Another View: Words hold the power

Another View
By: Linda Frederick Yaffe, Guest Columnist
-A +A
Words have the power to create or destroy, encourage or suppress, inspire or bore, calm or energize. They can spread hate or love, clarity or confusion. Yes, words let us communicate — but they also help to drive our thoughts and solidify our ideas, moods, and emotions. We humans are defined by language. For tens of thousand of years our archaic Homo sapiens ancestors communicated through gestures. Then repeated sounds became languages: words that could be understood by whole groups of individuals. Besides communication, language actually creates our vision of the world around us. Words do shape one’s perceptions. Stanford University Professor Lera Boroditsty points out that a noun that is feminine in one language conjures up different images than a language that attaches the masculine gender to the word. For example, a particular bridge (a feminine noun in German) was described by German speakers as “elegant,” “light,” “beautiful,” and “graceful.” The same bridge (a masculine noun in French) was called “immense” and “strong” by French speakers. French- and German-speaking onlookers saw the same object very differently. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.” Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was right. Words can, indeed, be mastered by unscrupulous people. Nazi Storm Troopers dragged away victims into “protective custody.” In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the fascist war department was named the “Ministry of Peace.” Carefully chosen words can drive commerce (vinyl wallets advertised as “genuine leatherine”). And, as Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, in Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington, advise politicians, “Never say: ‘my mother was an ax-murderer.’ Say instead: ‘my mother was a cutlery specialist.’” Words can boldly curse, as in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things.” Language can thrill us with its mysterious beauty, such as John Keats’ poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ — that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” And words such as Albert Einstein’s can communicate and expand ideas: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” For those who have low reading skills, or who cannot read at all, words have little power. When vocabulary is poor, means of expression is limited; communication is weaker and thoughts are less organized. One out of every five adult Americans — Americans whose first language is English — has a reading problem. Not only missing the basics of daily life — such as independence, a driver’s license, a good job, the ability to support a family, vote, share informed conversations, and, above all, feel a sense of pride — the non-reader cannot enjoy the pleasure of reading. Low literacy is a problem that affects us all: non-readers cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lack of productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment. Your awareness can help. When someone struggles with reading, gently let them know that free reading help — friendly, confidential, one-one-one — is available throughout Placer County by calling Placer County Adult Literacy Service (PALS): (530) 886-4530 or (530) 320-3267. And you can help by joining the Literacy Support Council of Placer County: become a volunteer Reading Booster. Reading Boosters support PALS; they organize and advocate for literacy, helping with office work, field work, events, and by sharing their creative ideas. You can also help by serving as a reading coach. Teaching someone to read lifts up not only the new reader, but also their family, friends, reading coach, and their entire community. Complete the enjoyable, informative reading coach training; then share the excitement of helping an adult in your community to change their life through reading. Volunteer today. Contact PALS at (530) 886-4530 or Linda Frederick Yaffe is a volunteer reading coach for Placer Adult Literacy Service.