The Power of Words

So after my last (and also first! ;)) rather techno-themed blog, I have been thinking along a continuation of this theme and this was given further impetus by something Stephen Fry said at the SFFuture live webcast a couple of days ago.

Here is the quote from his answer to the last question of the evening: “we have the only technology that matters: language”. It is worth remembering that, although most of us take it for granted, reading (and writing too) is a complicated skill to learn – we can all do it so well because we have had years and years of practice day in and day out, but it is not something that you can learn instantly, it takes time and effort. If anyone has ever tried to learn to read music, you know that the eventual goal is to be able to see a note on the page and be able to not only instantly know what the note is called, but also visualise where to play it on the instrument. This is very similar to reading words: eventually it becomes automatic to the point that we see the word “cat” and instantly recognise the word, BUT ALSO have a clear picture in our heads of what a cat actually is. This becomes slightly more complicated when we begin to learn more abstract words like “happiness”, “thought” and “eternity”, but Ithink that the same basic principle still applies even to these terms.

Words are incredibly powerful – we have all heard people say things like: “the pen is mightier than the sword”, for example, but this is not only true at the advanced level of using words to change the way people see the world i.e. through journalism, or writing influential works of fiction. Words are also powerful in a much more primitive sense, and this is rather cleverly demonstrated in a book called Cannibal Adventure (I know I know, but bear with me on this!) by Willard Price.  He wrote a whole series (fourteen in all) of these adventure stories, all about two boys called Hal & Roger who go around the world on National Geographic-style trips to collect animals for their father’s business – he sells them on to zoos, circuses etc. The first one was written in 1949 and the last in 1980, so they are therefore slightly dated, but I still loved them when I was a kid, they were my favourite books and taught me tons of fascinating facts about the natural world. If anyone else has read them please let me know, because I have thus far only found one other person who has also read them. One! But I digress.

In this particular book, Hal & Roger go off on an expedition to New Guinea (which even today still contains large tracts of forests and mountains unvisited by “modern” man). Here they come into contact with a tribe of native people, who also happen to be cannibals. They make friends with the chief’s son, Pavo. Here is the extract:

“Hal was writing in his notebook. He noticed that Pavo was looking on, seeming to wonder that Hal should waste his time making these silly wiggles and squiggles.                  “Let’s show him that writing can really do something,” Hal said. “You go over to the house of one of our friends. I’ll send him over with a note and you give him what the note asks for. That will show him what power there is in a pencil.”                                             Roger went and sat down in the doorway of a house. Hal showed Pavo a fish resting near the bank. He made a thrusting motion with his hand as if he wanted to spear the fish. Pavo nodded – he understood that Hal wanted a spear. A man had been chipping a log nearby to make a dugout canoe. Hal took up one of the chips and wrote on it “spear”. He gave it to Pavo and said “Roger”, and signalled towards the house.                                        Pavo looked at the wood and the mark on it and seemed quite bewildered. Finally he set off with the chip in his hand and a wondering look on his face as if he thought Hal must be a little out of his head. H went to Roger and handed him the chip. Roger, without a word, went into the house, picked up a spear and gave it to Pavo.                              Pavo came back to Hal bringing the chip as well as the spear and looked at Hal as if he were a worker of miracles. Breathlessly he handed over the spear then rushed off to his friends waving the chip.                                                                                                                  “Look what the white man has done,” he seemed to be saying. “See this wood. He made it talk. I took it to Roger and it told him everything. It talked!”                                         It was the first this village had ever known of the miracle of writing. For days they marvelled over “the chip that talked.””

Blimey that was rather a long quote! Apologies for that, hope you’re still with me! 😉 Anyway, was trying to illustrate how powerful the written word is, and can be. Hope some of that got across! 🙂 And of course, this blog’s subject was also a cracking excuse for getting Stephen’s name in – in the first paragraph no less! Not bad eh? 😉

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6 Responses to The Power of Words

  1. james says:

    ~clicks “like”~

    What a fantastic perspective – and just a bit sad that the successor to this is the Daily Mail.

    Who are the savages now..?

    • Very amusingly perceptive!

      When I was working in academia ‘Daily Mail reader’ was a sort of shorthand for a particular type of credulity and intellectual laziness and the paper itself absolutely despised for its prurience disguised as moral outrages and general low standards.

      I was always surprised by the degree of contempt, mention of it provoked, and thought it rather an over the top reaction – until I read a couple of copies a few years ago.

  2. zanyzigzag says:

    Hmmm yes…interesting question! But the #dailyfail is thankfully not the only paper out there 🙂 For example, twitter is a much more fun (and probably more truthful!) news source! 😉

  3. ad_astra says:

    Really excellent blog!
    You’re so right, the sheer power but also beauty of language is absolutely fascinating. All the possibilites language can offer us, as a means of communication, self-consciousness, as a source of whole new concepts of history and of perceiving the world, but at the same time the danger of language being used as a means of manipulation and exclusion.
    I really liked the quote from Price’s book (actually I had heard about them, though I’ve never read one) but somehow (and I know this is quite a different kettle of ballgames as Stephen Fry would say :-)) the way this ability to write and read is presented, as a sign of “civilisation”, which creates a certain dichotomy between “cultured” and “uncultured/primitive”, always makes me cringe a bit. But then, I think as someone who is into post colonial studies I have a rather strong déformation professionelle in that respect 😉
    And of course I love the fact that you took Stephen Fry as an inspiration for this blog! 🙂

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Thank you for ur lovely comment! I think you’re right about the cultured/uncultured point…it did make me wince a little as well when I re-discovered the quote a few days ago – guess the dated-ness of the book comes through a bit in this slightly patronising attitude towards indigenous people, which is a shame because in so many other respects the series is brilliant – he said that he wrote them to inspire and educate kids about the natural world and he certainly did that with me! 🙂

  4. I read one of these when I was young but didn’t really like the writing style, though the subject matter was interesting, and didn’t read any more.

    Another interesting post!

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