September 15, 2010


A dear friend of mine has had a stroke. It’s not the first time for him and each event has left its mark. This stroke created a disconnect between what he wants to say and what he sometimes does say. The prognosis is good for his recovery but he’ll need to work with a therapist for a while. I can hear the frustration in his voice as he struggles to communicate and that emotion alone speaks volumes. Without the verbal command of one’s thoughts a person is not only cut off from the outside world like a bubble boy, but is disconnected from himself.

In the 1950s there was a popular TV show called “The Twilight Zone.  The stories were bizarre and worked to turn the viewers’ assumptions about the world upside down. One of those stories parallels what my friend is going through: One morning a man begins to speak using a few words out of context. At first he assumes his mistakes are simply that, mistakes. But each day his misuse of language gets more severe until he loses his job, his friends and finally his family. I don’t recall the actor, but he did a wonderful job expressing the isolation that comes when one is deprived of a primary means of communication. We become crib babies, forced to fall back on raw emotions. 

It’s obvious to say words are a basic form of communication. But we don’t often think of their other function. They shape our world. The Hopi Indians, for example, make no reference to time in their language. I’m not sure how they record history without a concept of past, present and future, but if Einstein had been born a Hopi, I’m pretty sure there’d be no theory of relativity. How his language would have allowed him to see the universe without the fourth dimension would be interesting to suppose.     

Another way words define us is by how we pronounce them. Our accents identify our social status or our tribal connections or what part of the country we are from. In some cultures, our place in life is the consequence of our accent.

My point being, words are who we are. They not only give us our place in society, they provide the tools with which to put concepts together. They are the building blocks of ideas. Put another way, we might have invented any number of conveyances to travel about, but we would never have invented the car without first having a word for the concept of wheel.

 We should never take words — those airy bits of sound or blobs of ink upon a page — for granted. Threatened with a diminished capacity to use them, we soon discover they are more precious than gold.