Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Weekend Philosopher: Linguistic Power

I was watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 & 2) the other night.  One quote from the film, which I've already seen multiple times, stuck with me and inspired me to talk about language today.

Background Image courtesy of sattva
Words do carry a lot of power.  When we're small children, the ridicule of our peers can sting far more than a scraped knee, no matter how many times adults try to assure us that words don't hurt.  Those who recite the old adage "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me" have also undoubtedly been wounded by words from time to time.  It's only natural that this should be the case.  As much as we try to shrug off the hurtful things that people say about us, they can at times pierce through our armor and wound us.

The right words can also help us aspire to greater things.  A rousing speech can band people together to fight for a common goal.

What grants language this creative and destructive power?

The answer is that we do.  As human beings, we created language as a way to communicate with the world.  We are isolated inside our own heads when we don't have effective means of communication.  Facial expressions and other physical gestures undoubtedly convey a lot on the emotional end of the spectrum, and this is quite valuable.  However, there is a limit to how much we can share through those means alone.

"The limits of my language are the limits of my world."
 -Ludwig Wittgenstein

Our language creates the bridge we build with others.  When we share a common language with someone, we can use our words to paint vivid images in the mind of another.  We can work together to build understandings of complex issues.  We build our culture together.

"One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language.  That is our country, our fatherland-and no other." 
-Emile M. Cioran

Words don't have a meaning independent of human interactions.  Languages are built in the same way we use them to build our cultural identities.  Words have meaning because people agree on their meanings.  Each time we speak a word to someone who shares our language, we confirm and hold true to that conferred meaning.  When we converse with one another, we must agree on the meanings of each word we say, otherwise we wouldn't make sense. 

Of course, the world is full of examples of misunderstandings, and those misunderstandings can be nasty at times.  They often occur when the meaning of a conversation is different for each of the participants.  People take offense, and often retaliate.  Sometimes when we converse with others, the offense is intended.  After all, we've all been a party in a situation where someone else intended to cut us with their words.

Yet, when the offense is one-sided, it can create just as great a rift as any intentional barb.

Background Image courtesy of Stuart Miles
Anything can be taken wrong.  Anything can be seen as a personal attack.  In the realm of politics and religion, people hold their beliefs particularly dearly. These belief systems are fortified by words that hold meaning people may treasure.  

Of course, this post has gone on too long already.  This sounds like a good stopping point.  I'll pick up where I left off next week!

1 comment:

  1. You are in the business of words so you have a very intimate relationship with them.

    By the way I love that quote from Dumbledore.