Words do not only control the way we think, they are the way we think. Thought is nothing more—and nothing less—than the complex interplay of signs and symbols within the human mind. It is the process that makes order and sense out of the vast constellation of instincts, emotions, and sensations that make up our daily lives. The thought process works by turning every unit of experience into a basic unit of information. These units of information form a coherent system: a language. That system is thought, and that basic unit of information is the word. The spoken word is audible thought .
We talk all the time about how thoughts connect to the mouth. To “put words in someone’s mouth” is to misrepresent their thoughts or intentions. An idea is said to travel by “word of mouth.” A person whose name is “on everyone’s lips” is famous, because when a name is on someone’s lips, it means the person attached to that name is not only on their lips, but simultaneously “on their mind.” We feel thoughts to be connected to our mouths, because it is with the lips, the tongue, and the sounding chamber of the mouth and throat that we form speech, and speech is thought.
It is evidence of the powerful connection between speech and thought that we can say, “I spoke without thinking.” But we don’t really speak in the absence of thought. When we say that, what we really mean is that we thought aloud when we should have thought silently. Many millions of people like to “think out loud,” and for good reason. The process of elaborating ideas in conversation allows a friend to work with us on our thoughts as instantaneously as if the sounds were actually part of the mind, and the friend’s suggestions went straight into the speaker’s thoughts.
And in a sense, they do: a spoken word is the sound of a thought. The thought duplicates itself in the word, and once a word is spoken, the thought can be examined by any hearer. In this way, a word links one mind to another. With the right words, a telephone is better than telepathy. Written language is visible speech Writing is the visual representation of the spoken word. It allows the flow of thought to be captured, preserved, and shared. The introduction of writing had profound cultural significance. In Homer’s time, writing was uncommon, so bards memorized thousands of pages’ worth of complicated poetry just so they could entertain people. To us, that level of memory is unthinkable—literally. Now that we can write things down, we do not need the habits of thought that make Homeric memory possible, and so we do not develop them.
The same is true in the field of argument. When writing was more laborious, and writing materials costly, orators memorized and rehearsed speeches and arguments. Debate was highly personal. Now, we can write down an opinion once. With no rehearsal at all, we can convey that written opinion to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people we will never meet. Even better, if we put our writing online, they can answer us within minutes. Homer would have been green with envy. Signs and symbols are the thoughts of the eye .
Not all words can be written or spoken. Some must be drawn. The experience of drawing engages the hand, the eye, and the arm in ways that writing does not have to. When writing using the English alphabet, bad hand-writing is a nuisance. When writing using the Japanese or the Chinese alphabet, based on pictographs, bad handwriting is the next best thing to illiteracy. Poetry in these languages is so closely linked to calligraphy that to properly understand a poem, one has to see it on paper.
Symbols and representations of objects also form words. No one would argue that “:-)” is not an intelligible unit of information, nor would they argue that it is in the same category as “;-)” or “:-(,” and that while they are all units in the same language, they all have different meanings. Many argue that there are dialects within this language of emotional indicators, and differentiate “:-),” “:-},” and “:-D.”
Gestures are the thoughts of the body
For some languages, we don’t even need the paper. All we need to do is see and feel. This is how sign language works. Where audible language is in the mouth, sign language is in the hands, the arms, and the face. The words are gestures, performed by feel and “read” by sight. Even for those not fluent in sign language, there is a “body language” of motion and facial expression. It is not by accident that we speak of “reading” the faces of others, just as those who do not hear might “read” their lips.
Inner language is pure thought
There is a language unique to every man, woman, and child, literate or illiterate, with or without speech, sight, or hearing. It is the language too deep to write, or speak; its words too deep and strong to share except in pale approximation. These are the words of pure thought. The memory of the sight of a lover’s hand on the doorknob may be a thought-word meaning “betrayal,” or “loss,” or “perfect joy”—or all of the above. The urge to tap one’s foot—and the feeling of doing so—may be a word meaning “I don’t care,” or a whole paragraph about boredom and the desire to go out in the sun.
But you know what those words mean, and you know how they form into sentences, into paragraphs, into the story of your life. There is a grammar of decision-making, just as there is a vocabulary of memories, and a set of punctuation marks for emotion. There is a language to the way you know yourself, just as there is a language for the way you express yourself. And what is language, if not a way of expressing what you know?
Further reading: Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy: the technologizing of the word. 1982. Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics. 1916.
Mace Moulton Spiegel