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From ‘Humanist Geography’ by Yi-Fu Tuan (2012)

Posted Saturday October 1 2022.

People feel they live in the same world in large part because they apply the same words to the same things. If I am not a botanist, why do I still want to know the name of a flower? What additional information do I gain when I am told I am looking at an African violet, a specimen of the Saint-paulia ionantha? None. Knowing its name reassures me not because I know more about a plant but because I now share one more term - and, therefore one more bit of the world - with my fellows.

Although words held in common bind, to prefer that function effectively there mustn’t be too many of them. And there aren’t. In fact, conversational vocabulary of the sort we use in daily life is surprisingly small: in modern society, it may not be many more than a hundred words. Important to social binding is not just a share vocabulary but also a distinctive way of pronouncing words. Important to social binding is not just a shared vocabulary but also a distinctive way of pronouncing the words. Every close-knit group, linguist tell us, has its own quirks of speech that sets itself off from others.

If the group is sufficiently isolate, over time its speech become a language that no one outside that group can understand. The physical isolation-a further cutting off of stimulus from the outside world. The result is - what? Even under severe constraints people are ingenuous enough to make a livable world; so livable to them, in fact that they do not recognize the constraints, have no idea that their sensory and mental capabilities are insufficiently challenged. What does the outside world make of this isolated people with their distinctive language and culture?