We live all but the first three years of our lives in a jail of words, imprisoned and blinded by the 600,000 or so words of our magnificent English language.
We mistakenly think we’re merely using those words as tools to think with, but that’s only half true. Fact is, they’re using us. Or – more scary to contemplate – our deceased forebears and friends are using the massive array of words they invented and honed to control our minds and actions from the grave.
Take a frinstance: My main field in college was general semantics, the study of how language affects people. In one of my classes, a student – call her Elaine – shared her brilliant application of semantic principles to solve a family problem.
She had adopted a cute little daughter – call her Frannie – who grew up, as little girls do, and in due time acquired an admiring suitor, as cute young ladies do.
So far, so good. Elaine and Frannie and Freddy had great times together. Love flowed and grew, and the horizon held no clouds.
Then Frannie and Freddy got married.
Rather soon afterward, Elaine began to notice a slight chill descending over her relationship with Freddy. She was puzzled. Neither she nor Frannie could think of anything she’d done wrong. But the relationship faded from lukewarm to cool despite Elaine’s best efforts.
Finally, one day a light went on in Elaine’s head. She sat Freddy down with a cup of coffee and said, “You know, Freddy, I’m kind of glad that Frannie’s just my adopted daughter. That way, you and I can be friends.”
Freddy’s eyes widened with sudden insight. “Ah – yes, adopted. So Elaine isn’t really my mother-in-law,” he said to himself.
From that moment on, the relationship thawed, and they got along famously, as before. Freddy had been freed from the bars of the wordjail.
If you’re the eggheady type that likes to trace big ideas back to their dusty academic roots, this concept is called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. You’ll find it’s not about mind games, but serious realities. For example, if you’re from Mexico’s Tarahumara Indian tribe, you’ll probably never be adept at distinguishing shades of blue because your mother language has no word for blue. (Blues are lumped in with greens.) On the upside of being an Indian, you’ll never stutter – unless you go to live among whites at an early age. No Amerindian language has a word for stuttering, so 3-year-old Indians can never be traumatized by their parents saying, “Stop that stuttering!” They just let them grow out of that stage.
If you think I’m talking about surface anomalies, consider the Wintu Indians of Northern California. In their language (Wunuan), they would use the same verb in these three sentences:
- “Tiger Woods just teed up his ball on the third hole.”
“Mushrooms grow well in Kentucky.”
“That’s a sparrow hopping along over there.”
Don’t burn up your gray matter trying to analyze this. Just grab a notepad and do a five-second sketch to match each sentence. You’ll make the discovery that whereas Anglos describe things by function, the Wintu describe them by shape. As a Wintu youth, you would grow up perceiving everything in terms of form. Daily experiences would cement your understanding of the world and reinforce it hundreds of thousands of times.
OK, now imagine you’re a Palestinian or Lebanese youth. How do you grow up with a normal, healthy attitude toward Israelis? Can you actually see them, or do you see only infidel Zionist Jew enemies? Chances are, you’ll never become able to see the real person behind the daily, lifelong barrage of labels and epithets unless you begin by sitting down over dinner or coffee with one of them.
I actually tried that once. I had almost nailed down a dinner with a Jerusalem family when my state-approved Israeli go-between found out I was a Christian. His immediate reaction was, “Hey, man! What are you trying to do, get me fired?” So much for international understanding and good will.
Alas, we don’t reach out to each other, we shuffle words into politically correct forms and pretend we’re being nice. Over the years, for example, PC health-care professionals have progressed from “moron/imbecile/idiot” to “backward” to “retarded,” which in turn became “slow,” then “mentally handicapped,” then “mentally disabled,” then “mentally challenged.”
That’s not escaping the wordjail, that’s just staying one step ahead of our native human sinfulness and penchant for scorn. We must learn to see people as God sees them.
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