High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

In Search of a Language Utopia
© Lauren Fonteyn
© Lauren Fonteyn © Lauren Fonteyn

In Search of a Language Utopia

In Philosophy, the concern has been raised that some concepts we employ in our everyday language may undermine our ability to think clearly and portray the world accurately. In search of a language utopia, where language does not contain any paradoxes, unnamed concepts, vagueness or ambiguity, they devised the practice of ‘conceptual engineering’ to improve the way we speak about concepts. But is it possible to ‘improve’ language? And if so, how should we go about it?

Once, not too long ago, a linguist and a philosopher walked into a Zoom meeting and struck up a conversation about language. “Isn’t it funny,” said the linguist, “that instead of discussing what language is really like, people keep getting lost in arguments over what they think it should be.” The philosopher frowned in response, and said: “Why is that funny? As a conceptual engineer, some aspects of a natural language are problematic and defective, and we could, somehow, work on changing them deliberately. I’d like to work on a language utopia.”

The linguist was shocked. Such a prescriptive, idealist way of approaching language has not been en vogue in Linguistics for as long as she can remember. So, the linguist retorted with a speech about respecting the beauty of natural language, and explained how linguistic changes are most often not deliberate and very difficult for a single person to halt - let alone cause. This, in turn, puzzled the philosopher, baffled by the linguist’s insistence that ‘one swallow doth not a summer make’: that language change has to be spread and adopted by a large community for it to exist. Still, she could not help but appreciate the thought: the way in which we talk about concepts matters, and indeed, the ways we currently do so are, in many cases, far from utopic.

Engineering concepts

For philosophers, the idea that concepts may need ‘fixing’ started with the observation that some concepts are paradoxical. The Liar Paradox, famous amongst logicians, illustrates just that: imagine someone who states “I am lying” – Is this statement true or false? If this statement is true, then the person is lying, which means the statement must in fact be false. But if the statement is false, and hence a lie, then the statement must be true. Faced with this thought experiment, many logicians have concluded that the paradox has no solution, because ‘truth’ is a problematic concept. That does not mean, of course, that we cannot use the concept (in fact, we cannot do without it), but we must remain wary of its paradoxical implications.

Yet, instead of giving up and giving in to such paradoxes, we could also take the defective concept of ‘truth’ and revise it. For example, Philosopher Kevin Scharp proposes to disambiguate between two notions of truth, ‘truth’ of a statement, and ‘truth’ of its content, and we must not mix them up. In the Liar Paradox, 'I am lying' can thus be judged in two ways. If the statement is first held to be true, then its content is true as well. In that case, the assessment of the statement is that the liar is indeed lying, full stop. In contrast, if the content is first held to be true, then the liar is being truthful, but the statement is a lie and thus false. In a way, philosophers like Scharp are what we could call ‘conceptual engineers’: while engineers design tools, machines or structures to solve problems, Scharp tries to solve a paradox using only concepts. That is the crux of conceptual engineering, a current hot topic in philosophy: it is about determining when a concept is defective (by being paradoxical, or vague, or ambiguous), and establishing how it can be improved by resolving its defects.

Much of the scientific practice involves redefining the concepts we use

Philosophers are not the only ones who engineer concepts; much of the scientific practice involves redefining the concepts we use. Linguistics has also been doing it for a long time. The concept ‘word’ is problematic when we consider whether ‘book’ and ‘books’ count as the same word, never mind complicating this with compounds like ‘bookcase’, or contractions like ‘dunno’. Outside of English, it gets even more complicated. ‘Pitiwuliyondjirrurlimpirrani’ (from the Australian language Tiwi) roughly translates to “They would carry the dead wallaby on their shoulders”. Is this a word, a sentence, or something in between? Linguists created ‘lexeme’, ‘type’ and ‘token’ to help with this ambiguity, just like physicists distinguish ‘mass’ and ‘weight’, or economists distinguish ‘money’ and ‘currency’.

Of course, the philosopher acknowledged, it is a fair question whether these intricate conceptual thought experiments matter to anyone but philosophers and scientists. The answer is simple: they do. Conceptual engineers also consider concepts that have real consequences for everyone in a given society. Defining ‘gender’, ‘woman’ or ‘minorities’ in a broader or narrower way can have a large impact on the people that fall into these categories, and defining ‘freedom’ in legal and political contexts is crucial to safeguard human rights in a constantly evolving world.

Paradox resolved, problem solved?

So the cause of conceptual engineering is noble. But to engineer a concept in one’s head is not the same as changing language, the linguist said. A concept hasn’t really changed or improved if no one uses it differently afterwards. How could we go about bringing a solution from mind to mouth?

This is where conceptual engineering is in danger of becoming something it did not intend to be. If the aim is to get people to use the concept differently, what then is the distinction between conceptual engineering, language planning, activism, or even propaganda?

The problem of spreading concepts

In order to clarify why the differentiation between conceptual engineering, language planning and activism is important, we must first look at how the same issue can be addressed by each of these processes. One of the best examples of change in action is perhaps the revision of the Dutch pronominal system. For a long time, the gendered pronominal system in Dutch only offered a binary distinction between hij (masculine) and zij (feminine), and did not allow its speakers to refer to people in a gender neutral way.

Turning first to how the pronoun debate is handled by conceptual engineers, there are many reasons to engineer “hen/hun” to act as a 3rd person singular pronoun in Dutch. Having a way to refer to people in a gender neutral way may also help reduce social biases when referring to unknown persons. This could both be beneficial in terms of equality and in terms of clearer thinking, since these biases would not have to be confirmed or disproven. Furthermore, simply allowing a diverse population freedom of expression is also a goal in and of itself.

Allowing a diverse population freedom of expression is also a goal in and of itself

Social activist groups have also fought in the pronoun debate, and many instances of trying to change popular speech occur through social activism. Groups fighting for gender equality and freedom of expression have created awareness around the issues associated with binary pronoun systems for decades, and in 2016, the Transgender Netwerk Nederland strongly felt a gender neutral third person pronoun solution was long overdue. Consequently, they held a survey with 500 non-binary Dutch people, who voted on the pronouns they would prefer to be referred to by. The options were die/die/diens, or hen/hen/hun or dee/dem/dijr, of which the second option won.

Finally, introducing “hen/hun” could also be a case of language planning. Typically done by governments, or other legislative bodies such as language academies or dictionaries, language planning also consists of deliberate efforts to change language learning, structure, and language choice. Including “hen/hun” in dictionaries would be a case of this.

Utopia or dystopia?

For a minute, the zoom meeting fell quiet, until the philosopher spoke. If a change is consciously pushed upon a community, he asked, when does this stop being conceptual engineering and start being language planning, social activism, or even, in stronger terms, propaganda? Forcing people to change the way they speak is reminiscent of Newspeak in George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, where new terms are introduced to create an allegedly (but far from) perfect society. When the principles of language planning and social activism are used for manipulation or political gain, it can become propaganda. If conceptual engineers are not careful, what they do seems to inch uncomfortably close to propaganda – which raises the question: could conceptual engineering just become veiled propaganda?

Same ends, different means

The linguist and the philosopher pondered these issues. After a while, they started considering the means by which these processes occur. If all these undertakings have the same goal and motivations, they can still differ in their means.

Efforts of language planning are closely linked with governmental or institutional organisations, who may use their administrative authority to impose certain language varieties of language choices. Social activists can pressure change through demonstrations, rallies, social media, or even word-of-mouth; they have a large range of means at their disposal. So, where does this leave conceptual engineers?

Efforts of language planning are closely linked with governmental or institutional organisations

Conceptual engineering started out as a methodology to identify, grasp, and reason a way towards a solution for problems in academic and scientific circles. Even when applied to social issues, it still tries to first get to the core of what the issue is, and then works out reasoned arguments for why a concept needs revision, which can be offered to a community (or to administrative bodies) for consideration. As such, they both agreed, conceptual engineering only remains its own separate process so long as it solely employs reasoned arguments.

And so the meeting between the linguist and the philosopher came to an end. “It’s nice,” said the linguist, “that we agree that trying to make language better shouldn’t be about forcing people to stop speaking ‘wrong’, but to thoroughly reflect on why the way in which we talk about concepts matters.” The philosopher agreed, and they both hoped others would too. In a click, their Zoom meeting ended. Each of them joined other meetings, using reasoned arguments to discuss linguistic and philosophical concepts.

Sign in

Register or sign in to read or purchase an article.


You are visiting this website through a public account.
This allows you to read all articles, but not buy any products.

Important to know

When you subscribe, you give permission for an automatic re-subscription. You can stop this at any time by contacting emma.reynaert@onserfdeel.be.