Why Words Matter



Page from Book of Kells (public domain) c. 800 CE

“Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words. get words all day through/ First from him, now from you/ Is that all you blighters can do?” – Lerner and Loewe, My Fair Lady.

This is just a very small musing. Of course, the topic of words mattering is much larger, and one I hope to touch on again and again.

As kids we are taught that sticks and stones can break people’s bones, but words may never hurt us. As someone who has studied social linguistics, I realize the sentiment, but the reality is that words are powerful. Words help us shape our realities and organize our world cognitively; They help us explain the world to ourselves and to explain it to others.

Sometimes, as a type of thought project, I try to imagine how we would understand the world, if we had no words to describe it. Clearly, it must be possible, but trying to think about feelings, senses, memories, and ideas without the words to shape them seems impossible. I always imagine a world without words must be very immediate, confusing, and lonely. A world without words would also limit interaction between people. We might appreciate a rainbow, but we would have little way to communicate it. Of course, words are not the only form of communication, but for most humans verbal or visual signs are the building blocks of our languages.

Without words we would have no history, oral or written. We would be stuck in the present, unable to share our past. Without a past, without sharing, without words, we wouldn’t be human.

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