I watched Ice Age the other day, an animated movie with a caustic wooly mammoth, a lisping three toed sloth and a cunning sabre tooth tiger who band together to bring a lost human baby back to it’s “herd.” They manage to work through their issues and differences to become a real herd, overcome all the odds and give the baby back. The little three toed sloth at the end is all choked up, waving and calling goodbye, when the tiger comes up behind and tells him to stop wasting his time because everyone knows that humans can’t talk. If we do give credence to the theory of evolution, perhaps we did once run around with big sticks in hand, bonking each other on the head when we were upset or in an attempt to get a mate back to our caves. If we did originally communicate with grunts and other sounds, today we have languages that evolved over the years, containing millions of words in which we can make ourselves understood, enabling us to resolve our disputes without violence and sweet talk our mates into our lives, at least in theory.
On the other hand, if you don’t care for science, in the Bible it says that “in the beginning was the word.” and that words created the world. Well, technically God did the creating, but only with the help of words. It says that there was “nothing,” no things, all was one, then God said separate the light from the dark and so forth. Even if you don’t like science or religion, you can acknowledge that words DO create the world. From the day our little baby brains grasp that we are constantly being told the names for everything around us, that we have a name that is different from everything else around us, we learn to make the different sounds and put them in a sequence that makes a word, we can “create” the giving of milk or a cookie or anything else that we manage to make understood with words. Eventually we learn how the world works, our place in it, what is expected of us and how to survive, at least in theory.
But what is a word? It’s not a tangible thing that you can see or hold in your hand. A word is made up of a series and sequence of sounds that are uttered through a combination of the mouth, breath, heart and soul. They are addressed to the ear where the silence of the invisible thought in our mind comes to life in sound. To listen and understand means more than mere comprehension of definitions of words because they are sounded, seen in an abstract way and felt with all the faculties of the body in combination with any number of other words that can direct context. With the advent of writing and the alphabet, words became tangible to the extent that each sound was allocated a visual symbol and could thus be reproduced and put in a sequence that could be seen and read by other people. They became symbolic in that they pointed to something else, like the EXIT sign indicates that a way out is near. If they were not symbolic, then we might as well try to leave through the sign itself rather than opening the door.
As words are so intangible and symbolic, we tend to overlook treating them with the respect they rightly deserve. We more often than not throw them about willy nilly, talking in circles, talking in doublespeak and talking trash. We forget that words are little bundles of energy, once spoken they are essentially given life, they are released out into the world and we no longer have control over them. Like a stone dropped in a lake, they cause ripples and no one knows what affect they will have and where they will end up. It is something our ancestors knew and understood very well. That is why to this day we are told to choose our words wisely, to watch what we say, say what we mean and mean what we say. Hastily spoken words from the heat of the moment can always come back to bite you in the butt, just ask Chretien’s aide.