Imagine being born into a world where every creature and object didn’t have a name attached to it. A tree would not be a “tree”, but rather a towering, majestic structure that branches into narrower and narrower web-like claws, sprouting emerald teardrops. A child would not just be a “child”, but rather, an explorer who is small enough to crawl into nooks and crevices holding unknown treasures. Fish would be seen as undulating, iridescent creatures and birds like messengers of joy. There would be no such labels as “black” and “white”, and no division of humans into races, religions, even genders. Everything and everyone would just be.
Do you think if we hadn’t come up with a label for everything, there might be more magic and wonder in our lives? We might start to see things the way a child who hasn’t yet learned to speak can? Has language played some role in, not only taking magic away from our lives, but also dividing people into categories, so that we feel even more isolated from each other than before?
This is a difficult concept for me to float, especially since language has played a pivotal role bringing magic into my life. Who would I be if it weren’t for my mastery of, at least, one language? My childhood was steeped in books of fiction, my youth spent listening to stories about the wonders of the world, and my profession an attempt at maintaining a continuity of language skills from one generation to the next. Without language in my life, I wouldn’t begin to know who I was. To me, words are like fairy dust. If you blow some life into them, they can transform the world.
What, then, of the harm caused by words? Have we just created a few too many labels in our desire for control? When a newspaper headline reads, “Police Officer Kills Black Man”, think about all the various connotations and associations that come up for different people. Why doesn’t the headline just read, “Police Officer Kills Man”, or, in fact, “Man Kills Man.” Why does the presence of certain labels change our perception of what we’re reading?
Then again, language is so important in broadening our horizons, especially those people who know multiple languages. Learning a new language is one way of being able to look at the same thing in a different way. So, for me, a tree is not just a tree, but also a darakht. For some, it is an árbol or an arbre, a shù or a baum. The more words I learn for “tree”, the more I understand how someone else can look at the very same object as me, yet see something completely different. Suddenly, my world opens up.
I guess language, like the mind, is a double-edged sword. You can use it to create magic and change perceptions, but also to categorize and dehumanize. Words are so powerful, they should come with a warning. Consider the difference between a mother scolding her son, saying, “You’re a bad boy,” as opposed to, “You’ve behaved badly.” In the first line, “bad” becomes part of the boy’s identity and sense of self, while in the second line, “bad” describes a choice he made, a choice which he may alter in the future. The irony is, the mother who utters either of these lines is probably not looking to scar her child. She just doesn’t realize how much power her words carry, and so uses them carelessly.
As an experiment, I ask you to look at any object in your reach, and imagine that it does not already have a name. Observe the object with as many of your senses as possible and think about what other function it might serve. Be creative. A scarf could be a belt. A drinking glass could be a kaleidoscope through which to view things. A landscape painting could be the doorway into another world. A pencil could be a mini-sword or even a magic wand. We often do this without realizing it, when we play with children or make an effort to think “outside-the-box”. It may seem silly, but for a moment, we suspend our beliefs about what we know to be true and attempt to perceive things differently.
Now try this exercise: think of your partner, or child, or friend, and make a point to forget all the labels attached to him/her. Erase his name and specific relation to you from your memory. Look at her with new eyes, as if meeting for the first time. Take it a step further and give him a different label, like a new name, age, and personality trait. Your friend who is a housewife might suddenly become a secret agent in disguise. Your child might actually be a wise, old sage who has the answers to all the questions in the universe. Your colleague who seems shy on the surface can actually become an overly confident entertainer. Have fun with it. Become a character in your own story. Transform into an author or actor, and create a new story line for your life. You may doubt the idea that one thing can magically turn into another, and that any one person can be transformed into whoever it is they want to be. But really, anything is possible if you learn to play around with language.
If we think something has been described incorrectly, we can use our own language to counter that. The character trait of being “sensitive” doesn’t have to be seen as a weakness anymore, if we talk about how it gives us strength. A “wall” doesn’t need to denote protection if it is described as being divisive and breakable. And the word “other” doesn’t have to sound scary, if we talk about it as being essential. Our words shape the world. Let’s use them with care.