Our language, our worldview

Language shapes the way we view the world, as George Orwell points out in 1984 through the genius of Newspeak: part of the idea being that by replacing the word for “bad” with “ungood” for example, we limit our ability to conceptualise “bad”.


As you may have noticed by the (Chinese inspired) name of my company, I’m interested in language. One of my favourite mind-opening discoveries is that Mandarin Chinese has many different words for “spicy” including:

  • 辣: general word for “spicy”.
  • 干辣: literally “Dry spicy”
  • 香辣: literally “Fragrant spicy”
  • 麻辣: literally “Numbing spicy”

Since this realisation, I have noticed much more the different types of “spicy”, and I find myself wanting to refer to different types of spiciness. As for many Chinese people, the blanket term of “spicy” often doesn’t do enough to describe the different tastes.

Numbing spice from Sichuan. This is for breakfast…


Tense (indicating past, present or future) is also not as well defined as I had imagined before learning Mandarin Chinese. In Chinese, Past and Present are the same. WHOA. There is a nice article from The Guardian on this topic.

Chen’s argument is that the more you think of the future as a radically different thing, the easier it is not to worry about how too many cigarettes – or too little money – might cause problems in that future.

Coming from the other angle, apparently Sicilian dialect has no future tense (interesting video source).

Why is this useful?

Language matters. Different words can have hugely different connotations to different people. We need to be really careful in Agile about our use of metaphor. Some I would argue are anti-agile:

  • Describing the company or organisation as a “machine”
  • Describing managers in a hierarchy as being “above” others

By anti-agile, I mean in the sense that they don’t put individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and can be demotivating for creative workers.


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