Language is the medium by which we share our personal thoughts and experiences with others. It is a tool which can connect us or isolate us. We can share our thoughts with others whose thought structures are similar to ours OR we can use words to divide, vilify, bully, ostracize and isolate others. Thus language can bind us together or separate us.
Consider that the minute we use language to give form to our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, we are attempting to capture these in a sort of linguistic freeze frame. We are using words with others in the hope that they will `get` what we are saying as we describe in a finite way that which is not of the moment in which we stand. As we use language to express thoughts and feelings, we are always using words to give shape to that which has already passed.
We expect that others will understand what we are saying but often forget that what others hear and respond to is first filtered through their own beliefs, values, and attitudes. `Understanding` is really only shared cultural agreement that our interpretations of words match. We have to agree that the sky is blue and that blue is a colour from an expected range of hues.
The words we use are not benign. They carry in them form and potential experience. The language we choose to use not only carries in it who we see ourselves to be but also shapes who we have the potential to become as we move forward. How our words are received by others shapes not only their response to what we say but also their impressions of who we are as individuals.
To understand the potential of language, consider that every word has the potential for four levels of meaning. The first is the denotative meaning – the meaning we would find in the dictionary if we were to look in it to understand what we, as a culture, have accepted a word to mean or represent.
The second level of meaning is contextual. Once we look up potential meanings for any word, then we choose that meaning which fits most appropriately given the content of what we are reading or what we are discussing.
It is at this level of meaning that we can first encounter difficulty with language. Consider that as we learn to read, we learn the skill of divining the meaning of a word from the topic of the text. If I don`t know the meaning of the word and I don`t have the time or inclination to stop reading to look in a dictionary for potential meanings, I can usually `suss out` a meaning based on the overall content of what I have read. However, there are potential problems with this. For those who never develop this reading strategy, they loose the thread of what they have read because they will stop and focus on a word if they do not have an idea of its meaning. Thus they loose the forest for the trees – the overall idea by stopping for a single word.
When I was completing a course on media studies, I had to read several papers by sociologists written originally in French and then translated into English. I used every reading strategy I had learned as a student as I encountered words which were unfamiliar to me. I came across the word `commodify`. As I had no experience of this word, I circled it to look it up later and continued to read the article. Once I had finished the article, I did attempt to find the word in my Random House Dictionary. It wasn`t there. So I looked up `co` and `modify` and came up with what seemed to me to be a reasonable meaning for the word. It was only when I listened to my professor discuss the article that I came to know that the meaning I had generated for `commodify` was not the appropriate meaning. You see, I did not know that sociologists have the habit of turning nouns into verbs. `Commodify` was really `commodity` turned into a verb; thus, it meant to turn anything into stuff which could be sold. And I remember phoning my best friend frequently asking her to tell me that I was intelligent. Deriving meaning from context was tough. And remember, I had three university degrees at the time that I had this experience.
The third level of meaning is connotative. It’s at this level that it becomes apparent that language is not benign. Connotative meaning goes beyond dictionaries and context. It is the meaning we carry for words based upon our entire experience of the word – what we have read, what we have heard, what was said to us. Connotative meaning is the ‘bread and butter’ of the advertising industry. Remember: ‘Put a tiger in your tank.’ ‘Manly, but I like it too.’ Think about how much attention is paid to the naming of cars. Don’t we respond differently to ‘Dodge Ram’ than to ‘Ford Fairlane’? Consider the many ways we use to name our parents: ‘dad’, ‘papa’, ‘pops’, ‘daddy’, ‘the old man’, and many much more colourful expressions. The appellation we use may change over time, but each word has a definite feel to it in us. (Hell, I’m just getting used to calling my father by his Christian name! And that has felt weird.) It’s also at this level of meaning that we respond viscerally. This is very true of words which, for each of us, carry a sense of being judged or evaluated. Words like: ‘better’, ‘good enough’, ‘stupid’, ‘silly’, ‘childish’, ‘selfish’ all carry that sense of being assessed. And the list is endless.
It’s at this level that the words we choose to use in conversation with others and with ourselves can have an impact which goes far beyond what we intend to mean. Now, our words can not only indicate our cultural background and our level of education but how we view our world and view ourselves and others in our world. It’s at this level of meaning that we begin to wear the language we use because we live the language that we use.
The last level of meaning is symbolic. Think metaphor. At this level of meaning, words or phrases stand for something else. Some universal symbols are easy – dove = peace, red rose = love and passion, white = purity and innocence, scythe = death, feather = can mean a chief or powerful person OR it can mean a coward. Personal symbols are those which are specific to our experience of our family and culture. It is the personal symbols which we hold close to our chests. Only those with a shared experience will understand the symbol. Symbols have great potential to help each of us feel connected to others.
No matter whether universal or personal, symbols are ways we have of encompassing a sense of self which we hold deeply rooted — our connection to our culture.
Having given you a Coles Notes English lesson, think about how you use language. How do you speak to others? Try this: think about a time when you were really scared. Go to that memory – relive it. What did you hear, see, feel? What were the circumstances surrounding the memory? Think of all the details of the setting. Now, think about how you would speak of this memory to each of the following:
- a six year old
- a female acquaintance
- a male acquaintance
- your best friend
- your worst enemy
- your mother
- your father
- your spouse
Pay attention to what changes. Notice that the words will be different, the details will be different, the order of your thoughts might change, the emphasis you place on them might be different.
So, how have you used language to tell your truth of the experience? My point is that we all have old habits when it comes to the words we choose when we speak. Be aware of the power of words. Consider their impact on others and on ourselves.
Our words affect neurology. They are magical. They cast spells. Our words can shed light or create darkness. They have the power to change. It is important that we speak to others and ourselves with respect, integrity, and generosity of spirit. Since we cannot know our audience’s filters through which they will process what we say, we need to be mindful, always, of our intention as we choose the words we use to give form to our lives.