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Language Matters

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Language matters—probably more than you imagine. Language is the thing that makes us different from animals. It is also what makes it possible to think. Scientists are now demonstrating this, but the Greeks understood this thousands of years ago: the Greek word logos means both “word” and “reason.” We get our word logic from this root. With no words, there is no thought.

But words are more than that. They are our history and our heritage. They create our societies. Without knowing our language, we lose who we are.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are the thoughts of a wide range of writers and thinkers on why you want to learn language well and use it well.

Linguist Noam Chomsky:

“When we study human language we are approaching what some might call ‘the human essence,’ the distinct qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.”

Poet John Ciardi:

“Tell me how much a nation knows about its own language, and I will tell you how much that nation knows about its own identity.”

Linguist Richard Lederer, in his book The Miracle of Language:

“It is only through the gift of language that the child acquires reason, the complexity of thought that sets him or her apart from the other creatures who share this planet.”

 Essayist Joan Didion, from her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

“As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of language.”

 Writer/naturalist Henry Beston:

“A civilization which loses its power over its own language has lost its power over the instrument by which it thinks.”

 Linguist John Simon, from his book Paradigm’s Lost (worth noting—Simon was born in Hungary, and English was his fifth language):

“There is a close connection between the ability to think and the ability to use English correctly. The person who does not respect words and their proper relationships cannot have much respect for ideas—very possibly cannot have ideas at all. My quarrel is not so much with minor errors that we all fall into from time to time even if we know better as it is with basic sloppiness or ignorance or defiance of good English.”

Chinese philosopher Confucius:

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said.”

 Confucius again:

“Without knowing the force of words it is impossible to know men.”

 TV correspondent and author of Strictly Speaking and A Civil Tongue, Edwin Newman:

“Since nothing is more important to a society than the language it uses—there would be no society without it—we would be better off if we spoke and wrote with exactness and grace, and if we preserved, rather than destroyed, the value of language.”

From The Miracle Worker (the story of Helen Keller’s childhood) by playwright William Gibson:

Mrs. Keller: “What will you try to teach her first?”

Anne Sullivan: “First, last, and in between, language. Language is to the mind more than light is to the eyes.”

And finally, from Helen Keller herself:

“Somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant that wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! . . . I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.”

The purpose of this column will be to explore language on many levels: from word origins to literary allusions to common errors. My goal is to help writers know language well so they can use it well.

 Learn as much as you can. As writers, we have a better understanding than most about the importance and power of words. But it’s even bigger than we sometimes imagine. You cannot think without language. It makes society hold together, makes communication possible, and defines us as a human being. The more language we know, the more thoughtful—and the more human—we become.

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