Saturday, July 18, 2009


What are words for? For whatever reason, I was thinking about that today. Not the video, per se, but the idea behind that phrase. Words are simply a form of communication between people. But words are very interesting in the larger context of communication. Words are can be very expressive and beautiful, they can be limiting and even insufficient at time, and they can be more brutal than physical force. All living animals have the ability to communicate but it seems that humans are the only ones with the ability to articulate in a verbal form.

A caveat here - we know, for example, that dolphins and whales can communicate with each other through what we (as humans) interpret as song. Does that mean that they cannot articulate? Perhaps not in a manner that we can easily understand. But that means that articulation takes on a very narrow definition that is likely incorrect in the larger picture.

Poetry and literature are examples of the beauty and the power of words. Poetry has the ability express emotion in ways that are seemingly limitless. Putting words and phrases together that can convey a meaning whose interpretation depends upon the reader is an awesome ability. Literature possesses the ability put the reader into a new environment or to share knowledge of people, places or events that would otherwise be completely alien to the reader. Literature allows us to create new perspectives through which to view the world - all of which is possible through the power of those words.

In the Christian Bible, it is said that God destroyed the tower of Babel and allowed the creation of a multitude of languages. But the existence of different languages creates difficulties in the usage and understanding of words. It allows for confusion when speakers of different languages attempt to communicate and such miscommunication has been known to start fights and even wars. Words used in one context can easily be misinterpreted in another context. And all of this is provided that the people involved in the conversation both speak the same language - even if not natively. Furthermore, native speakers of the same language can fail to communicate effectively. Any conversation between parents and their children is proof of a failure to communicate in the same language.

Words can also cause more damage to people than physical actions. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." This children's mantra is intended to ward off hurtful things that other children may say. But taking away the pain caused by hurtful words to children is a difficult thing for any parent. An even more worse example is the demonization of people that are different in any fashion. Jews in Germany, the Tutsis in Rwanda and even Blacks in America and Western European nations have been victims of the language of demonization. It is always easier to treat others poorly when they are called names that dehumanize them. When their individuality and personality is stripped away and they can be grouped by whatever separates them from others (whether it be language, religion, color or any other grouping option), the ability to cause great harm and pain is made much easier.

So, do we still beg the question of what are words for?

No comments:

Post a Comment