Do you think about the effect of your words? Are the words you use significant? For some time I have been concerned with words and how I use them – recently this has become increasingly apparent as I become aware of the power of the language we use.
What are words? Simple utterances? Strings of shapes on the page? Commands? Noise? Units of meaning? Words are the distinct building blocks of meaning we use to communicate our feelings, needs, desires, experiences – they are a link between us, as an internal being, and the external world. So when I think about words, in general or any specific word, I realise just how small but significant they are to my own experience of and connection with other people. Words are profoundly important to our survival as human beings.
Indeed, our brains are wired for language, indicating the significance of words to our ability to live. There are a number of areas of the brain that are devoted to words, which work together to enable humans to understand and produce language. Small children universally absorb words incredibly quickly. An infant’s brain is flexible enough to enable it to learn any language and after 10 months the brain re-organises itself so that the child can learn its parents’ language. * A 3 year old child will have a vocabulary of about 1,000 words and by age 6 the child will be able to express themselves through about 2,600 words and understand around 20,000 words.# Human biological and developmental findings, such as these, are compelling evidence of the power of words in our lives. No other organism can acquire and produce language like human beings – our ability with words is a super power!
The strength of our ability and its effect leads me to ponder whether we take our ‘word powers’ for granted. Do we really appreciate the incredible power we hold within ourselves? I have heard and produced millions of words in my life. From my own experiences I know that words can be cutting, damaging, manipulative and confusing, but also benevolent, kind, inspiring and encouraging. Words get us into strife and can comfort us. Words can sustain us and they can literally kill us. Whatever is within human experience can be expressed and shaped by words.
Do we use our power effectively; honouring who we are and respecting others? At times, absolutely; but I have seen countless instances of words being used to manipulate and gain and maintain power in disrespectful ways. There are so many examples, from advertising slogans to political speeches to social put downs – the list is seemingly endless. There are some words that have just evolved to hurt and we all learn about those. But have you come across words that morph into some other shape of meaning, so that the word starts off being neutral or positive and is then twisted to have undesirable connotations attached to it? These are the words that somehow evolve so that the meaning alters to appease a dominant group, or to create ‘us and them’ divisions, or to bring down a group that is perceived as threatening. I have always found these words disturbing and confusing. I want to use them in their original positive form, but when I do I worry that others will attribute a different meaning to them. For instance, when working on mental health promotion projects I experienced this phenomenon with the words ‘mental health’. It is still common to use these two wonderfully human words to mean their complete opposite. Mental health means the state of being socially, emotionally and psychologically well and unwell, at the same time. Confusing! I am also coming across similar phenomenon whilst exploring gender equality … and there will be more about these words in the future!
Words have wrapped themselves around me during challenging times giving me the salve I need to heal, the connection I need to be uplifted, the stimulus I need to explore. Words have always been there for me to learn, discover, grow, share and participate. I have been hurt by words, but, on balance, I think words have soothed and transformed me more often. Using words with greater awareness and insight, I claim my super power and raise my voice! The power of my words resonates within me allowing me expression of the being I am in this moment. Through their authentic meaning, my words enable me to weave stories to connect and share my expression enabling learning, discovery, growth, sharing, participation and the raising of heartfelt voices. I invite you to ponder: how do you want to live through words?
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*Pinel, J.P.J. (2011) Lateralisation, language and the spilt brain: The leaft brain and the right brain of language. Biopsychology. (pp427 – 431). Boston:Pearson.