There is a theory that language affects and even determines the way we see the world: people would speak of a Greek mind (worldview), which sought to categorize everything, or that a Hebrew mind had a unique view of time. From what I understand, this theory is no longer believed to be true. I don’t know what the current theory is, and I don’t care enough to look it up. My guess at the answer is that it’s the converse: our view of the world affects our language. People saw the world in such-and-such a way, and had to find or invent the words to communicate their ideas. This affected how their descendants, literal and ideological, saw the world.

Isn’t it rather that our knowledge and imagination, not our language, limit our worldview?

A new field of knowledge usually requires new language to describe it or at least a co-opting of current language to define new phenomena like uncertainty: until we measure a particle, its qualities, like location and speed, are in fact indeterminate, not just unknown. My understanding of the history of science is that before quantum theory, physics never included the idea of uncertainty. Our awareness of the quantum world came about before there was the language to describe all its citizens and their unique behaviours. Then the language developed to accommodate our added understanding and our descendants now grow up learning both the concept and the language.

But what about counter-intuitive ideas like quantum indeterminacy, or particles that can travel backward through time? If we originally had the language to describe such phenomena before the concepts existed, would those ideas still be counter-intuitive? I think so: language develops to explain ideas; can we communicate an idea that doesn’t exist? We might have the language to communicate the idea but not the idea to communicate.

Imagination can also circumscribe our worldview. Following the idea of particles that flow backward in time, we can imagine it and describe it. Does this mean the concept will no longer be counter-intuitive? I didn’t grow up with it but I suspect that, as people don’t develop the ability to think in abstract ideas until their early teens, and they probably won’t encounter the idea until then, the concept will always be counter-intuitive, as by this time they’ve learned that for all usual purposes, time goes forward. Certainly we can imagine going backward in time but will the concept of a particle that travels backward in time as we naturally travel forward ever seem normal, even if we have the language to describe it? I don’t think it’s likely, mainly because we grow up experiencing the world in a certain way. Benjamin Buttons, Morks of Ork and retroflow quantum particles are so rare to our experience that they will always seem weird.

Can language limit our imagination? Can we only imagine objects or actions we have words for? I don’t think so. Did Lewis Carroll imagine the Jabberwock before he named it? Did he invent the phrase “slithy toves did gyre and gimble” without any intent to define the words? All he needed was to create a fantasy land: “slithy toves” could be any object and “gyre and gimble” could be any actions. Something fantastical and unknown was what Carroll wanted to communicate, and that’s the effect of the words. We could imagine any action to suit the words: because Carroll didn’t define the words, we can imagine any object or action. Even without the words, we could still imagine such things.

Alongside knowledge, the only other limit to our worldview is our imagination.