Language shapes our thinking – can you only think what you have words for?
What times we live in! I am struck by the contrasting ways in which human behaviour is described. That useful magazine “The Week” publishes extracts from newspapers of every complexion, and repeatedly you can find a single topic described in wildly different ways. “Hurray for openness!” says one commentator; “Terrible leaks!” wails another. “Personal responsibility”, states one; “savage cuts” complains another. “Freedom of self-determination” shouts one; “Terrorism!” proclaims another.
Abstract nouns! NLP has quite a bit to say about these. It calls them ‘nominalisations’ and nominalisations are famously slippery, elusive and vague.“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”�
Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass.
Well, you certainly can if you use abstractions!
“Love” is a particularly vague abstract noun as it makes do for such a cornucopia of different emotions: parental love, sexual love, love of chocolate brownies, love of taking long lunch-breaks in the pub … Two thousand years ago the Greeks gave us a wise lead by employing four different words for love – agape–affection, eros-desire , philia-friendship and storge–family love. But the English language did not go the way of the Greeks …
Nor of the Eskimos: the author Edward De Bono describes the rich vocabulary of love among the Inuit people who use subtle distinctions to manage relationships in the confinement of their long snowy winters. He refers to one of their words for love that translates as “I like you very much, but I would not go seal-hunting with you”. Now that might serve as a useful comeback at a party this Christmas!
One suggestion NLP makes to help unravel the meaning of abstract nouns is to turn them into verbs or “action words”. Our “love” then becomes the process of how we love each other, and our “relationship” becomes the process of how we relate to each other. It’s often easier to understand the meaning of a situation when an abstraction is turned into a process.
The linguist Benjamin Whorf argued that the fact that the Eskimos have 200 words for snow indicates that they have a much richer thinking on the subject. So what about our more limited language for the idea of love – or indeed, given the season, love, joy and peace? Are we impoverished by having “one size fits all” for such concepts?
When we turn these abstract nouns of love, joy and peace into processes (noun into verb) we can see more clearly their limitations. It involves a bit more grammar but for a purpose!
Verbs are either transitive (which means they have an object; for example “I hit you”); or they can be intransitive (which means there is no object – for example “I sleep”; “I sleep you” doesn’t make sense). An intransitive verb describes a state of being rather than something that is done to someone else.
So love, joy and peace …
If we play a little with these words as processes, love is already a transitive verb: “I love you. I love my fellow man.” But there is no intransitive equivalent to describe loving as a state of being – “I am loving” gets quite close to it, but a verb meaning “I am love-ful” would really good to add to our vocabulary.
What do you do, where do you go, what do you remember in order to enter the state of feeling “love-ful”?
For joy, we can “enjoy”, but it would be useful to have the more generative verb meaning “I am joy-ful”. And it would also be good to have a transitive verb “to joy” to express the concept of spreading or extending joy to someone.
I can “hurt you”. What would it mean for me to “joy” you?
With regard to peace, we can express a state of being in the three words “I am peace-ful”. But what about a transitive verb “to peace someone”, meaning to spread or extend peace? As of now I can “fight” “attack” “assault” “combat” or “assail” you, but I have no verb to affect you with “peace”. The media use battle words constantly: to fight terror, fear, poverty, injustice, extradition, apathy, disease …
(Who said “Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist persists”? Ah, that was Eckhart Tolle.)
If we use war-like words we are liable to see life as a battle.
What would it be like to have an active sense of “peacing” the people you spend time with?
If we are missing the language does it matter?
Does it matter that we don’t have words for things we might want to say? Yes, I believe it does, because language shapes the way we think just as much as the way we think shapes language.* If we haven’t got the words for it we are unable to think it.
So what about going about your business in the next couple of weeks and having fun with made-up words: use love in the intransitive – to love, be love-ful, and joy and peace in the transitive – to joy and peace each other.
Love-ful, I joy and peace you all!
* (If you are interested in the concept of language shaping our thought have a look at Lera Boroditsky’s article, “How does our language shape the way we think?” at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html)
E-zine Articles – a wealth of interesting short articles can be found at www.ezinearticles.com – you might like to type in “Judy Apps” for a few of mine!