Behold the Power of Words

“What’s in a word?” The phrase is a common one. We have all heard it countless times, and more than likely it has even passed between our own lips a time or two. But, what is in a word? From the youngest age we are influenced by words. Even the youngest babe cannot escape the power of the word, as he or she is calmed by a mother’s voice or lulled to sleep by the words of a lullaby. Words and language are an integral part of our psyche; they give shape and meaning to the things that surround us, but also, in a very real and literal sense, the person and people that use them.

In traditional Western philosophies, words belong to the realm of poetry-useful for inducing specific images in our minds or perhaps powerful emotions, but not vital to our conceptualization or understanding of the world that surrounds us. In fact, objectivism regards words with great suspicion, citing them as tools for obscuring objective truth and elevating the “abhorred subjective.” However, subjectivists, who hold the other side of the traditionally two-sided Western paradigm, reject the idea of absolutes and embrace the idea that it is only by our words that we can discover and describe our uniqueness and individuality. The words we use as a race, culture, or people define and shape us as much as anything we do. Try telling someone about yourself and your views on life without words. Try even thinking without using words. It is a daunting task for anyone; even the mute who doesn’t speak must rely on the written word or the signed word to convey her or his thoughts. Words, do not only hold their traditional role of “defining” or “illustrating” the world in which we live, but also take an active role in shaping it. The way we use words and the common metaphors that we employ in our everyday speech are integral, not peripheral, to our understanding of the world and how we perceive the people and things in it.

I have a good friend that is of Mexican descent and grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico. The words he chooses to use to express himself, and the metaphors he employs to describe something are different than those that I use. He speaks and expresses himself through the words and phrases that he has heard and been exposed to during his lifetime. As do I. We speak differently and think in different ways. When someone asks me, “What do you do?” I immediately tell them about my job or that I am in school. When my friend is asked the exact same question he will tell you about soccer and basketball and how much he likes the ocean. Our immediate thoughts when we hear that particular string of words is formed by the immediate word association that takes place in our brains. It’s like the old word game when I say “duck” you say “bird” or “wet” or “pond” or “quickly.” For instance when I hear the word “time,” I immediately think of words such as: saving, wasting, guarding, spending, and buying. I regard time as though it has monetary value, when in fact it has no monetary value. Can I cut off a piece of time and sell you a slice? Of course not. However, this word association that “time is money” is so prevalent in my culture that the way I view time is altered by it. The same can be said for my views on government, books, sex, music, movies, politics, work-in short, life. Every view I hold is influenced by a word or string of words that I have read or heard at some point in my life: from my parents, my friends, the classroom or teacher, or by myself. When I see or hear or feel something my mind immediately associates it with the words that have been stored in my brain. It is these words that are stored in the brain that make my friend and I think, and ultimately act, differently.

The long-established view of the mind holds that poetic language, words, experiences, or anything that invokes imagery in the mind-thereby altering emotions and at times actions, is a special human ability requiring different cognitive and linguistic skills than employed in the ordinary language of conversation. For this reason, most people think they are incapable of understanding or participating in poetic language. However, it is precisely this poetic language that governs so much of our conceptual system. We simply are unaware of it.

Our concepts give structure to what we perceive in the world, and how we govern our actions-how we relate to other people. But our conceptual system is not something we normally contemplate much. Most of the little things we do every day we do almost automatically, without much thought. We merely follow along certain lines that have already been predetermined in our mind. It is the associations that we form in our minds between things that are alike (the making of mental metaphors) that form the concepts we hold of all the things we encounter. Basically, the concepts we hold are simply metaphors that our brain makes. Making all conceptual thought poetic in nature, in that it evokes imagery in our minds eye. For instance, many things influence the concept I have of “fire.” However, those things can be divided in two categories: my personal experiences with fire and what others have said or written about fire. My personal experiences with fire bring the words warmth, family, love, comfort, fun, happiness and relaxation to my mind. This is because for me the majority of the times I have been around fire those are the things I have experienced, and in my brain the word “fire” automatically brings to the foreground those words. However, I have also read about, and heard of, many instances of when fire has burned, destroyed, killed, maimed and ruined. Here the word “fire” carries a much different conceptualization-one of pain, suffering, and loss. My brain gathers all these words to the forefront of my mind and creates my personal concept of fire. It is the mixing of two things, my personal experiences and the words I have gathered, that form the concept or metaphor that I understand in the word fire. Just saying the word “fire” makes a poet of me and shows my ability to use poetic language, if on a minimal level.

The most influential concepts or metaphors that we encounter spring from our physical world-the fact that we all have a top and a bottom, a sense of up and down, a front side and a backside, that we all eat food. We conceptualize many aspects of our physical experiences by applying these facts. The idea that up is good, for example, comes from our upright physical position, our awareness of the sky and the ground, and other related concepts. And so when happy, we jump up and hold our heads high-when sad, we slouch and look to the ground. But when we apply these physical facts metaphorically, we can transfer those aspects to the non-physical. For example, when we think with the metaphor that “ideas are food” we can “chew on an idea,” “spit ideas out,” “digest the thought” and find some truths “hard to swallow.” We use “food” because we eat food-a physical act with specific tangible aspects; it is something we all understand. When we speak as if “ideas are food,” or that “food is thought,” we understand “thought” as though it has similar tangible aspects, when in reality thought is intangible.

Far from obscuring the truth, as the objectivists fear, words, via metaphors and other devices, bring with them a ready-made set of related concepts that help us comprehend experiences that otherwise have no physical aspects for us to talk about. Words have but one purpose: to enable us to understand the things we cannot sense. In many ways they are the only means by which to perceive and experience much of the world. Explain to me what snow is. I am from Mexico and I have never seen the snow. Explain snow to me-without using words. Go ahead. No, no sign language. No writing. No words in any form. What happens? The mind goes blank. Nothing. No, you’re using words again in your head. There are no words. Think.
This is an exercise I have tried many times, trying to explain in my mind something to someone without using words. I have always failed. Because of this failure, or inability, the human mind seems to have to think without words, it is argued by many, that words, or language, are actually inherent in the human biological system. Noam Chomsky, the widely celebrated MIT linguistic professor, defends this idea in his book Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind expressing the view that knowledge of language is internal to the human mind; that human language is a “biological object.” In ancient Greece the word for word was logos. But logos carries with it a very deeper meaning than just word. It encompasses the meanings: word, speech, proportion, principle, reason-thought. Heraclitus speaks of the logos as a one of the definers of life:

One must follow what is common; but, even though the Logos is common, most people live as though they possessed their own private wisdom (Fr.2). The common is what is open to all, what can be seen and heard by all. To see is to let in with open eyes what is open to view, i.e. what is lit up and revealed to all. The dead (the completely private ones) neither see nor hear; they are closed. No light (fire) shines in them; no logos sounds in them (Fr. 26).

The logos, as Heralitus tells us, was common to all and is something that we all have the inherent ability to understand and use (although many choose to live in their own private ignorance). However, when the logos no longer “sounds” within us we are dead. The Greeks understood that it was our words that make us alive. This ability to communicate to others the swirling masses in our minds, taking the things we see, and touch, and the thoughts that all whirl around in our heads and make sense of it all. To the Greeks a word wasn’t just a sound; it was a thought within itself. An idea expressed-given life. To reason. To speak. To give it a word. It was all part of the same process; the same as it is for us today. We put names to the things that pass through our minds and thus enable ourselves to think about such thing. It is inherent in our beings to do so; it is part of our functionality.

Yet, there are many that hold to the idea that that language is not inherent in our biological system but that it is a product of our social interactions, brought upon us by our environment. That words or language developed later in the human evolution as means of survival. I think both parties are right in their reasoning. I side with Chomsky and say that humans are born with an inherent capacity and even knowledge of words and language. For how can one think without words? Even if the “words” are unintelligible to us we still must employ some form of word identification to our thoughts, we might think of a chair as “do-dot” but we still are employing the word essence. A baby might have some weird sound or word it uses in its mind to identify its mother, yet it must have one. If I want a knife, I say, “Give me a knife,” and it is given to me because those around me know that “knife” is a metaphor or word for a specific object. But if I didn’t know the word “knife” I would assign some other word or metaphor to the object we know as knife. Perhaps I would call it “ga-ga.”

However, the other side of the argument has merit as well by saying that language and words are brought upon us by our social interactions, and environment. We start with the need to communicate, a way to express ourselves, to explain snow to the man who has never seen it-and make our words. But in our world today, as it has been for thousands of years, our very environment demands us to make new words every day. With every new invention made by the human race, a new word is demanded. With every new discovery a new word must be crafted. As we explore more and more of our environment and even our social interactions new words are needed, as our environment and society change they create new things that awaken in our beings the biological processes of logos. See it. Hear it. Feel it. Sense it. Think it. Name it. Words are as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, sight, smell, and sound and just as precious.

The human race is made of words; there is nothing within our realm of understanding that doesn’t have a word associated with it. We are creatures of the word. We are defined by the words that pass through our minds and roll off our tongues. They give life and color to our world, they inspire our hearts and quicken our intellect, cause us to hate and love, to cry and laugh, and at times even kill. Sounds when spoken and scratch marks when written, are words that define us. Make us. Rule us.

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