For example, does breaking down a complex concept, initially described with scientific and uncommon terms, into less complex language degrade the understanding of the concept or can it maintain all it's relations and objects? How does using simple language change the understanding or perception of a complex concept?

Another way to look at the question is can certain thoughts exist without specific words to wrap them in, or are some thoughts dependent on the vocabulary/language?

If so, does this imply that new words can lead to new concepts that have never been produced and shared by others? For example, in George Orwell's novel "1984" the government introduces a new language called "Newspeak" that must be spoken by all citizens. This new language does not have any words for the concept of freedom, liberty, etc - so that these ideas would be very difficult to expand into reliaty (keeping the government in control of course).

The complete Wikipedia article on language and specifically "Semantics" has a lot of insight but did not lead to any answers.

Thank You.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Related: Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky's talk 'How Language Shapes Thought' - fora.tv/2010/10/26/Lera_Boroditsky_How_Language_Shapes_Thought $\endgroup$
    – BenCole
    Nov 9, 2012 at 0:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Just a thought: some of the best scientific articles I read were written using more or less common language with technical terms sprinkled here and there. This is in contrast to articles where I can understand 1 word in 7, and in most cases that word is not a noun. Reading your question, the word Noesis comes to mind: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noesis $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Nov 9, 2012 at 3:48

1 Answer 1


This question is pretty broad, but perhaps these studies address your question.

In 2006, Daniel Oppenheimer won an Ig Nobel prize for his paper Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly, which demonstrated that using overly-complex words when a simpler word would suffice resulted in lower intelligence ratings of the author. Additionally, this may lead readers to rate the content as less true (Reber & Schwarz, 1999). So to answer one of your questions, yes, the language one chooses to use can change a reader's perception of it.

More to the point, your question is related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines thought (or the weaker hypothesis, that language influences thought). The strong version of this hypothesis (language determines thought) has been pretty thoroughly debunked. However, there is some credence to the idea that language influences thought. Many studies have examined this hypothesis, but one example is that of Frank et al. (2008). In this article, Frank tests an Amazonian tribe (the Pirahã) who have no number words-- purportedly, not even a word for 'one' or 'two'. Frank tested them on a variety of counting tasks and found that overall, their performance suffered in comparison to nearby tribes who did have number words. His claim is that number words serve as a cognitive tool to perform basic counting and arithmetic, but the lack of those words does not affect their ability to perceive quantity.

So overall, there is very little evidence to support the strong hypothesis that not having a word for a particular set of semantic features affects our ability to conceive of those concepts. However, not having those words may have subsequent affects on other areas of our cognition, such as (in the case of the Pirahã) our ability to count.

Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20(2), 139-156. PDF

Reber, R., & Schwarz, N. (1999). Effects of perceptual fluency on judgments of truth. Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 338–342. PDF

Frank, M. C., Everett, D. L., Fedorenko, E., & Gibson, E. (2008). Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition, 108(3), 819-824. PDF

  • $\begingroup$ Not having a word for something certainly affects being able to talk about it, learn about it, search for it, etc. It is not impossible to manipulate a concept without a word for it, just a lot harder, like eating soup without a spoon. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Oct 3, 2016 at 19:40

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