The Wonder of Words


I never thought Cognitive Psychology could be so dangerous. But without fail, as we’ve learned about the cognition behind something basic like sight or sound, I’ve marveled, and then that thing has gone wrong within me. I woke up with a mysterious black eye as we learned about vision (see ). And now we’re learning about language, and I can’t talk. Squeaky whispers are the only words that escape every time I open my mouth. As people lean in to understand my whispers, and as I can’t add what I suddenly desperately want to say, I’m learning that language is a profound mystery that I take for granted nearly every second.

The ability to communicate and to understand is such a miracle. We watched a video by Steven Pinker called “Linguistics as a Window to the Understanding the Brain.” I do not yet know much, and I will definitely learn more, but my attention has been snagged.

There are over 6000 languages. If language were thought, where would language come from? Language is not thought, but it takes thinking to understand language and communication. Language is, to quote Pinker, “words, rules, and interfaces.” The typical high school graduate’s typical vocabulary consists of 60,000 words. That’s one word every two hours from year one. This is astonishing. The development of language in a child is also astonishing. They pick up on grammar rules inherently, piecing together information as they begin to understand the world.

We learn to speak and it becomes so common that we look past the miracles. A series of air vibrations conveys communication. The same sound, produced in either the front or the back of the mouth, changes meaning. We take in food and water, sustenance, through the same body part that we use to speak, to be known and to know.

Language is not something that is developed alone. Pragmatics examines how people understand context. People work together to advance a conversation and a language. Our knowledge of human behavior and relationships shapes our language. We know the difference between hesitation and confidence.  We know there is more to a language than just letters and words. We need each other to understand each other.

The ability to understand speech is just as wondrous as staring out over the Grand Canyon. Speaking is stepping down into the vast display of God’s creativity, the canyon sculpted by powerful forces. Language has been sculpted by the river of time. You can see the layers; science is beginning to understand the method, the psychology behind it. And it causes great wonder.

Yet, when I looked out over the Grand Canyon, I was amazed. My mouth dropped open in wonder. As I listen to my professor, to a story my friend tells, to a commercial on the radio, I never pause to marvel in the beauty of language. Language is so common, so present, that we cannot possibly pause in every moment. If I think too much about how a word is being said, I’ll completely miss the meaning.

This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t pause every now and then and marvel the way my friend groups together words that have probably never been joined together in such a way before. Yesterday, Hannah remarked, “There appears to be silly putty stuck in grass blanket.” I laughed, appreciating the newness of the same few sounds. I can keep adding words to my vocabulary in appreciation for their beauty, in amazement at their creation. Not to sound pretentious or appear implacable, I wish to adore the magnitude of this language. I can appreciate the 5999 languages other than English, with their own complete sets of rules, structure, and intricacies.

Even more powerful than appreciating the beauty is conveying beautiful meaning. Words can be powerfully painful. They can tear down the strongest person. Language is a force often used for evil. But language is also the way in which we can mend the broken world.  Words can bring change: freedom for the girl who is a slave and bravery for the boy who is insecure. “I love you” is a powerful string of sound.

When I speak, may I not waste words, forgetting to see the miracles. May my words be steeped in care so as not to add to the hurt, instead bringing healing. May my language be graced by the Word. May my words reflect eternity until the day in which we will no longer need language.

 “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father.” John 16:25



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