IB TOK: What is the relationship between language and human nature?

What is the relationship between language and human nature? Stephen Pinker argues that ‘language is a window into social relations’. He explores three types of relationships identified by Alan Fiske: those based on dominance, communality and reciprocity. He suggests dominance evolved from hierarchies, communality evolved from relationships between spouses, family and close friends and reciprocity evolved from the reciprocal altruism of business transactions. Pinker explains how our use of language is appropriate to particular relationships. If the language that is distinctive of one relationship is used in another type of relationship, the convention is broken, creating awkwardness. The clip invites you to think about how language use is governed by expectations and conventions associated with particular social relationships. He then describes the difference between what economists might describe as ‘individual knowledge’ and ‘mutual knowledge.’

You might think through the implications of these distinctions for how we think about language and knowledge.

General questions

  • What is language? How does it function?
  • To what extent does human language compare with communication between animals? For more of an exploration of language in humans and animals: http://www.radiolab.org/story/98611-wild-talk/
  • How is language use shaped and determined by social relationships?
  • What is the evolutionary purpose of language?

Knowledge questions

  • What is the importance of language in different areas of knowledge? How is language used to produce and generate knowledge in two areas?
  • If we want to understand how knowledge is produced in two different areas of knowledge, how might we understand the role of language?
  • To what extent is language a source of knowledge or an obstacle to knowledge in two different areas of knowledge?

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