Using Our Words: What Language Tells Us About the Human Brain

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I’ve been fascinated by words for as long as I can remember. As a student at Oxford University I delighted in the discovery of A.J. Sheard’s The Words We Use, in which I discovered that language can be like archeology, teaching us about the way our ancestors lived and thought. Knowing that Lord derives from hlaford (“loaf guarder”) and Lady derives from hlǣfdige (“loaf kneader”) tells us something about the mindset of those Anglo-Saxons who lived well over a thousand years ago.

We can also use words to learn about ourselves, much as we can learn quite a lot about an animal by observing its tracks and analyzing its spoor. Words can reveal the way our brains work and enable us to see some of our many cognitive limitations.

Applying basic evolutionary theory, it’s easy to speculate that we’ll have fairly precise words for things of fundamental importance to our survival but far less precise words for more abstract concerns. When we look at vocabulary, in every language, that is indeed what we find.

To see why this should be so, imagine if we had in all human languages a single word color. I tell my daughter to go and see if the fruit on the tree nearby is ripe enough to eat. “See if the fruit is color,” I tell her.

Not very helpful.

So we have instead our palette of words: red, orange, green, blue, and so on. Some languages have a few more words and some have a few less, depending on local need. Russian, for example, distinguishes between dark blue синий and light blue голубой and we can infer that at some point in the past those who spoke the ancestor language found the distinction between the two colors of sufficient importance to create words to enable the distinction.

For the most part, however, our words can be vague and still have sufficient utility. We can say that a rock is hard and grass is soft without needing greater specificity. Scientific disciplines invariably create their own sub-branches of language because in science our usual vague generalizations are inadequate. The rest of us, however, are quite happy to be vague nearly all of the time.

Unfortunately, as our world becomes increasingly complex due to a small number of clever people creating astonishing technologies, our vagueness increasingly becomes a liability. We don’t notice the liability because our brain is full of hardwired heuristics that impose assumptions of context on our speech. For example, when I say “Brian is a fast runner” our brains automatically, without any conscious awareness of it happening, impose the context of being fast relative to other human runners. We never think, “does this mean Brian is as fast as a cheetah, or as fast as a motorcycle?”

So when a father says to his son, “Sure, you can borrow the car but don’t drive too fast,” the son has no firm way to assess the injunction. It’s just too vague, too subject to arbitrary personal interpretation. The father believes he’s communicated clearly but we can see no meaningful communication has in fact occurred.

Things get worse the further we move from concrete to abstract.

Let’s take a look at a word we’re all familiar with: love. What does it mean? I bet you think you know. So how do you explain these three sentences:

“I love my child”

“I love adventure”

“I love my country”

Very few people would claim that the word love means the same thing in each sentence yet here we are, stuck with a single word. A moment’s thought reveals that love can mean hundreds of quite different things. Because we’re stuck with a single word and because often there’s no way to know what a person really means when they use the word (assuming they even know themselves, which is often a doubtful assumption), we’re often about as close to mutual comprehension as we would be if we had only one word for color and were trying to describe a rainbow.

We can imagine an amusing scenario on the parade ground:

Sergeant: “Son, I’m talking to you! Do you love your country?”

Soldier: “Yes, Sir! I love my country, Sir! I’m gonna buy it the best diamond ring, I’m gonna take my country on a road trip, I’m gonna have the best-ever sex with my country, and I’m gonna cover my country with apple slices and bake it in the oven till it’s real hot an’ juicy, Sir!”

It gets worse the more abstract our words become. What does honor mean? To some it may mean a vague warm feeling associated with an event as in, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mister President.” To others it may mean a gang of grown men beating a terrified young girl and then dousing her with petrol and setting her alight.

In fact, the vast majority of words we use are so vague as to be essentially meaningless. This renders us vulnerable to confusion and error.

Make America Great Again!

What does this actually mean? What could it possibly mean?

It means whatever the listener wants it to mean. If you’re an obese uneducated middle-aged white male it means magically returning the world to the 1950s when life was a little easier for such as you. If you’re a white supremacist it means creating conditions in which overt violent racism is once again the norm across a vast swathe of the USA. If you’re obscenely rich it means more and more and more tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy, to be paid for by the millions of dupes who think great means something entirely different.

For a surprisingly large percentage of our communication, we humans are content to employ empty words.

Our words therefore tell us we’re not very good at precision. Often our inherent incapacity for precision leads us down intellectual dead-ends. Countless philosophers have wasted their time — and the time of far too many philosophy students — mumbling pointlessly over meaningless abstractions because they knew nothing of evolution and consequently didn’t understand the human brain utilizes very imprecise concepts because these were “good enough” back on the African savannah. Plato could have spared everyone a lot of wasted effort if he’d understood that empty abstractions are a neurological phenomenon, not an indication of some “true” truth magically “out there” throwing shadows onto the cave wall.

Today we can do better. We can start by recognizing that most of our concepts and most of the words with which we frame these concepts are at best vague and more often totally empty. We can begin to be suspicious of meaningless abstractions like honor and love and patriotism and right and wrong and good and bad. We use these empty words because our brains are wired to prefer simple to complex, even when simple is utterly wrong. We have to begin to think, instead of merely parrot words that can mean nearly anything to nearly anyone.

One of the many reasons that superstition, religionism, and vague “spiritual” beliefs are today so harmful is because they stand in the way of thinking. When we begin to think, we see abstract words are for the most part entirely inadequate. This forces us to consider what we really mean and what we really want, rather than simply blundering around in the darkness as before.

Let’s consider good and bad in order to illustrate the importance of thinking.

It’s good to help others and it’s bad to steal.

Seems easy enough, right? What could be simpler?

Now imagine you’re in a foreign land, you don’t speak the language, and you have no resources. But you’re a good-hearted person (whatever that means). You see a starving child, clearly an orphan, and everyone else is content to let her die in the gutter, frightened, swollen-bellied, and alone. You decide to help. Nearby is a bread shop and the owner has discarded some burned loaves in his trash bin. Those loaves, though discarded, are still his property. You try to ask him if you can take one to feed the dying child but the owner doesn’t understand your language and gestures for you to go away and leave his discarded loaves alone.

Remember: it’s good to help others and it’s bad to steal. These are absolutes.

You can choose to make one relative to the other, as in “it would be good to save the child but it would be bad to do so by stealing” or conversely “it would be bad to steal but it would be worse to let the child die by not stealing.” Yet there is nothing in the words themselves that help you in any way, and a judge and jury could very easily arrive at the opposite interpretation to whatever interpretation you may choose.

The same dilemma is present for all abstract words.

Once we realize this basic fact we can begin to think in more adequate ways, rather than trying to plaster inadequate concepts over the complex fabric of reality and causing great harm every time we do so.

Our words reveal to us the paucity of our thinking.

Yet we can do better. There’s a strong connection between how we use words and how we think, and it can become a positive feedback loop if we want it to be. We can begin to think more adequately and use words more adequately. This will aid not only ourselves but also those with whom we communicate, both because we’re able to convey with greater precision what we mean and also because we’re acting as an example of what can be done.

We are a foolish, simple-minded species. But we can do better, and the first step is to use our words more adequately henceforth.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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