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How your language constrains your understanding of the world, and why your vocabulary is about much more than you realized.


Do you feel lonely? Abandoned? Companionless? Deserted? Desolate? Forsaken? Solitary? Solo?


Seems like a lot of words to say the same thing. But they don’t say the same thing.


Each of the meanings capture slightly different qualities. The language you have at your disposal determines if you’re able to express yourself more accurately. If you don’t have the language to express something, can you accurately comprehend what and why you’re feeling? Or, do bad feelings seem worse if you can’t put words to them?


This is the question, then: Does the language you speak determine how you are able to think?

The theory of linguistic relativity says yes.1


According to that theory, the structure of each language has the ability to influence how we understand the world around us. The words we we use affect how we perceive the world. Some studies suggest that bilinguals perceive time differently. Extrapolate that to the language of entire nations reflecting the people of the nation, and we have an interesting study on cultures.


The 2016 film “Arrival” piqued my curiosity when I saw it in the theater. Two of my favorite mind-chewing topics—time and language—were at the center of the film.


In the film, the main female character broke free of linear time in her thinking and could see her past, present, and future as needed once she fully comprehended the language of the aliens. Obviously this is SciFi. Setting aside the Babel-esque utopia where the world unites behind a universal language and the UN works for global good, the movie makes a person think about how the language we have affects how we think.


I have to remind myself to be careful of the language I immerse myself in.


Taking extensive liberties with the actual theory of linguistic relativity (which is fascinating), I’m writing from a basic assumption that our language shapes our ability to see.


What we can’t put words to we put words around, leaving room for misinterpretation.


We can’t accurately think outside of the realm we can express, and language is our expression. Encountering something we have no words for is confusing and must necessarily be translated into a lower form, a mistranslation.2 The words we immerse ourselves in become our ideas become the way we view everything become how we are in the world.


If only we’d all be immersing ourselves in the words of God—words that are still very much alive and active and capable of renewing our minds, the only language that expands hearts and minds because it is the language of our Creator—we could rewire our mind to think eternally (outside of time) instead of as mortals out to get what we can in the here and now. We could accept that we couldn’t grasp the impossible instead of insisting that if we can’t understand something it surely must not exist.


But we immerse ourselves in limited “languages” instead.


There’s literally the redefinition of English words to make it impossible to express ideas as reflected in reality, forcing people to either speak the endangered language of reality or acquiesce to the cultural rot.


Online urban dictionaries are full of words and phrases that mostly provide thousands of different ways to insult people or speak crudely. We don’t have women, but “birthing human” because we’ve turned complex humans into the mere species and activity they do. We have abused pronouns to the point of uselessness. We hid cheating behind business jargon, and violence behind activism slogans. And now we have AI, which gobbles up “language models” so that human beings can unironically eat the regurgitation of the machine, all of which had started as human thought.

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Language is actively used to reduce our ability to think about reality, further narrowing our ability to comprehend language outside of the boundary and creating an ever-narrowing vocabulary. And as we see daily proof, it has successfully limited many people’s ability to see and understand reality.


Consider all of the different pockets of interest, or ideological camps, functioning in this culture. In a way, they are sets of languages that some people understand and some people do not. The vocabulary is promoted within a group depending on the media we consume and the people we listen to. This process must necessarily reduce your ability to see the world fully because we choose to self-limit language input.


Language is the most infective virus there is.


Control the language of the group and you control the people in that particular group; you define how they think, what they think, what they do, and how they see people outside of the group.


The smaller your language is, the more paranoid you become.


There have always been paranoid people, but our current mental health crisis in which hopelessness, fear, and paranoia are eating up the minds and souls of everyone seems to be a different beast as of late.

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The information age is an over-correction to the dark ages, and just as bad.


Listening to too much doomsday, too much politics, too much conspiracy theory, too much mockery—whether right- or left-leaning—does not lead to a well-functioning person. It leads to a smaller language set. There is no difference in how this mechanism works systematically, only in how it plays out in endpoint ideology.


And it always leads to someone who shoots first and ask questions later, because how we use language and how we think with that language is instinctive. If our language is small, we have fewer tools with which to understand. You know the old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. So it is with language.


How strange that the internet world of information is slowly evening out the unique spoken accents and cultures through homogenization, but creating endless highly-segmented groups of people with narrow alternative language sets. The more information we have, the more limited our language have become it seems.


This process of consuming information non-stop is like a reduction in the kitchen, boiling people down to the least amount of an individual that can still be discernable as unique. The loveliness at the edges, those spiritual places where God bubbles over, working and speaking and guiding us—they are cooked away into a simmering pot of outrage and oversharing of what is meant to be private. We feed concentrated rage or anger or limits into our language set.


“The best thing she could do is put down the stupid phone and shut off her computer,” I said to my friend about a recent incident. “Get a hobby, get a job, go for long walks, something. Just get away from that cursed screen and all those talking heads.”


Knowledge is power until you’re addicted to it and then it’s just language-limiting fentanyl. The world is drinking at a well of poison. You can tell a person who spends too much time staring at a screen by their level of fear, anger, and paranoia.


When something aches, when a scary thing happens, when life feels out of control, just about the worst thing you can do is an internet search to find an answer. The thing generating your fear, feeding your fear, cannot remove your fear. More information is destroying you. It’s not making your life, or those around you, better. You’re sure you can handle your information drug, all of those YouTube videos and constant posting on Facebook or Instagram and all of the podcasts, but you cannot.


I know this in my own life.


More screen time has never fostered more love, kindness, gentleness, physical wellness, creativity, or intellectual growth. It has never made me a great conversationalist, only an argumentative ass.

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I’ve consumed a lot of information.


I’ve become aware of a lot of things.


I’ve even met some good people.


But it is offline, away from the limited low-context language of screens, being firmly in the tangible world that God intended for us as physical and spiritual beings, where I am a better person and where I am able to love the people in my life the way God wants me to.


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The more you stare at a screen, whether it’s a smartphone or a computer or a television, the angrier, more fearful, more combative, more divided, more self-justified, more aggressive, and more isolated you will become. People suddenly become your enemy when ten years ago they were neighbors.


I have to ask myself what language I’m fluent in.


Answer such a question and you get to the root cause of most of the strife, anger, fear, and distrust in your life.


You weren’t designed to be God and take it all in.


You’re destroying yourself and the people around you.


I know you are reading this on a screen.


I make my living because of screens.


I know.


But focus on God’s living Word, that fully alive language, before all else.


 

1 Also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which I rather prefer.


2 Unless, of course, you are God and your are using human beings to write your Word in a way that weaves together perfectly across thousands of years using poetry, history, law, and teaching to create a living message that transcends time. Obedient humans wrote what they were told, even if they did not understand. See the book of Daniel, for starters.

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