Language profoundly shapes the way people think. Benjamin Lee Whorf, a renowned linguist, used the Hopi Indian language as an example. Whorf believed the Hopi had no grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call “time.” Consequently, Hopi speakers think about time in a way that is very different from the way most of the rest of us — with our obsession with past, present, and future — think about it. To the Hopi, said Whorf, all time is “now.” There is no past or future, only “now.”
Play at Being Rich
There is a curious, extremely interesting term in Japanese that refers to a very special manner of polite, aristocratic speech known as “play language,” (asobase kotoba), whereby, instead of saying to a person, for example, “I see that you have come to Tokyo,” one would express the observation by saying, “I see that you are playing at being in Tokyo” — the idea being that the person addressed is in such control of his life and his powers that for him everything is a play, a game. He is able to enter into life as one would enter into a game, freely and with ease. What a glorious way to approach life. What has to be done is attacked with such a will that in the performance one is literally “in play.” “I am playing at being fired from my job.” “My wife is playing being mad at me for not helping her paint the room.” This attitude that “play” language cultivates is the attitude described by Nietzsche as love of one’s fate.
War or Peace
Ralph Summy, who directs the Matsunaga Institute for Peace, is well aware of the influence of language and encourages students to replace violent emotions by replacing violent expressions with nonviolent language. Instead of describing someone as “shooting a hole in an argument,” he suggests, that this person could be described as “unraveling a ball of yarn.” Summy also recommends that the expression “to kill two birds with one stone” be replaced by “to stroke two birds with one hand.” “Dressed to kill,” he adds, might become “dressed to thrill.” Substituting new language, Summy concludes, “arrests people’s attention and paves the way for discussion on a range of peace topics.” His work with language suggests that by paying attention and substituting nonviolent for violent words can change attitudes and make for a kinder dialogue.
You can also use language to prime how an individual thinks. In a pair of studies about the influence of language, researchers at the University of British Columbia had participants play a “dictator game.” The game is simple: you’re offered ten one one-dollar coins and told to take as many as you want and leave the rest for the player in the other room (who is, unbeknown to you, a research confederate). The fair split, of course, is fifth-fifty, but most anonymous “dictators” play selfishly, leaving little or nothing for the other player. In the control group the vast majority of participants kept everything or nearly everything.
In the experimental condition, the researchers next prompted thoughts of God by using a well-established “priming” technique: participants, who again included both theists and atheists, first had to unscramble sentences containing words such as God, divine, love, and sacred. That way, going into the dictator game again, players had God on their minds without being consciously aware of it. Sure enough, the “God prime” worked like a charm, leading to fairer splits. Without the God prime, only a few of the participants split the money evenly, but when primed with the religious words, 62 percent did.
The language you use can even change your relationship with animals. We typically regard ourselves as superior to other animals, which we see as lower forms of life. We see them as “its.” “Look a bear. It is looking for food.” In contrast to our relationship to animals, the Native American Algonquin and Lakota Sioux regarded the animals as equal to humans, and in many ways superior, as expressed in their language. They addressed all life—anything animate or dynamic—as “thou,” as objects of reverence: the trees, the rivers, the buffalo, the snake were all “thou.”
You can address anything as a “thou.” The ego that perceives “thou” is not the same ego that perceives “it.” Whenever you see an animal, silently think the words “thou dog,” “thou bird,” or whatever term fits and so on. Try it for a day or so to see for yourself. You will be amazed at how a simple word change can make a dramatic change in your perception of all life.
This One has a Story to Tell
Try another exercise that demonstrates the power of words. Write a long story about something that has happened to you. Do not write “I” or “me,” but instead write “this one” or “this body” to represent you, and “that body” or “that person,” to represent other people in the story. For example, “This one remembers a Christmas with other bodies when this one was young that was the most disappointing Christmas of this one’s life.” “This body received no gifts from the other bodies which made this one sad and depressed.”
The words you use will have let you feel you are writing a story about someone else, even though it’s about you. You will feel strange and start thinking thoughts about yourself that you have never thought before.
Language patterns affect our perception, attitude, behavior and how we live our lives. Words convey certain qualities of subjective experience that makes them unique and indispensable in understanding the current psychodynamics out of which an individual is operating. These subtle, yet utterly compelling differences are immediately evident when you apply different verbs to the same content. For example, you ask six people if they believe they can become creative. They each respond differently. Here are the six responses:
• I want to be creative.
• I can be creative.
• I’m able to be creative.
• I should be creative.
• I need to be creative.
• I will be creative.
Which of the six has the best chance of becoming a creative thinker? I think you will agree with me that it is the one who said, “I will be creative.”