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Set Free Your Being with Words

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Evolution in One Year
Since the age of the earth has been estimated at five billion years — an intolerably large number to grasp — a more realistic time frame for us would be this: to telescope that five billion years into a one-year period.  Thus, the first eight months of our year pass with no sign of life. Only during the ninth and tenth months would we begin to see primal life forming.

As we continue watching, these lowly creatures quickly evolve through November, and in December we finally see the first mammals appear. But it isn’t until 10:30 P.M. (2,000,000 years ago) on December 31, that the first hominids, near-men, appear in northern Africa (The Dragons of Eden). 

When these beings begin to communicate through grunts, clicks, hand gestures and body movements, homo-sapiens has at last arrived, almost certainly by 700,000 B.C. claims Modern Civilization. Scholars disagree about the appearance of fully communicating man on our historic scene. Science (Vol. 303, 2004) claims that “fully developed language was in place by at least 50,000 years ago.” 

Whichever, in our telescoped time frame, speaking man appears within the last hour or so of the very last day of December of our year. Even more incredible, we start to find written symbols and primitive pictographs only within the last sixty seconds of our year—roughly 5 to 10,000 years of real time. 

We see that as these beings named “people” evolve, so does their communication. We notice, too, that the creatures which use it are advancing much more quickly than all other animals. (Personal Knowledge).  

Up to a point, we observe that both men and brutes learn in very similar ways (Personal Knowledge).  Both are able to learn a variety of responses when confronted with a correct stimulus be it real or symbolic: men and apes can learn to push a lever for food; both can learn that a certain color or command means stop or danger. We see both make simple inferences: apes and men will stack boxes, often precariously, to get food or climb over the wall of an enclosure. Men and chimpanzees will use sticks to knock down fruit from a tree branch. 

It appears to us that language definitely organizes thinking (Human Communication). With its unique power, we are able to call up symbolized experiences or data, to rethink it, to compare experiences, to make informed decisions, to build further mental abstractions and inferences.  

But looking back on our telescoped year, we see a further giant stride taking place around 5000 B.C. (Modern Civilization). Beings we call "people" begin to write down their utterances. These written marks provide independence from thought confinement imposed by human memory. Mechanically, people can record an experience to recall at a later date. At that time, it can be reprocessed into an ever-enriching concept for unique inferential thinking. 

Let’s look at an example. As a child, we used the word “food” to mean stuff that went into our mouths.  Through subsequent years of learning, our concept of food became richer in meaning: food for nourishment, fast food, food for thought, spiritual food, foodstuff, food groups, soul food, American or Italian or Greek food, etc. The richness for our concept “food” increased.

Today, when we encounter the word “food”, our working knowledge base for that word is much more useful for understanding what others are saying, and for personal inferential thinking. It is safe to say that we have evolved far beyond brutes because of our unique mechanism of language (The Psychology of Communication).

Because of writing, we have learned to analyze concepts, make inferences, and synthesize new ideas, through a neuro-mental bridging of the logical gap between two or more sets of symbolic stimuli. We should remain culturally superior beings, at least until apes and chimps start talking and writing. 

Language Makes Us Free
“Knowledge of language results from the interplay of 1) initially given structures of mind, 2) maturational processes, and 3) interaction with the environment” (Problems of Knowledge and Freedom).  We can do little about “initially given mental-structure” or innate “maturational processes” since they might well be DNA determined and controlled (Applied Genetics).  

But we can play an intense dramatic role where we interface with the environment surrounding us. We can work to expand our language concepts for the best possible interaction with people and events in our everyday world. To me, this is critically important because I believe there is a direct proportion between the richness of the structure of our thinking language and the concept of personal freedom.  

How so? Freedom implies choices. The richer our language, the more personal freedom we have to think what we want, do what we want, and create what we want. Freedom to choose extends directly from language and makes us fully human (The Courage To Create and Existential Psychology).  

So how can you and I improve our language? Over thirty years as an educator and now as a writer, I’ve done several things to keep my mind alert to broaden the mental concepts I associate with words. Hopefully, you may find some of them helpful.  

1. Number one on my list is read, read, read, but not just the latest novels found in drugstores or even in the best bookstores. I’m referring to what I call great literature both present and past. In a small book titled Liberal Education, Mark Van Doren provides a must-read list of such books. Some may seem difficult at first, but by forcing yourself to read and understand their vocabulary, logic, and associated ideas, you can’t help but broaden your language base.  

2. My second suggestion is to take or monitor a basic course in either Latin or Greek. You can do this at a local college or university, or via the Internet. You will be amazed to see how many English words are derived directly from those two languages. So often, the derivative of an English word has a much richer meaning in either Latin or Greek. 

3. Another suggestion is to read good poetry. This is not necessarily the mental stream-of-consciousness prose one finds rampant in bookstores today. What comes to my mind are the great poets of the past who used words in such unusual ways that within a short rhyming verse, they could express a beautiful yet complex idea, which would take me many paragraphs to explain.

Consider these four lines from Alexander Pope (1688–1744), the greatest English Satirist (Columbia Encyclopedia). 

The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise;
But even the best by fits, what they despise.
Man, like the gen’rous vine, supported lives;
The strength he gains is from the embrace he gives.  

The descriptive beauty of the following lyrics can be pictured immediately. They are taken from Tennyson’s, The Lady of Shalott (1809-1892).

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold (a low plain) and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

4. Although it is difficult, it has been fun for me to try to replace the word “stuff” and “thing” in my own vocabulary. It is amazing how many times I use these two words in place of mental concepts I find difficult to explain. Yet, given enough thought, it enriches my thinking to name precisely what the “stuff” or “thing” is I’m talking about.

5. When writing even the simplest note, letter, memo, or email, take the time to make certain each is grammatically correct and that no words are misspelled. Try to eliminate verbiage like “utilize” or “utilization” when the word “use” and “usage” have exactly the same meaning. 

6. You do not have to be a writer for this activity. Personally, I find it helpful to sit down and write a short paragraph or story about whatever comes to mind. It could be a descriptive paragraph about my computer’s mouse, or a picture on the wall, or a short made up story about “The Cardinal on My Birdfeeder” or even something mythical like “The Magic Toothpick.” It could be nothing more than a few sentences describing “Why I Like Onions.” 

Writing forces me to think through an idea and write it down on paper. Afterwards, when I examine what I’ve written, I deliberately try to replace, add, or eliminate words to improve it. 

To sum up, at present, we appear (at least to ourselves) to be the most advanced structured beings evolution has yet produced. The ability to think and personal freedom go hand in hand.

We are freer than apes and chimpanzees because of our unique ability to use language to represent mental concepts. If the key to becoming truly-human lies in the symbolizing power of human speech (The Encapsulated Man), the amount of mental freedom we enjoy is only what we generate for ourselves.

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About Regis Schilken

  • Great article. I love words.

  • Bliffle

    Excellent article!

    As it happens, I just ran across this by Walt Whitman, which you may enjoy:

    “In a dream I once had, I saw a vessel on the sea, at midnight, in a storm. It was no great full-rigg‘d ship, nor majestic steamer, steering firmly through the gale, but seem‘d one of those superb little schooner yachts I had often seen lying anchor‘d, rocking so jauntily, in the waters around New York, or up Long Island sound — now flying uncontroll‘d with torn sails and broken spars through the wild sleet and winds and waves of the night. On the deck was a slender, slight, beautiful figure, a dim man, apparently enjoying all the terror, the murk, and the dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim. That figure of my lurid dream might stand for Edgar Poe, his spirit, his fortunes, and his poems — themselves all lurid dreams.” — (Walt Whitman, The Washington Star, November 16, 1875.)

  • I found this article amusing. Having studied linguistics, and now having to study a Semitic language just to get by on a day-to-day basis, I find the recommendation to study Greek or Latin superfluous. A glance at an older dictionary (one with a section on foreign phrases), and a healthy understanding of Latin and Greek roots does wonders in revealing how the Greeks and Romans thought.

    As to the word “thing”, it means “council” – or that which is under consideration by a council. From that root meaning it has kind of expanded to meaninglessness. I very rarely use the word “stuff” (except as a verb).