Creatures of Words

I’ve long thought that what makes us human — and what separates us from other creatures — is our ability to tell and appreciate stories. From the beginning, as early humans huddled around the fire, they exchanged stories, and the best storytellers were revered.

Stories are our foundation, as necessary to us as love and probably always have been. Stories help us figure out who we are as individuals, and who we are as a people. Stories take us away from our problems, yet they also help us solve them because we can learn how to cope with tragedy, for example, from the stories of those who have dealt with a similar tragedy.

With all our sophistication and technology today, we haven’t come far from our primitive beginnings. Where once we huddled as a group around flickering fires, we now huddle singly before our flickering screens, but the need, the basic human need for stories is the same.

Underlying all this storytelling is language. Without language, there would be no stories. Some people believe that without language, there wouldn’t even be any thought because we need words for thoughts. Making the situation circular, without thought to think up words, there would be no language, either. Did the capability for language evolve at the same time as language itself? Did language create us as we were creating it?

There had to have been a time in our early history where communication was done by gestures and grunts, where any story had to be a simple matter of show rather than show and tell, but it’s hard to imagine such a time.

In trying to perceive a world without words, it becomes understandable that people who have to deal with various forms of dementia where they lose the ability to process words become isolated not just from others but themselves because more important than the stories we tell others are the stories we tell ourselves — about what we are thinking and feeling, what we want, what we hope for, what we regret, what we grieve for.

Memories aren’t just pretty pictures in our minds; since they are often accompanied by words, they too become stories we tell ourselves. In fact, stream of consciousness is all about the story of us that we tell ourselves, and stream of consciousness is words. The reverse is true, too. Without memory, we have no story to tell ourselves.

Words help us define what we are feeling, help us connect to those feelings, and ultimately help us leave those feelings behind. Without words, a feeling is simply that . . . a feeling.

Words must have some sort of survival benefit, otherwise they probably would never have come about, but as I once wrote:

Is language a tool of human evolution, or is it a tool of devolution? Are words a way of dumbing us down while smartening us up? Words seem to keep us focused on the humanness of our world, keep us connected to each other both when we are together and when we are far apart. But are those very words keeping us from a greater connection? Some people believe Earth is a living, breathing creature. Some people think solar systems and galaxies are also alive. Some even believe the universe  — all that exists, ever existed, will ever exist  — is a living, sentient being. If this is true, are words filling our heads and airways with so much noise that we can no longer feel the breath of Mother Earth, can no longer hear the music of the spheres?

I don’t suppose any of this matters. We are creatures of words. Words create us, and we create them. And even in a world where the spoken word seems to be in danger of being displaced by the various tools at our disposal, those tools themselves — texts, emails, blogs — need words to work.

In other words, words — ever changing though they might be — are here to stay.


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

8 Responses to “Creatures of Words”

  1. Uthayanan Says:

    Languages, words and vocabularies !
    Until my wife’s brutal departure I have used three languages in my everyday life plus japanese language as a student. If you try to search which is the oldest language in the world you will get some surprises.
    Apart from all languages and words and meanings. My wife was very much interested and practiced abstract language.
    I don’t know all these languages, words and vocabularies helped the human being to become civilized and evolving creatures.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I can’t imagine being able to speak that many languages. I have a hard enough time understanding the nuances of one language.

      • Uthayanan Says:

        With your intellectual activity you can learn easily five languages. It is impossible to learn other languages with circumstances like majority of Americans and English. My wife and me naturally interested in languages. And she was a professor in languages. I was born with bilingual parents.

        Within the European Union, there are 23 officially recognised languages. There are also more than 60 indigenous regional and minority languages, and many non-indigenous languages spoken by migrant communities.
        Just over half of Europeans (54%) are able to hold a conversation in at least one additional language, a quarter (25%) are able to speak at least two additional languages and one in ten (10%) are conversant in at least three.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          I once knew two different dialects of Spanish — Mexican and Castillian — but since I haven’t spoken either for so many decades, I’ve mostly forgotten what I knew. I also knew Latin, though obviously, not to speak, and that too, disappeared through the decades.

  2. Estragon Says:

    I totally agree our language separates us from most other life on earth, and is probably the reason we survive. That, and opposable thumbs. When spending time at my remote cabin, I’m often struck that absent the language and thumbs, we’re pretty pathetic creatures compared to the local flora and fauna. Without imported food, clothing, tools, etc., I’d be lunch for a lot of them in short order.

    Other life certainly has language too, some of which is likely quite complex. Sometimes I wish I could better understand birdsong, or the chemical signaling/language of the trees. I wonder if their language has anything like the capacity of ours to take us back or forward in time, across vast distances, or to imagine entirely novel realities. My sense is theirs is very much in and of the present place and moment, but who knows? Maybe their language evokes thought we can’t even imagine. Of course, without words, that thought likely wouldn’t have occurred to me at all.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That other creatures communicate is why I generally say that what sets us aside is storytelling, though who knows what sort of story bees, for example, tell each other. I suppose it’s possible they hang out after the day’s work is done and tell lies about how much pollen they gathered that day.

      • Estragon Says:

        Maybe bees do have stories but told in a radically different context. For example, they may not have any concept of self as an individual bee… stories might exist only in the context of the hive. We have collectivist political/economic systems with tribal stories, but even those have individuals at their core. Bees might be more like individual neurons in our brains, requiring the entire network to create the story it tells itself and others.

        I wonder if the hive level stories wonder about us, and our individual level stories. Maybe they would see us as an unbearably limited and lonely context from which to create a story. Maybe our incredible and increasing technological connectedness will result in our stories evolving into something more hive-like?

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          It does seem as if we are becoming more hive-like, especially those who have grown up with telephones attached to their hands. They are always connected, always keeping one another thinking alike — a hive mind. Rugged individualism doesn’t seem to have a place in today’s world, where anyone out of the norm is bullied incessantly.

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