How Much Do Our Words Matter?

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Although we have always known it intuitively, science has confirmed the tremendous power our words have on ourselves, communities, and the world. In fact, words can literally shape the material world. The words we speak not only reflect, but shape our thoughts, and our thoughts shape the physical structure of our brains. An NPR interview between host Ira Flatow and science writer Sharon Begley, “Can Thoughts and Action Change Our Brains?” revealed how findings in neuroplasticity suggest the way we think can not only change the structure of our brains, but even lead to the re-growth of brain cells (something once considered impossible).

In a 2013 TED talk, “Does Language Bring Us Together or Pull Us Apart?” biologist Dr. Mark Pagel speaks of the potency of our words using a memorable phrase, explaining that through language we are able to “implant our ideas” into another’s mind. Language provides the rails on which thoughts ride. The words we use — and how we use them — matter immensely because they shape the way we perceive the world and participate within it.

To add to this understanding is the amplifying effect technology has had on our words. Today, we are inundated with words through text messages, status updates, and the endless carousel of advertisements and news stories on our phones and computers.

In a New York Times article, “The American Diet: 34 Gigabytes a Day,” writer Nick Bilton highlights the findings in a report by the University of California, San Diego, titled “How Much Information?” Shockingly, Bilton points out “the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information in a single day.” To provide some context, Leo Tolstoy’s massive opus, War & Peace, is 587,287 words. That means we see as many words in less than a week. And since this article was published in 2009, as we have become more digitally integrated, the number of words we consume each day has increased.

Of course, we are not intently reading most of these words, but the point remains: we are assailed with a litany of words and as a result their perceived power has diminished. Take that and add it to the current state of civic discourse, where certain media publications, political figures, and other influential leaders have devolved to using words as artillery to censure, undermine, and destroy the reputation of others, and it’s not hard to believe that words have become cheap.

Still, our words provide the basis for human connection. Our language serves us “instinctively and subconsciously as a marker of tribal identity,” according to Pagel. He goes on to say that when someone speaks, we place him or her in the world based on language or accent, essentially asking ourselves if the person is one of us or not. And when sharing a language, human beings can be remarkably cooperative and even selfless. Ironically, however, our shared language — the very medium that allows connection and solidarity — can also corrode our communities and relationships when our words take on the hue of lies and destructive naming. Words have the capacity to be a blessing or a curse.

As Christians, we try daily to use our words with care and to cultivate understanding. But still, we fall short. What more can we understand about the words we use and their impact that could help us better love others, pointing us to Christ, the living “Word of God”? Fixing our eyes on our paragon, Jesus, how can we be better stewards of our words — especially in today’s cultural and political climate — to heal division, draw our communities together, and help build the Kingdom of Heaven?

The Effect of Language on Our Thoughts and Relationships

Orwell understood that if we only recite clichéd and meaningless phrases because they sound nice, we are spared the effort and challenge of not only crafting our thoughts and opinions into fresh language, but of actually confronting what our thoughts and opinions really are.

Dr. Alain Lescart, PLNU professor of French and literature, has spent much of his life exploring the beauty and nuance of languages. A European by birth, from an early age he was introduced to multiple languages and developed a love for the diversity of the human tongue. Lescart is a self-professed Renaissance man, which becomes apparent upon meeting him: his goldish hair is redolent of a humanist painter, and he rides a motorcycle, plays the guitar, and even competes in the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons — all while fulfilling his role as scholar and professor. It’s this same multifaceted way of living that bespeaks Lescart’s perpetual curiosity about the world and people.

“Language creates a context of communication that is specific to a culture,” he said. “Language reflects the way people think.”

Lescart mentioned that the large number of French philosophers — including Sartre, Descartes, Foucault — is not an accident. The French language has been tailored over time to explicate abstract thought. It is primed to help articulate complex ideas. Because of this, though, the French language can also make it difficult to speak in more concrete terms. This is where an Anglo-Saxon language, like English, has an advantage. Lescart’s point is that when we learn a new language, we open our mind to an alternative way of thinking, and how we think affects the way we behave.

This notion was humorously and cleverly highlighted in George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell claimed our reliance on “dying metaphors,” “pretentious diction,” “stale similes and idioms,” and other instances of mannered verbiage has clouded our thinking. Orwell understood that if we only recite clichéd and meaningless phrases because they sound nice, we’re spared the effort and challenge of not only crafting our thoughts and opinions into fresh language, but of actually confronting what our thoughts and opinions really are. In other words, using unclear and trite language reflects unclear and trite thinking. And if we can’t think clearly, how can we discern how to participate well within our communities?

Dr. Rob Thompson, PLNU professor of philosophy, has spent considerable time studying the meaning and nature of language. He often lectures on the famed Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his theory of language games. To simplify an immensely complex idea, Wittgenstein proposed that all language is a series of rule-governed “games” in which a collective group of individuals participate.

Wittgenstein used the term “game” not to trivialize the complexity of human language, but to draw a parallel between the rules of language and those of a game. Thompson explained that the similarity between language and any game is that they are both rule-governed. Although we are not always conscious of these rules, we are still able to identify the difference between a game, no matter how strange or unfamiliar, and something that isn’t a game because the former is always rule-governed.

Thompson referenced Monopoly, saying that although few of us may be able to recite every single rule to that game, many of us still know enough to play it sufficiently. When we see the board, dice, and pastel faux money (assuming we have at least some basic knowledge of the game), we are able to play. Language works in a similar fashion. From birth we have been habituated into the rules of the various language games of which we are a part. Additionally, language resembles a game because when we make a move in a game, our aim is to obtain an outcome. In language, this outcome is obtained by relaying meaning to another; our aim is to have a common understanding emerge. And in order to understand each other, we must both play the same rule-governed game. Otherwise, our meaning becomes obfuscated.

“The way we know or understand one another is that we function in that linguistic community under the same rules that govern that meaning set,” Thompson said.

Therefore, whether we’re learning another language or speaking with someone with a different background, in order to better communicate and understand that person, we must make an effort to be aware of the particular rules of the game he or she is playing. If this language game is played honestly and under the relevant rules, we are better able to communicate with others in their language game.

To communicate well with others, we must work to understand the world they live in, which, despite speaking the same language in some cases, might still be very unfamiliar to us due to diverse experiences, contexts, and values. As we learn the language of the other (whether a new, natural language or a different language game embedded in another’s social context), we are able to better see their point of view and speak to them with language that resonates with them. Lescart reminds us that this matters because, if we are to understand and love others like Christ did — and language is the primary means through which we can better understand one another — then we have to approach our words with responsibility and intentionality.

The Word Became Flesh

In the first chapter of John, we uncover a very strange idea: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” It’s easy to gloss over the statement because of familiarity, but it’s important to consider its implications.

Dr. Kara Lyons-Pardue, PLNU associate professor of New Testament, loves exploring not only Scripture, evidenced by her profession as a biblical scholar, but the power and nuance of both the written and spoken word.

“The Greek term that’s being used in John 1:1 for ‘Word’ is ‘logos,’” Lyons-Pardue said. “It’s the same word that gives us the word ‘logic’ in English. I think a better way to say it is that Jesus represents the logic or rationale of God.”

Lyons-Pardue explained it’s this supreme rationality that gives order and form to the universe.

“In Jesus, we not only see the unity of divine logic and reason, but also the embodiment of it,” Lyons-Pardue said. “Jesus becomes the marker by which speech and action are unified, and Jesus’s words have unique power.”

The Gospels are teeming with examples of Jesus’s words administering healing, driving out demons, and even raising the dead. Lyons-Pardue explained that the words of his teaching were often accompanied by signs of healing. Similar to God’s first command, “let there be light,” Jesus continually speaks words that materialize into reality. We see this throughout the Gospels, especially in Mark. God’s words, when spoken, are always active — they always take on “flesh.”

“Jesus’s speech does not create reality in an ethereal sense, but in a literal way through the way his words are always accompanied with living action,” Lyons-Pardue said.

Every word Jesus spoke was intentional and brought life. And since God invites us to participate in the building up of creation, our words also carry tremendous weight. They are charged with power, especially when animated by the Holy Spirit for the purposes of affirming and loving others. Yet, our words also carry the potential for destruction and harm if we use them contrary to the way God intends.

Death and Life are in the Power of the Tongue

This past February, Dr. Dan Boone, president of Trevecca Nazarene University, lectured at PLNU’s H. Orton Wiley Series on the power of words, and their integration with social media and technology. In his talk, “Cyber Ethics: The Language of Blessing and Cursing,” he unpacked the notion of wisdom. The Book of Proverbs contains an abundance of wisdom, and is certainly not silent on the issue of our words. Boone spoke about several examples from Scripture, including the always sobering, “death and life are in the power of the tongue. And those who love it will eat its fruits” (Proverbs 18:21).

Boone explained that words, when properly ordered to love, engender the fruit of life. They can affirm the gifts and talents of others, help us become active participants in our callings, and allow us to connect with others.

“Our words have the potential to create imaginative space,” Lyons-Pardue said, providing another example of how words can be fruitful. “Speaking into the gifts we see in other people, speaking words of praise particularly, has the power to open up what our minds can fathom for our future.”

Of course, words can also cause harm — they can dehumanize us, mar our dignity as children of God, and bridle our imaginations and callings.

While we may have a right to say whatever is on our mind, the question remains, should we? And what about when we speak words that unintentionally harm others? By calling back to mind a philosophical understanding of language, we realize that since the laws of language are rule-governed, we don’t get to decide what our words mean. This implies that whether or not we intend to harm with our language does not matter if our language is indeed harmful. The rules of our language determine what our words mean and how they affect others.

Additionally, when we name things in truth — such as when we refer to someone as a friend or beloved son or daughter of God — our naming reveals a connection with God and others.

Even more so, we can “break” the rules of the language game by not participating honestly. Unfortunately, we see examples of this with the inflammatory or dishonest talk from the likes of politicians, media outlets, and other influencers in society, whether within volatile posts on social media or scathing news articles. When we break the rules by lying, for example, or calling someone something degrading, untrue, or grossly limiting, we cause great harm.

“When we say things like, ‘This person is a conservative or liberal,’ or ‘This person is a foreigner,’ we alter our perception of that person,” said Dr. Brad Kelle, PLNU professor of Old Testament and Hebrew. “What’s so damaging with doing this is that it moves us away from the primary lens with which we are supposed to see all people, as made in the image and likeness of God.”

If we name others “liberal” or “conservative,” it becomes hard to see them as loved by God and pay them the dignity they deserve.

“We are all participating in this broad social system, including the language games within it, and as a result we bear the marks on our bodies of the system,” Thompson said. “How do I want to participate in that system? What kind of marks do I want my active participation to leave?”

These “marks” relate to the effect our language has on our identity and physical, mental, and spiritual health. If language directed at us is harmful, we bear these marks in the form of psychological distress, stunted growth, resentment, and even despair. One Psychology Today article, “The Long-Lasting Pain of Childhood Verbal Abuse,” explains how “we respond more deeply and quickly to criticism than to praise.” The reasons for this are because our brains are designed to pay more attention to threats, since it’s the awareness of possible threats that tend to keep us alive. Therefore, harmful words have the same effect on the brain that a physically threatening reality does. In the case of young children, the article cites studies that have found if children grow up in a hostile situation — as is the case with verbal abuse — the growth of key areas of their brain (the corpus callosum, hippocampus, and frontal cortex) are negatively affected. These words can leave literal, physical marks on our bodies and minds.

However, if we’re nurtured by encouraging, truthful, and respectful language that reflects our dignity as human beings, not only are we spared from the harms of damaging language, but our bodies take on the “marks” of peace, confidence, and health — just as they were designed to do.

Additionally, when we name things in truth — such as when we refer to someone as a friend or beloved son or daughter of God — our naming reveals a connection with God and others.

Kelle turned to the source of his life’s work — the Old Testament — to provide the example of Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl, who is the first person in Scripture to name God. “She names him in Hebrew, El Roi, which means, ‘the God who sees me,’” Kelle relayed. By giving God a name, Hagar not only reveals something true about who God is, but the existence of a meaningful relationship between God and humanity.

Being Good Stewards of Our Words

Discerning how to use our words in line with our Christian dignity requires a posture of humility, respect, and curiosity.

Boone spoke regretfully about some Christians who spew harsh words of condemnation on their social media feeds, often gilded with a smug sense of self-righteousness. Boone is not advocating that we don’t ever speak up, and certainly that we don’t hide or obscure the truth, but rather that we honestly discern as best as we can if our words will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. At times, Jesus used harsh words toward those with hardened hearts, but such words were always governed by the desire to draw everyone back to the Father. Convicting words have their place, but they call for serious and prayerful discernment of the relationship with the person (or people) and the social context we find ourselves within.

According to Thompson, discerning how to use our words in line with our Christian dignity requires a posture of humility, respect, and curiosity. It requires that we take the stance of a continual learner, yet do so together — as members of a shared community aimed at loving God and others more fully.

“I think we need to realize that our language use has structural impact on real human lives,” Thompson said. “Coming to see that is difficult and takes time, and it is a product of, I think, education. To love the Lord your God, with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength means you’ve got to live with intellectual excellence and be self-aware.”

By educating ourselves, filling our minds with a better understanding of other cultures, values, languages, and people, and with prayerful discernment, we can become more like Christ. The task of understanding ourselves, others, and the contexts in which these relationships exist is the key to using our words well, which is something that is often challenging and ongoing.

When it comes to our words, they are never cheap. The way of love always begins with our minds and hearts — by seeking to understand our neighbor, our place in the world, and the wisdom of God. As Jesus reminds us in Scripture, “The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart … ” (Matthew 15:18). It’s in aligning our hearts and minds with the Holy Spirit that, through our words, we can reflect and instill the love of God in our communities.

BY CHRISTOPHER HAZELL

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