It may seem a little strange to be reading a written text attempting to evaluate the impact words can have, but in a way this perfectly illustrates the inescapable importance of language in our human world. When our thoughts, interactions and expressions of self are grounded in words, it can seem almost impossible to take a step back in order to think critically about the power of this asset we are all guilty of wielding unthinkingly from time to time.
Words aren’t really anything. They’re vibrations in the air, intangible and transitory, without any real, physical substance. In spite of this, they are also nearly everything. They underpin communication, definition and understanding; in a way they are what makes us, us. While words, when spoken, may not last, the effects they have will certainly stick around. Whether the mean words of a schoolmate motivating someone to achieve incredible things in adulthood, or the galvanising effect of Martin Luther King’s famous dream, language does not cease to exist as soon as it stops being heard.
Of course, language itself is never any more straightforward than the impacts it has. What is said is not always, and perhaps not even often, what is really meant. Words can fall short, or emotion may cloud the speaker’s ability to communicate. Language can never really be more than a representative of a thought or feeling, anyway — what is said or written must always be at least one step away from what is being discussed. Effective communication requires the listener to decode and interpret the true meaning which exists between the lines. But this shouldn’t be considered a shortcoming of language; rather it is a unique part of its charm. Words must be a collaborative effort; they demand that people work together in order to achieve understanding. In a way, then, they embody everything we should be aiming for as a society.
There are whole degrees dedicated to the skill of decoding words, including linguistic and literature-based courses, illustrating the wealth of content and meaning which remains unsaid. But the flexibility of language and its ability to conceal the “true” beneath the visible can be both a force for good and an opportunity for malice.
Much of the beauty of words stems from their malleability. Metaphor and figurative language is often considered higher art than bald statements which simply try (and generally fail) to eliminate the space between speech and the object being spoken about. There is also a subtlety available in the careful manipulation of language that is nigh on impossible to achieve in other art forms.
However, the ability to harm, to incite and to destroy without ever technically saying something wrong is the flip-side to this subtlety. Throughout history we have seen evidence of leaders, politicians and high-profile individuals able to coerce huge groups of people into immoral, illegal activities simply by choosing to say the right words at a given moment. Oftentimes people don’t even realise the reality of their own actions because of the way their leader is spinning the rhetoric — until it’s already much too late. On a far less dramatic scale, the flexibility of words often leads to misinterpretation. In a world evermore focused on communicating via short, typed messages, words with multiple meanings can be misunderstood and tone can be overlooked entirely. In a normal interaction, around 93% of communication is non-verbal, stemming instead from body language and tone of voice. Words are incredibly powerful, then, but cannot always function effectively in isolation.
We should not fear language because of its negative possibilities just as we should not fear places on the ring of fire because of the latent threat of volcanic eruptions. Instead, we should be open and willing to learn how best to wield this powerful tool for good, whether we wish to create incredible art or simply communicate positively with our loved ones. In a world conflicted between freedom of speech and the importance of protecting others from harm, things could just get a little easier if we all become more conscious of the positive force we can wield every time we open our mouths, pick up a pen or type out a text.
We’d love to know what you think about the power of language today! Let us know in the comments below, or get in touch with us through one of our social media channels, linked at the bottom of this page.