Language in Mind
People typically think of language as an invention for communication. And certainly it is true that without language you could not communicate, but more importantly without language your thinking would be severely restricted. Language enables your conceptual faculty.
Words, the constructs of a language, are physical symbols representing mental concepts. They are physical in the sense that they can be written or spoken–seen or heard. This physical embodiment allows you to retain and use concepts not only to communicate, but also, and more importantly, to build your base of knowledge.
I’ll talk about this in later issues since it is not necessary to support the topic of this issue. But the claim itself, that language has a primary relationship with thought, is the premise of an important chain of reasoning that does found the topic of this issue. The reasoning goes like this: “if language is directly tied to human thought, then “dealing in language” is closely akin to “dealing in thought.” The use of language should, therefore, engage the mind.”
This issue will focus on an important form of dealing in language — the practice of writing. And though writing is but one method of using language it is multidimensional in its purpose. The aim in this issue and the next is to describe the full context of writing, knowledge of which will give you a perspective on language that should help to motivate you to write as a prescription for improving your thinking.
Writing for Communication
We most often write to communicate, to say something to someone. Whether in the form of a letter, a proposal, an essay, a memo, a book or a documentary, writing-for-communication is intended for someone else to read. There’s an audience in mind when you begin this sort of writing.
To communicate you’ll most likely choose words and shape your writing according to your prior knowledge of the audience. The goal of writing-for-communication is simply to accurately transmit the writer’s ideas to the mind(s) of his audience. Both the complexity of the ideas and the nature of the writer’s audience determine the ease of successfully writing to communicate.
Writing for Art
Writing-for-communication most commonly means the transmission of ideas in a literal sense, clarity being the overriding objective. And although writing-for-art is a form of communication, it is rarely intended as a form of literal communication. An artist of language communicates to his reader by stirring his emotions and igniting the free flow of his thoughts.
Artists of language include poets, novelists, and playwrights. And as their medium, language enables them to create beauty by using not only the literal meanings of words but also the their sensorial and figurative meanings — the sight, sound, and rhythm of words and their various combinations in language. Artists are interested in transmitting more than simply facts. Art is a commentary, and every work of art embodies the perspective and world view of its creator.
The novel Moby Dick, for example, is not simply a story about a whale; its depth and abstract meaning point to the forces of good and evil. But read either way, literally or abstractly, the book Moby Dick is certainly a good novel. Melville’s intention, however, was to communicate ideas that have a far greater weight than the adventures of whaling.
Language enables an artist to share his emotions with his audience through a choice of words and grammar – choices that intend to evoke similar emotions in the reader. Poets, for example, use language to generate a feeling in the mind of the reader — a feeling that reignites upon each reading.
Artists of language use the full range of language’s physical characteristics so not only do word meanings hold significance but also their sounds and even their appearance on paper. The poet ee cummings’ unconventional style of writing poetry, not to mention his name, in lower-case letters, possibly gives to the reader a feeling of freedom and liberation from tradition.
Artists of language also use the emotive force that words hold; they choose words and combinations of words in much the same way as a painter chooses color.
Writing for Thinking
Writing is a mental skill as well as a skill of communication. Language provides a medium by which to represent your thinking, and the practice of writing helps to develop your thinking.
Ironically, the most important purpose for writing is also the most uncommon reason why people do in fact write. Since most people consider writing to be a method for communication, they never use it as a tool in its most important capacity — to think.
Memory and Writing
That language stores knowledge is certainly not a new idea. Ancient cultures used song and folklore to pass tradition from one generation to the next. Language in the form of song or story is easily remembered due to the rhythm of words or the meaning contained in a plot.
Written language is the most precise and certain way of storing information. The language of The Holy Bible, for example, has preserved the integrity and meaning of God’s universal plan. Its pages are intended to be read repeatedly because they remind the believer of God’s promise of salvation. The language of The Holy Bible ties together all of time and all of mankind — from the beginning to the end. Language has no limit in its capacity to store information or knowledge.
Your own life’s experiences are important–but only if you’re able to recall and reflect upon them and their meaning. The phrase “live and learn” has no meaning if you’re unable to recall the happenings in your life.
Writing provides the ideal method to store your experiences for later recall and reflection. Those in the habit of keeping a daily journal find an integrity in their experiences that would otherwise appear to be a series of random and disconnected events. A life in retrospect holds meaning that is unavailable to those who forget.
One of the most common uses of writing is to take note of information for later recall or study. Those who do not take notes quickly discover how easy it is to forget the material that seemed upon initial awareness to be fresh in the mind and almost unforgettable. To be remembered, information needs to be reflected upon and integrated with other information already available in the mind. Taking notes is the most practical and efficient way of providing for this time of reflection.
Writing to Stimulate Memories
In addition to storing information for later reflection and recall, writing can also be used as a method to excite the release of memories, or to reminisce. The mind does not file information in alphabetical or chronological order so you’re unable recall information about happenings in your life by simply retrieving a “life-experience file” from your brain.
Individual memories reside in the brain in associative interrelationships. This is why seeing things, smelling things, or being in a place often brings memories to mind. The information retrieved from your senses is often associated and stored with a host of memories.
Though it may sound surprising, to purposely reminisce is important. Reminiscence helps you to discover the meaning and wholeness in your life. You’re able to better understand yourself as you integrate your past with your present.
The practice of writing makes the habit of reminiscing an easy one to adopt. Simply choose an experience in your life and begin to describe it in writing. A flood of associated memories will come to mind as you explore your experience on paper. As you write, begin to ask yourself questions about your life and how you interpret your experiences
Without language we be both intellectually and socially crippled. Language enables us to retain and use the results of our thinking. Words are the containers of human thought; they represent our ideas or our concepts. And to know of language’s primary connection with thinking should motivate us to consider the practice of writing a method to improve our thinking.
Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man. -Francis Bacon
Of all those arts in which the wise excel, Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well. -John Sheffield
The next thing most like living one’s life over again seems to be a recollection of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing. -Benjamin Franklin
Achilles exists only through Homer. Take away the art of writing from this world, and you will probably take away its glory -Francois Rene de Chateaubriand
Levi Hill — Copyright 1993-2003