Language We Live

The Language We Live

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.

Importance of Human Verbal Language

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.

Maps and Territories

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.

Language as Mirror of Experience

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.

Experience as Mirror of 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.

Freedom

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?

Guilt

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.

Regret

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?

Generosity

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?

Violence

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?

Legalism

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.

Humility

“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.

Possessiveness

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?

Integration

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”?

Subjectivity

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.

Reification

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?

Time

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?

Exchange

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?

Negativity

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?

Absolutes

“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.

Superlatives

“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 … ”

Channels

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.

Cost and Price

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.

Development

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?

Conclusion

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.