Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lost for Words? Pay the Price.

I spent most of today debating the exact meaning of words. My sparring partners were colleagues and clients, and this group of more than twenty adults took over six hours to come to a conclusion about whether a sequence of four sentences, written in a specific order, expressed exactly what we thought it did - and should.

Words are tricky things. We use them as stimuli to evoke a certain response. But in the short distance between expression and interpretation, they acquire another meaning entirely, and what we end up evoking is not so much a response as a reaction, often unintended and frequently undesired. Bandying words is dangerous work, and those of us in the business of expressing meaning and purpose deserve more credit than we are accorded.

Much of what I do comes down to choosing words with which to express an exact meaning and a precise nuance, and I often wonder where I would be without a vocabulary to draw upon. Words are my resources, after all, and what if I were to run out?

'Building a vocabulary' was considered quaint even when I was in school, and I imagine it's deeply unfashionable now. Of course legions of students swot word-lists for GREs and CAT exams, but by and large, having a large quantity of words at one's disposal is not a skill anyone hankers to develop.

But if we think about it (and I most certainly have been, this evening) it is our words that set the boundaries to our imaginations, perspectives and opinions - not the other way around. Is it really possible to dream of the fantastic without the right words? To describe what we see and how we feel? Of course it's easy enough to arrive at approximations for everything - but don't we end up losing the texture of an experience without the right words with which to characterize it? And to take this line of reasoning a little further, doesn't a lack of words actually limit the depth of an experience? Take a moment to consider the fact that we experience life as an internal monologue - each of us has an ongoing sub-vocal commentary that interprets the world and our journey through it. What if some monologues were more eloquent than others? Would that mean that some lives were more richly felt and lived?  

Looked at in this way, a lack of words can stunt. At its worst, it means that a vague haze of 'good,' 'not good' 'awesome,' 'awful,' ' like,' 'don't like,' hangs over ideas and emotions. Opinions can become dangerously simplistic. Discourse becomes reductionistic. And we lose out on all the things that we can't articulate.

Benjamin Whorf, the great hobby-linguist, claimed that the North American Inuit had several words for 'snow.' This meant that the Inuit saw snow differently than other communities did. It's a controversial hypothesis, and it implies that language limits the information available to us. And therefore, the experiences available to us. What a frightening thought. And what a compelling reason for one to dust off a dictionary and brush up on Scrabble. Our vocabularies might actually be one of our most critical life-skills.

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