Words, Words, Words

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The first chapter of Genesis is a parable on the creative force of language. It depicts the Hebrew God as a heavenly voice arranging the physical world with commanding words. “Let there be light,”  “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water,” “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area,” and so on through the six days of creation. The terse decrees spoken by the deity are not empty statements, but rather what J. L. Austin termed “performative utterances”: sentences that transform the reality they are describing. The entire world, according to the Bible, is the product of God’s locutions.

We need not affirm the literalness of this story to appreciate its lesson. Indeed, it is debatable whether the author or original audience even believed the myth in a literal sense. Its deeper truth does not depend on historical accuracy. As any critical thinker knows, our world is substantially shaped by the words we use to process it. Language influences our thought patterns and perceptions, and the specific terms we rely on condition our worldview. In this way, we are mini-gods who speak of reality and, in so doing, make it so.

This phenomenon, sometimes called the linguistic relativity hypothesis (or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), is borne out in all areas of life, and does much to account for the array of perspectives found among divergent cultures and social groupings. A widely cited passage from anthropologist Edward Sapir, written in 1929, elucidates the process: “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. . . . The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.”

In religious denominations, which define themselves by world-shaping vocabularies, a basic homogeneity of perception is crucial. This is accomplished most readily in prayer, which distills theology, values, history, mythology, attitudes and expectations into digestible and repeatable formulas. Prayers are evocative, not only because they are thought to inspire a (linguistically determined) divine presence, but also because they stir a network of symbolism: images, moods, memories, aspirations, etc. And it is in the act of recitation that the world becomes as the words describe.

The more direct a prayer’s message and the more convincing its presentation, the more likely it is to condition collective perception. This is, for example, why hymn singing is so effective. Hymns are usually simple and redundant—qualities making them ideal conduits for religious instruction. Their concise verses convey viewpoints argued elsewhere, condensing complex ideas into straightforward poetry. Through a partnership of words and music, these songs impart beliefs and standards of behavior, thereby helping to form the (subjective) world.

In the biblical account, speaking is the cosmogonic act. God says something and it comes to be. The creative agency of language is echoed in our own experience. The words we use—in speech, thought and song—create the world as we know it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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