The Language We Live
- Importance of Human Verbal Language
- Maps and Territories
- Language as Mirror of Experience
- Experience as Mirror of Language
- Cost and Price
What do you think about human population increase, natural resource depletion, environmental pollution, and social ills? How successfully may we address these issues with technological innovation aimed at altering the material world, or with cultural evolution driven by governmental policy or "market forces"? Or are these "problems" and "solutions," as well as many others, mutually reinforcing maladaptive behaviors? How may we shed light on such questions, and by what transformative process might we reach a vantage point from which to examine our circumstances and behaviors from fresh perspective?
The languages we hear and speak, read and write, are defining qualities of our being. On the following pages are a few ideas about the role of language in our lives, and about changes to language by which we at Magic are aiming to enhance our own and others' capacity to adapt successfully.
Though many organisms communicate with others of the same species, humans are unique in extensiveness and complexity of word language. With each passing day, linguistic enterprise-hundreds of separate languages, thousands of dialects, wireless and fiber-optic networks, computers and high-speed presses, print and broadcast media, libraries of books, microfilm, and CD's-is becoming more central to human existence.
Anyone reading these words likely experiences much less of nature directly than did most people in the past or do most humans today. We have stripped away darkness of night and cold of winter. What we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is increasingly that already shaped by human endeavor. Though buildings, machines, clothing, etc. are important elements of our enterprise, language is remarkably pervasive and influential artifact. Increasingly, what we "know" is a word representation of our own and others' experience. We live awash in word.
You probably readily perceive a difference between fire and the word "fire." Something is missing in the latter, however vivid your recollection of all that you associate with it. You likely also distinguish between learning that fire burns by placing a hand in flame, and learning "fire burns" by hearing another's admonition.
Interacting directly with fire we experience natural law unbuffered, and uncolored by others. By continuing interaction we may test and refine our understanding.
Relying upon word, however, we distort and delete. Passing our words to others, or hearing theirs, we are often loosely coupled to the experiences being described, and we commonly lack ready means to check accuracy of what they or we have absorbed. Many of us take great pleasure in the thought of learning from others' mistakes. Yet by our reliance upon symbolic representation, we may actually more often learn their mistakes.
Though some tout "virtual reality" as a coming attraction, we live increasingly "virtual" existences from the moment we begin to acquire language. The world of word is but an approximation. Like mapmakers, we labor from imperfect knowledge with limited symbols. And like map users, we travel more safely when we remember that representation and referent are distinct.
Humans write and speak to communicate diverse messages: joy and sorrow, technique and purpose, memories and aspirations. In language we see reflected the world-view of those who speak it today or who spoke it in the past. Just as anatomy and physiology reflect DNA-encoded information sufficient for ancestors to survive and reproduce, so does contemporary language evidence kinds of communication which have proven enduring. With each new word and construction, and with every iteration of pre-existing vocabulary and grammar, we create and recreate language.
To the extent that we think and communicate verbally, we conform mentation and interaction with others to language. Native tongue, second and subsequent languages, jargon, slang, dialect, and even personal preference for certain words or sentence structure are all factors in linguistic identity or idiolect. By lingusitic habit we reveal and redefine self, shape listeners and readers, and lay a foundation for interaction with nature and artifact.
Benjamin Whorf, a pioneering linguist who lived during the first half of the twentieth century, hypothesized that the language into which we are born serves as both a foundation for-and a constraint upon-how we view the world. Investigators have confirmed this assertion with oft-repeated cross-cultural studies.
By examining the place of words we read, write, hear, speak, and think in our lives, each of us may gain a better understanding of how person and idiolect become reciprocal images. By learning to be more aware as we apprehend, construct, and disseminate language, we may gain capacity to develop more as we intend.
Many of us both celebrate and seek personal freedom, defined as "exemption from necessity or restraint." By abandoning language of obligation and compulsion we may enhance freedom.
Consider words like "must," "ought," "should," and "have to." Do you speak and think in these terms? Do you interpret them literally? Or do you perceive them to be camouflage for choice and pretense to compulsion or coercion? Perhaps you "automatically" understand these words as mere expression of preference.
How often will failure to satisfy imperatives we utter or hear result in penalty beyond substitution of one pleasure for another? Why do we shrink from admitting self-determination?
Consider for example, "I want to stay, but I must go shopping." What is truly at stake? Why do people balk at terminating interaction freely? How will we feel if more of us admit autonomy, and say "want to ..." or "am going to ..." when that is what we mean?
What do we achieve by telling others what they "should," "ought to," "must," or "have to" do or be? Who are we to claim to be correct in such conclusive directives? How do we justify imposing what may be merely personal idiosyncrasies on others?
Where lie the sources of the imperatives and necessities we currently recognize? What may we gain by offering instead the evidence from which we conclude, and inviting choice? Rather than, "You must tell the truth," let's confess, "I have lied and have rarely felt good doing so." If we decide on the basis of common information, will we more often act in harmony?
For speakers of English, the verb form "should have" may be little but language of guilt. Consider, for example, "I should have been kinder to you." With such words we express desire for something other than what we remember. To wish for a different past is futile. We may be more satisfied if we accept the consequences of what we have done and been, affirm principle, admit error, and formulate a plan for remedial action without "should have." For example, "I value kindness. I was inconsiderate to you. I apologize. I intend to be more thoughtful in the future."
Many of us have felt guilty. Upon reflection perhaps you can imagine living guiltlessly. Rather than suffer today as we bemoan past behavior, we can focus upon being grateful for what we have learned and upon how we may apply it.
You may agree that "would have" and "could have," though lacking the element of compulsion present in "should have," are other words by which we may express a desire to deny what is already done. Perhaps we may fairly label them a language of regret. For many, regretting is as unpleasant as guilting.
How will we change if we replace "would have" and "could have" with words of resolution: "Next time, I plan to ..."? What burden will we lift from others by sparing them criticism in terms of what they "would have" or "could have" been or done?
Almost all of us recoil at the thought of being greedy. Yet few of us have mastered a language consistent with generosity, a language of expanded self, by which we unwaveringly express determination to find mutual satisfaction, rather than settle for gain achieved at others' expense.
To what extent do we offer, and to what degree do we demand? How often in a day do we say, "I want?" and how often do we ask, "What may I give you?" In what circumstances might we beneficially intervene with, "How can we both come away from this interaction feeling good?" And when might we simply give quietly and anonymously, rather than speak at all?
Many, especially the males among us, liberally employ language of violence. We "whip" each other in games like tennis, and "beat" our rivals to the market in business. As we move into an era when individual human futures are increasingly joined, the circumstances in which violence among people is adaptive may be shrinking.
Might we benefit by more often emphasizing the peaceful and gentle aspects of life? "Both of us played well." "Many customers appreciated our new product." Will we necessarily talk peacefully to live that way?
Both at home and abroad, critics of the United States label us an overly-legalistic society. Some assert that we live with proportionately more laws, lawyers, and lawsuits than any other people. Collectively we devote enormous quantities of life to arguments about the letter of each message, often apparently indifferent to the potential for improving all our lives by reallocating the same resources to learn attitudes more cooperative, and thus become more able to rely upon communicative styles less rigid.
We have made language complex to the point of obscurity. Even in everyday life we are turning with increasing frequency to specialists for the agreements by which we define interactions with others. What do we gain by treating each other so treacherously that we are without the ability to speak or write what we think and feel, and still feel comfortable and secure? How many "party of the first part" and "plaintiff alleges" do we need to live harmoniously?
In a perhaps related development, many are relying more upon language of qualification, sometimes equivocal to the point of emptiness, and seemingly designed to protect us against later being held to any firm standard. We are "willing" or "committed," and we "promote" and "encourage." Rarely do we promise to achieve a measurable result. Perhaps if some of us are a bit less harsh in criticizing each other, a little more generous in shouldering responsibility for failure and sharing credit for success, more of us will be better able to express intention in definite terms, and to realize it.
"Politicians are crooks." "(Race, religion, nationality) are (adjective)." "Love is . . ." If we use the verb "to be" to establish our own private experience as the reality, we invite dispute. With bold, sweeping generalizations about good and evil we reveal misplaced confidence in what we know. If we are quick to judge, to assert views, and to defend ideas far beyond personal experience, we may be revealing a desire for control of that which lies without us. To what extent are such ambitions consistent with attaining peace within and with others?
Can we learn to enjoy a consciousness filled more with questions than with answers? Will we create a more healthful and adaptive social milieu by shaping a larger portion of thought as gentle interrogatives? Each of us is but a small portion of humankind. Perhaps we will become more satisfied if we think of ourselves as possessing only a billionth or so of human truth.
For at least several centuries, the architects of Euro-American culture have sought satisfaction and happiness by increasing environmental manipulation. Some claim that ideas of ownership, which we have extended in slavery-and in surprisingly many other relationships-to human beings, has been central to this process.
How do we further our purposes by talking as if any person owns the Earth or some part of it, or as if some other person is "ours," whether as spouse, employee, lover, or child?
Can we develop a consciousness of stewardship towards the Earth and respect for each other by using less often the possessive, both the verbs "to have," "to own," etc. and the pronouns "my," "our," "your," etc.? How will relationships between parent and child be altered if we cease speaking of my/our son, daughter, father, mother?
Today, notions of fragmented self abound. Many refer to body, mind, spirit, soul, ego, id, conscience, as though separable. Speakers of some languages (e.g. Balinese) are reported to find such talk nonsensical. May we feel less conflict if we eschew partial selves?
What do you intend when you say "I made myself do it," or "She forced herself to go?" Can we simplify our lives and enhance our freedom by saying "I went," or "She did it"? Will we feel more relaxed and at ease when we live as "I"?
As we shed the languages of obligation, guilt, and divided self, we can more clearly see how powerful we are. Instead of being passive objects: "I was stung by a bee," or "You make me angry," we become important and, in many cases, preeminent: "I stepped on a bee," or "I'm angry." Viewing the world this way, we are more likely to ascribe value to personal change. We are subjects, acting, feeling, being. Rather than focusing on externalities, we may turn more frequently to our own choices and acts.
In some contexts, people with power over others have decreed the eradication of self in written communication by mandating depersonalized action and passive voice. We may see such edicts reflected in much contemporary "scientific" literature: "The material was processed ... and it was observed ..." Many within and without the scientific establishment assert that such language is intended to bolster claims to "objectivity," and thus enhance credibility of scientific findings. Yet virtually all competent practicing scientists agree that enterprise is rooted in a combination of subjectivity and reproducibility of results. Those who represent it otherwise undermine its essence, making it less attractive and less accessible to many who might support, join, and benefit from it.
One specific and common way in which many of us avoid the role of subject is by reification, giving lifelike qualities to abstractions. Some say, "Her pragmatism paved the way to victory," leaving us to wonder where we can find some of this substance to lay before us as we move towards personal goals. Are we better able to see a path to emulating another's success if we say, "She was pragmatic and triumphed"?
Learning to think as subjects, we become less prone to reifica-tion. We more readily assume responsibility for the consequences of what we do. Instead of complaining, "The pollution is awful today," we admit, "We are poisoning each other by fouling the air." "Unemployment is up," we translate to, "Larger numbers of people are failing to agree upon terms for sharing work and rewards."
Unless we imagine a better life to await us in world full of spirits and demons, gods and goddesses, why reify?
When before in history has time been so precisely and ubiquitously measured? Electronic watches with accuracy barely imaginable only a few decades ago may be found today in small villages around the globe.
Many of us speak of time as a commodity to be invested, saved, wasted, spent, etc. like money. In fact, "Time is money!" is an expression with which most of us are familiar. With such statements we evidence the ubiquitousness of laboring for wages. But do we abase self and others by pretending human life can be exchanged like wool or wheat? How differently will we perceive the world when we replace "time" with "life"? How much more careful will we become to evidence the values we cherish?
In recent years we have made measured, balanced, and recorded exchange more and more pervasive in human interactions. Today popular magazines are brimming with articles about "getting as much as we give" (or more) in such nominally unconditional relationships as marriage and parenting. We routinely talk of "exchanging gifts," without second thought about oxymoron.
How will we ever behave in a manner which evidences compassion for those whose needs exceed their resources, unless we de-emphasize the language of bookkeeping? Of what benefit is contemplating a world where gift is common, owing unknown? By what language might we support such a vision?
How much negativity shall we entertain? Much that we portray negatively can be rephrased positively. How do you feel when you hear negativity? How do you feel when you speak it? Can you notice any difference if you speak in terms of being "ignorant," rather than "not knowing," of being "yet to do" rather than "not having done?" What ways can you discover to reduce negativity?
"All … none … every … always … never . . ." are short, simple words, with far-reaching meaning. We live finite lives of finite experience. Only very rarely will most of us enjoy knowledge so complete that we may accurately represent it with absolutes. By the simple act of adding a qualifier like "almost" or "nearly" we can remember and remind others of limits to what we know.
"Best … worst … most … least … biggest . . ." How readily in an age of advertising hyperbole do we utter these. But as with other absolutes, superlatives are generally beyond our ken. To pretend otherwise may be delusion. More consistent with what we actually experience are comparatives like "better … worse … more … less … bigger … "
Psychologists have determined that each of us relies upon a different mixture of sensory input. Some are tactile, some visual, some auditory, etc. For example, three different individuals might respond to the same presentation by saying, "I get what you mean," "I see the point," and "That's music to my ears." By learning to discern others' preferred sensory modes, we may tailor what we say and write to them, and understand them better as well.
Frequently we ask, "What did that cost?" and the person of whom we inquire responds with a dollar price. In a superficial sense, the communication between us has been successful, since often we ask to learn what we might expect to pay.
Implicit in the laws of nature are costs which are only partially reflected in the prices we generate from our own partial understandings of value. Examples include pollution, depletion of finite stocks of natural resources, and a host of other factors yet to be monetized adequately, or at all.
As humans operate more rapidly and on larger scales, we encounter more limits of natural systems. Thinking in terms of ecological costs, including "externalities," we may see more clearly a way to conform economic ideas of value to ecological ones.
We frequently hear calls for "development" to better human life. Those who advocate "development" usually mean conversion of nature to artifact (e.g. - building, paving, and manufacturing). The history of such activities is one of disappointment for many and privilege for few. There are more buildings, roads, and manufactured goods on Earth today than ever before, yet more people starved or suffered debilitating disease last year than in any prior. What kind of development will further common interests?
These are but a sampling of the changes that we at Magic are testing as we tailor language to serve our vision. If you search, you may soon discover a whole slough of other linguistic quirks and nuances more important to you than the examples offered here.
We will appreciate you for sharing this essay with any audience you think will enjoy it, and we look forward to hearing your comments, as well as any insights you think we may find illuminating.