterns in both languages. This would help you learn a foreign language, but also appreciate and understand your own.

What this means to you: Learn more languages = get to know yours better.

Silence is golden. And pretty difficult to obtain.


5. Language and its limits

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

Another chance for you to practice your German, and a most elegant way to end a philosophical treaty. On the face of it, this sentence is self-explanatory – but try convincing any politician or pundit to follow this advice…

What this means to you: Know when to shut up. The clues are similar across all languages.


Do you have any more good quotations like these? Share them in the comments below!

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One Responseso far.

  1. Lorrena Enigmania Elliott says:

    This is really cool – thanks Viktor! I am about to start learning my 8th language and was looking for quotes.. I teach kids but in England, there is such a resistance amongst the younger generations to learn anything other than English – they don’t see the point…. 🙁