“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” – Albus Dumbledore
What was your first word?
Mine was “kitty,” which should be no surprise to any of my friends. It’s nothing special, considering all the words I can say now. But “kitty” was an important part of my development. It started me on a path that would define my psychology and even physiology. It was the start of my super power.
Calling it a superpower may seem silly, but I’m a writer. I like metaphors. But as I was thinking about how writing and words have impacted my life, why quotes and speeches move me the way they do, why I feel desperate to put words out into the world, I started thinking about the power of words. What I found was extraordinary.
Words, and language, aren’t just a communication structure. Words transform the way I see the world; mentally, emotionally, and even physically. They do the same for you.
Language and Direction
A study was done about the spatial use of language. In one of the Aboriginal languages of Australia, Kuuk Thaayorre, the people do not talk about space as relative to themselves. So they don’t say right, left, forward, or back. Instead they use cardinal-direction terms – north, south, east, and west. This makes sense for Aboriginal tribes because navigation is critical to their way of life their survival. They are some of the best, most naturally gifted navigators in the world. And it’s their language that has help shape their skills and their culture.
Lera Boroditsky describes this phenomenon further:
[Speaking in cardinal-directional terms] is done at all scales too. For instance, you have to say things like ‘There’s an ant on your southeast leg’ or ‘Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.’ One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is ‘Where are you going?’ and the answer should be something like ‘South southeast, in the middle distance.’ If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past ‘Hello.’
The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames, like Kuuk Thaayorre, and languages that rely on relative reference frames, like English. Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.
Fascinating. Kuuk Thaayorre is a communication structure that creates a compass in the minds of its speakers. Their words orient them constantly to their world, allowing them to complete extraordinary navigational feats. If words can do that, what else can they do? Well, define the way see color, actually.
Language and Color
Not only has language proven to shape our sense of direction, it also shapes our color perception as well. A study of babies and an African tribe takes a fascinating look into this. See for yourself:
Language and the Mind
So not only can words shape our navigation and color perceptions, they can change our brain.
In the book, Words Can Change Your Brain, researchers Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman wrote: “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”
So thinking negative thoughts can actually, physically, turn you into a negative person. That has serious implications for the importance of self-compassion and care!
According to Everyday Health, “Positive words, such as ‘peace’ and ‘love,’ can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action, according to the authors, and build resiliency.”
So what happens when you think negatively? It disrupts the genes that guard you from stress. One negative word can activate the amygdala, or the fear center of the brain, and trigger bunches of stress-producing chemicals in our bodies, which then disorients our ability for logic, reason, and language. “Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes,” write Newberg and Waldman.
By holding a positive and optimistic [word] in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action. And as our research has shown, the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain. Functions in the parietal lobe start to change, which changes your perception of yourself and the people you interact with. A positive view of yourself will bias you toward seeing the good in others, whereas a negative self-image will include you toward suspicion and doubt. Over time the structure of your thalamus will also change in response to your conscious words, thoughts, and feelings, and we believe that the thalamic changes affect the way in which you perceive reality.
Clearly, the words we say to ourselves matter. It’s time to take them seriously.
Language and the Word
Language and words interpret our world – and they have the power to change minds and hearts. God set this in motion through example. He did, and does, incredible things with language. Words breathed life into the universe. Words raised a man from the dead. It is no coincidence that John refers to Jesus as “the Word” in John 1. Nor is it a coincidence that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Words matter to God.
Therefore, how we use them matters too. God had to scramble the words of men in order to prevent them from doing magnificent, and evil, things (Genesis 11). The Bible counsels us on the way we should use words in our interactions with others.
- Proverbs 15: 1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but hard words stir up anger.”
- Proverbs 15:4: “Gentle words bring life and health; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit
- Proverbs 18:4: “A person’s words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are as refreshing as a bubbling brook.
Words, from our mouths, and from His, have unmistakable significance. Scripture is clear on this. For example: They define our beginning and end; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.,” (John 1:1-3). They give us our direction; “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,” (Psalms 119:105). They even have the power over life and death; “Words satisfy the soul as food satisfies the stomach; the right words on a person’s lips bring satisfaction. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits,” (Proverbs 18:20-21).
Words are powerful. Language shapes our world, our minds, and our lives. They can mean life or death when we speak. So choose words of life. Choose the Word to help you see the people around you for who He sees them to be. You can have incredible impact. TobyMac’s song Speak Life illustrates this perfectly: “Look into the eyes of the broken hearted/Watch them come alive as soon as you speak hope.”
And use words to speak life to yourself. Don’t let hostile, angry words cause you more grief or stress. When we love ourselves properly, we can learn to love others properly too. Most importantly, let the Word reveal who you really are; not who the devil says you are, but who God says you are: beloved, ransomed, purchased, chosen, child of God – and redeemed.