The Importance of Words

By David L. Brown

The functions of words and writing are the focus of this series of essays. An important part of this intellectual adventure is to understand that most basic question: What are words and why are they important?

Words have evolved through the ages in lockstep with humankind. Perhaps more than any other factor, it is the mastery of language that sets us apart from the animal world. But words are slippery things. We often hear statements such as “those are only words.” It is well-known that they can be used to deceive as well as to illuminate. In any debate, similar language is used by both sides to present completely opposite views.

Words in themselves are merely tags to identify certain objects, ideas, actions or characteristics. As any pet owner knows, even animals use words. My cat, for example, has a limited but easily recognized vocabulary of sounds for different purposes. The plaintive meow that demands food is quite different from the satisfied drone that invites one to scratch her ears. Upon seeing a bird, she chirps in the lingo of cats “I see a bird.”

There is no doubt that those sounds are words. Other animals have even more finely developed vocabularies — the growling, barking or baying of a wolf; the chattering of a monkey to tell when food has been found or to warn of danger; the mysterious and complex songs of whales. These  simple animal vocabularies are audible “words.” They are the substrate upon which human language grew.

Scientists hypothesize that the development of complex language was a key to the evolution and advancement of the human race. As a cooperative species rising from its animal past to create stone age societies, our earliest forebears needed to process and share increasingly complex information. Making fire or shaping tools from flint demanded enhanced communication skills, lest the hard-gained knowledge of innovators be lost upon their deaths.

The pre-human creatures we call homo erectus may have been the first to use fire and work flint, so it’s fair to assume that they already had a command of words superior to that of lesser animals. Later Neanderthalers and finally our more recent ancestors the Cro-Magnon must have built an ever-growing matrix of words to create and maintain their increasingly complex lifestyles.

The myth of the Tower of Babel implies that there was once a tongue common to all humans, and it may be true that the most primitive “languages,” like those of many animals today, may have been shared in common. But as language moved beyond the most basic forms a divergence took place. Just as birds of unrelated tribes sing different songs, isolated human societies developed their own special vocabularies.

The power of words helped our ancestors to progress, step by steady step. And yet there was a strict restraint — the limits of human memory. Even the most incisive mind can remember only so much, and when that knowledge is passed on to successive generations there is always leakage. In the passage of time, what once had been facts became fables, ideas blur and merge, names and places morph into myth.

Words are powerful, but time is long and memory is frail.

And then, after hundreds of thousands of years, an incredible breakthrough occurred. To hijack a phrase from the Book of John, the word was made flesh.

We do not know the name of the man or woman who first learned to record words as symbols on clay, papyrus, or leather, but those pioneers of fire or the wheel should stand aside in awe before the greatest unsung genius of them all, that person who learned that words could be more than merely sounds from the mouths of speakers, that they could be preserved and passed down through the ages in undiluted form.

From words that had never existed except as sounds, able to be transmitted only within the range of hearing, sprang something powerful and transforming — Writing.

The written word is arguably the most important, most influential, most dynamic discovery of human history. With the advent of writing, knowledge was no longer subject to the limits of human memory. Through the power of writing facts could be recorded for all time, laws codified, great speeches preserved, poetry laid down like vintage wine for the enjoyment of generations far in the future.

Of course just as tongues can betray, so can the written word. It is thus that countless one-sided histories have been told by conquerors, that bold exploits of myriad would-be heroes were created by their own hands,  and untold numbers of lies intended to cheat, defraud and mislead others perpetuated for generations yet to come. There is nothing pure or sacred about the written word, for words are only the expressions of human beings.

Nevertheless, words are of immeasurable importance. In tangible written form they are the solid bricks from which our ancestors built great civilizations, the foundation stones of our world today.

As with all things, words are sometimes used for good, sometimes for evil. Too often they are merely wasted in mindless drivel. But without them, in what a poor and primitive state we humans would exist.