I've recently become curious about this area of language/linguistics. I'm thinking about how mental, environmental and societal constructs are encoded within languages. Also about what a language reveals about these things reveal about contexts and mental constructs prevalent while the language emerged.

I'm also curious about the * range * of constructs that are known to have been encoded in language, to get a sense what it might cover.

It was sparked by a fiction story many years ago, by Larry Niven, in which a completely novel language point encoded a quite significant difference of perspective. The alien species in the story had two words for "mine/yours" - an intrinsic "mine" meaning "inherently part of me" and an extrinsic one meaning "associated with me" - and the observation that the use of a common word tended to foster confusion between the two, and tended to encourage or at least not deter considering extrinsic associations ("my" boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse) as being intrinsic parts of their own being ("part of me" in an emotionally equivalent way as "my" body part).

I got wondering about this. Obviously there are well known structures deeply encoded into many languages - gender, for example, or social hierarchy/relationships. Others relate to environment - the classic words for types of snow/ice in the Arctic, or types of sand in the deserts. But what else? And what topic keys would I look up, to find out more?

I'm more interested in linguistic encodings for novel mental perspectives, rather than purely environmental ones, if that helps.

  • Ideas that are called "concepts" are usually not defined well enough to be "embedded" or "encoded" in language. There is no code, and no code book, and words are not the same things as ideas. Saying ideas are "inside" language is begging the question of what ideas are, and substituting words for them without specifying how that's done is just the same old Conduit Metaphor.
    – jlawler
    Nov 9, 2019 at 17:11

3 Answers 3


Your specific example already has a name (which perhaps Niven even knew about), as jknappen - Reinstate Monica points out. We have already addressed arctic terminology here and the general question of expressiveness here. The underlying question seems to be "what kind of things can be grouped together under a linguistically-encoded concept?". The ideal answer is "whatever grouping would be useful and perceivable". For example, snakes and glass lizards are, in terms of scientific taxonomy, distinct things, but a number for languages group them together because they look the same. English does not present you with different verb forms for saying "I sold the car" depending on whether you just did it, did it yesterday, 3 days ago, or a month ago, and are you saying this just because you can vs. is this an answer to a question or expectation is if so is the question "how did this come about?" versus "have you finally done it?". But, Logoori have different verb forms for all of these uses, so they linguistically encode things that we don't encode.

It is really not possible to give a list of all such differences between human languages. There are people focusing on specific aspects of language-differences, for example "what are the possible or likely systems of degree-of-past": this is the domain of semantics (sub-domain, language description and field work). Again, all in human language. These kinds of patterns could be subsumed under the rubric of "environmental differences", specifically social environment.

My experience with sci-fi writers is that they don't do a very good job of presenting weird systems of conceptualization in alien languages. I don't think anyone has compiled all of the putative semantic properties of Hero's Tongue in the (authorized) Kzin corpus, but my recollection is that nothing was seriously strange at the conceptual level.


In general, you can find something relating to your question in the field of linguistic typology. The example Larry Niven has choosen (alienable vs. inalienable possession) is in fact marked in some natural languages of the world. For a high level overview of interesting findings and categories in linguistic typology, you can consult the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS). Trigger warning: The amount of information given there might be overwhelming and/or putting you down the rabbit hole.


Yeah I'd probably recommend Noam Chomsky. He said there was a biological component to language all humans share. As far as the different kinds of me's there are several languages that differentiate exactly on that point. Granted some distinctions made in languages generally tend to of such little significance in either every day usage or usage overall that languages tend to get rid of the distinctions. One example of this is the word 'you' in English.

Granted, just like the word 'you' sometimes the distinction matters enough that a new word is introduced. Almost invariably it's noted that languages switch from synthetic grammar to a more analytic grammar. While language is a good medium for understanding the world in an objective sense it's not perfect and that's for a good reason as we can't conceptualize all these differences and it'd be useful as a means of communication if we made every distinction.

Of course some distinctions are very important, even ones we haven't come upon yet, and should be introduced in the language. My personal opinion is that philosophy can open up what these distinctions are and you can see how they relate in language and either are being used and we aren't noting or hasn't been added yet.

As for what to read, this is generally under philosophy of language or linguistics itself. This is a good reading list for analytic philosophy and it has a lot of crossover with linguistics (but continental philosophy has a lot to add too if you're in synthetic or constructive language).

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