A colleague of mine recently accused me of worrying too much about the words I chose to say something. “Just get it out,” she recommended. “And if it comes out wrong, correct yourself later.”
It’s a fair criticism of me, and it jibes with a point I’ve made in a previous post on this blog: waiting too long to speak up is sometimes the worst thing you can do. Still, it got me thinking about just how important words are to us humans. And with that in mind, I devised the following thought experiment …
Just for a moment, try to imagine your life without words.
Go ahead, I dare you.
Don’t let any words cross your mind. Don’t tell any stories inside your own head. And don’t even think about talking back to me.
Assume that every word you’re reading now is just a bunch of black squiggles, sort of like the footprints of a tiny, ink-stained chicken. Assume that every word anyone has ever spoken to you was just gibberish, no more meaningful than the chirping of birds.
Everything you ever learned through words is now gone. That means you don’t know any history or culture–or, for that matter, math or science, which I’m pretty sure you learned through words, too.
Also gone is your ability to understand other people’s thoughts, intentions, and feelings. Those are now locked inside their heads, while yours are now locked inside yours.
You no longer know much beyond the world you directly sense. And you don’t know much about that world, either. Without words, you don’t know that the furry thing on the floor at your feet is a “dog,” and that it’s different in kind from a “cat” or a “fox” or a “ferret.” Nor do you know what “furry” means, or “thing” or “floor” or “feet.”
It’s all just sound and fury, now, signifying nothing.
But let’s not stop at Shakespearean despair. Let’s take the thought experiment one step further: Imagine that none of us–no human–had ever had language. Now look around the room in which you’re sitting. Which of the things you see would still exist?
If your room is anything like mine, then the answer is simple: nothing. Obviously nothing that’s actually made of words (like the post you’re currently reading). But also nothing that was made through words–i.e., nothing that humans created by communicating complex ideas.
- Not the text on the computer screen in front of me, but also not the computer, or the mass-produced desk on which it sits.
- Not the chair that’s holding me up or the complex, manmade polymers it’s shaped from.
- Not the rug beneath my feet or the Labrador Retriever down there, either. (His breed is a product of human design, and hence of language.)
- Not the books that line my shelves, and not the shelves that line my walls.
- Not the walls–made of drywall–or the wires and pipes within them.
- Not the cars outside in our driveway. And not the driveway, the road, or the sidewalks, either.
All of these are made of things that have only been made through language: Concrete, asphalt, steel, and rubber. Paper and plastic. Paint and pencil and canvas. The flora and the fauna we’ve shaped through husbandry, botany, and agriculture.
The list goes on and on: The fluoridated water that comes from the tap. The clothes on my back. The watch on my wrist and the shared sense of time that it tracks. Without words, these would all disappear. Or, rather, they never would have come into being.
In this sense, words are truly magical: They are the breath that gives life to the world, not only as we imagine it but also as we build it together. And they are also, of course, the secret to exploring its mysteries–not because they contain the truth, but because they’re the main means we have to tell it.
So, my colleague was both right and wrong. Speaking up is often important, but we misuse words at our peril. And if we fail too often to keep our words–to tend to them thoughtfully and carefully–we just might start to lose our collective minds.
You have my word on that.