The Power of Language
By Steven Law
I believe that one of the most potent powers in the universe is language. Magical things can be performed with language. Language can transport you to the future or to the past. Language can create entire cities, universes and populations that don’t exist except on the page, in the imagination. With language you can create the pillars, bricks, the mortar, the tiles and tapestries that form the temples of memory. And language is the light that bathes this temple in the soft emulsion of nostalgia. You don’t need a time machine to revisit the golden days of your life, just accurately used language that encapsulate the moment, the feelings, the friends that made them golden.
Language has the ability to empower. Language has the ability to ruin. Words can inflict. Words can forgive. With words you can take a vow to love someone forever. With words you can say the words that dash that vow to nothingness.
Language not only has the ability to tell and show but, if something is written or spoken well enough, it has the power to move, to make the reader, or listener, feel. Feel empathy, feel loss, feel anger, feel joy, feel sorrow, feel love. To feel human. To feel free.
The word for book and the word for freedom share a common root in Latin. In Latin the word for book is liber. The word for freedom is liberera. You will notice other similarities in Portuguese, English and Spanish all of which have their have roots in Latin. In Spanish the word for freedom is libre, the word for book is libros. In English the words liberty and library have grown from a common root. What is a library but a museum, an archive, a collection of freedom. And the humble librarian is the steward and guardian of that freedom.
Books give us freedom in that they allow us to travel to far flung places and have experiences that would otherwise be withheld from us. Thanks to books I have traveled with Huck Finn down the Mississippi River. I have crossed the open prairie with Laura Ingalls. I have sauntered through the woods of Concorde with Thoreau.
With books we are able to visit places that no longer exist and participate in activities that no longer exist. I have fought with the Greeks in Troy, I have explored the jungles of the Congo with Tarzan, I have marched through the streets of Birmingham with Martin Luther King Jr., I have hunted whales with Captain Ahab and his crew in every ocean of the world. And my life has been greatly enriched by these visits.
Travel is its own form of freedom. The poet Miriam Beard had this to say about traveling: “Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights, it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
Language is synonymous with freedom in a second way: Because ideas are conveyed through language, as is knowledge, as is wisdom. And knowledge, ideas, wisdom–properly applied– make us free. Is it any wonder that slave owners forbade their slaves to read?
Reading becomes knowledge, knowledge becomes power, power becomes freedom. Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest forces in the fight for freedom, says this about power: “Nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” If one gains their power through knowledge rather than having it given to them or taking it from someone else I believe that they will wield that power more benevolently. If you’ve read Charlotte’s Web you have learned about friendship, caring and love. If you’ve read The Education of Little Tree you have learned belonging and the importance of family. If you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird you have learned loyalty and personal integrity. If you have read Big Fish you have learned the importance of dreaming. If you’ve read Long Walk To Freedom you have learned faith, conviction and perseverance. If you have read Stones From the River you have learned compassion and the value of human life. From all of these we learn empathy.
It’s too bad that English majors and librarians don’t rule the world.
And this is what makes a lie to heinous. Knowledge and truth set mankind free. A lie can blind, ruin and enslave mankind. A liar creates a false reality.
Amazing things can be done with the power of language. How many of us have gone on to accomplish a difficult task after some words of encouragement. That is the power of language. Imagine being told that you’re worthless, or that you’ll never accomplish it or that you’re stupid. That is the dark power of language.
With language we track our lineage. With language we seal our eternities. It is with words that we pray. With words we say, “I love you,” before we roll over and turn off the light.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.