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.