As you well might have noticed, have you read my latest posts, my writing is a taking a turn for the philosophical and impossibly murky waters of my brain. Last night, brushing my teeth, yet another one of those things occurred to me; the power of the word. I have for quite some time now, considered words to be the most powerful tool mankind has ever created, to this day. We can make or break things with words, we can alter, we can correct, we can fix or tear asunder, we can do just about anything to anything with words. History is based on words, having been passed on from generation to generation, country to country. What we hold to be our own personal truth is based on words given to us by other people.
I think I’m not alone in the discovery that the way a word is expressed makes a lot of difference. Have you ever found that something as just a thought in your head can seem completely harmless or unimportant, but if you say it out loud, it becomes real? And what if you write it down? Terrifying! Yet the sort of importance we put into the spoken word making a thought reality is slightly exaggerated. Studies have shown that when we listen to someone else speak we listen mostly to their tone of voice, facial cues and body-language, and the actual words only hold a small percentage of the meaning we take from what has just been said.
So I still couldn’t quite grasp why words were so powerful. Beyond the point of mere manipulation, which you get from a combination of words, intelligence and intent, words held no power of their own. Or so it seemed to me. But standing there, swirling around the Colgate Micro-crystal paste in my mouth, it just popped into my head in a simple sentence. Without words, you only perceive, but with words, you can conceive.
It doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything there when there are no words. If we had no word for a bee, we could still hear its buzzing noise, and see it zoom on its happy way through the air. And like Mr. Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. If we had no words for love, anger, sadness, we’d still feel them. But all these things we could only ever perceive without the words, and we would live in a constant sensory world, where everything would have to be understood and agreed upon, or assumed to be, because there would be no words to communicate disagreements or misunderstandings.
Yet as soon as we put a name on something, we have the ability to talk about it. We can find other words to describe it, and the more words, the more we would be able to conceive why this thing is at it is. See that mass on the ground? That is grass, it’s green, it’s soft, it’ll break and flatten under your feet, it’ll stain your skin, it’ll smell fresh and earthy and like summer. The words, the more we have of them, allows us to express to others exactly what and how we perceive, and so show them how we conceive everything.
A very good friend of mine reacted with a thought of his own when I shared this with him. That word and memory are very very closely related. That if there is no word, then there is no way to describe the memory, and so it fades, being just a “squiggle in the dark water”. This made perfect sense to me, and pushed the idea further in my head. When we love something, we seek to understand it better, and often vice versa. And in order to understand something better, we need more words for it. The Sami are said to have hundreds of words for snow. The understanding for the snow created a need for more words to describe it, and the new words made it easier to understand. Scientists, lawyers and doctors all have their own vocabulary used in their lines of work, often making it very difficult for people outside of the profession to understand them.
So the love of something makes it more important to understand it and the understanding requires more words. Without the words, everything turns into this hazy blur of images and sensory alerts, that we can see, and can react to, but never communicate about, never have a conscious thought about. Without the words, everything would still exist, sure, well maybe not our modern technology, probably not our society as we know it at all, but all things that have come from the Earth itself would still be just the same. But for us, it would be the tree falling in the forest scenario all over again. It will still fall, but we wouldn’t be there to hear the sound, and it would make absolutely no difference.
So to me, the power behind the word, spoken, written, heard, thought, does not lie in the power it gives us to manipulate or affect others, or the power it gives us to steer our own thoughts and emotions. The true power is that through a word, which two people understand to mean the same thing, they can communicate something which would otherwise be stuck inside their heads as a meaningless image, forever. With a word, we get the ability to not only perceive, but to conceive.