The Power of Language

Sometimes I am overcome with fascination that the unique entity which I am making repeated series of sounds at, and they make different sounds in return to me, is a feature that we can comprehend and make use of. Language fascinates me as a central powerful part of our lives. It isn’t without its problems, and each language is unique in its benefits and drawbacks. But, it is quite amazing.

It is also amazing how the languages we use and what they represent, can mean for how we think.

A few months ago I came across an article that discussed how colors aren’t universal across languages. English speakers are well acquainted with blue, red, yellow, black, pink, etc. But what if your language lacks a word to describe the color?

The Candoshi tribe, a native culture in the Amazon, appears to academics to lack even a word for ‘color.’ They don’t teach their children the colors of the rainbow because they do not have words for individual colors. But this phenomenon is rather unique in the world. It is much more common for languages to define color and have unique words for some sections of the color spectrum.

How does someone without a word for blue, learn to see it as something unique among its neighboring defined colors? Without a word for blue, it would be seen as just a shade of green perhaps, or maybe violet. Initially this was a hard concept to wrap my head around. Obviously blue is different than green, how can anyone not see that?

Brief aside: In fact, orange is among the most recent additions to the English language, as far as core colors are concerned – having joined the lexicon in the early 1500s.

The turning point for me was realizing that this is a generalization issue; the brain relies on language to grow be more specific.

Consider an event that I think many of us have participated in, or at least witnessed: debates over shades of colors. Is this a forest green or army green? Is this napkin white or mother of pearl? For us, this tricks us into thinking it is a different situation from what I described above, it isn’t different other than being about a smaller slice of the color spectrum and seeking proper definition for it.

But, what if we don’t use known words for a color? “Is this forest green or juka?” For me, this helps me understand the discussion. As soon as you and I agree that juka means ‘army green’ we have now given ourselves a word and a unified understanding.

But if I, sitting at my laptop, decide to call army green ‘juka’ and not tell anyone else, it might eventually reach the point of usefulness. Eventually.

How can someone express themselves properly if they don’t have the words to do so? Conversely, how can someone be understood without having the right words to express themselves? Up to now, I’ve described colors. But think back to childhood and learning what your emotions were.

As your much younger self comes to understand your brain and what it is that you are feeling about this world around you. It was common to grow frustrated over difficulty communicating with those around you. And yet, you probably didn’t get frustrated – if you didn’t know the word, then it was likely you found yourself getting angry.

If you’re a newborn baby and you’re in some pain or discomfort from your diaper being full or your stomach being empty, your only real option is to cry. It was up to your parents to learn what your different cries were for, but also it was up to you and your developing brain to develop those different cries and build that simple language between you and your parents. Then there were your coos of pleasure, your giggles of surprise and joy. Until eventually you learned how to operate your mouth and form ‘ma ma’ or ‘da da.’

Tolkien (2019) movie trailer

While some facts here might be of interest to you, this was mostly a musing that I felt driven to write and explore after finally finishing watching the (sadly, disappointing) Tolkien movie from earlier this year. There is a scene where Tolkien is sitting with a young lady he fancies and they have a discussion about the ‘cellar door’ being a beautiful word in Tolkien’s opinion. Edith, the young lady played by Lily Collins, says “A word isn’t beautiful just because of its sound. It’s the marriage of sound and meaning.”

I could use machine learning and massive data to study English, survey tens of thousands of English speakers, on what words they found beautiful and then begin generating nonsensical and new words aimed at being as beautiful as possible. And while it may sound beautiful, it wouldn’t be beautiful until there was a meaning attached.

If we come up with the most beautiful word ever and it is used to define gruesome ways to murder someone, people won’t use that word for that meaning. If people want to use that word, they will give it a new shared definition and use it under the new meaning, thus making it beautiful.

This is the ever evolving reality of language and communication. Words are created, old words gain new usages over time or perhaps fade away, unique meanings for words fall out of favor, all in an ever changing landscape which keeps Merriam-Webster a viable business (in addition to their excellent social media skills.)

What MW does in an unofficial fashion for the English language, some languages have an official central governing body. French, for example, has le Académie Française. For better or worse, also to varying levels of control, they attempt to oversee changes in the grammar of French, as well as adding new words to the language.

Photo by Nitot on Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5

The reality of language though is that it is defined by its speakers. If the French speakers in the world decide to adopt a new piece of jargon, or a loanword from another language, then it is de facto (an English loanword from Latin) a part of the French language regardless of what l’Académie says.

English is a difficult language. I am a fan of the saying that English is actually three languages in a trench coat. Or, another great quote about English: “[English doesn’t] just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” The difficulty is in the final 25% of learning the language, there are so many exceptions and things that just require memorization which make it a difficult language to learn.

And the wonder of language is that you don’t need to get to 100%. Languages have hundreds of thousands of words, but to communicate for simple daily life, you only need a few hundred or a thousand words. And that is an amazing feature of language, we can understand each other with only a tiny fraction of completeness.

And that is, while imperfect, a power of language. Neither side has to be perfect and still, from that, perfect understanding can still come out of it. But, it only benefits you to learn more, eventually you might get to understand the color ‘blue.’