Those strange accretions of letters or sounds.
Some mimic the actions they are meant to convey: the hiss of leaking air, the bang of an exploding firecracker, the murmur of water in a stream.
Others point toward things abstract: courage, say, or crabbiness.
We learn them in infancy and have an in-built sense of how they fit together. Studies of students in dozens of countries indicate an instinctive understanding of grammar and word order; a natural ability that seems present regardless of the specific language being studied.
We are, it appears, programmed by nature to make use of words.
For decades our species was defined as Homo Faber - man the maker - because of our propensity to create and employ tools. Now we understand that this toolmaking ability is shared by other primates, and that what sets us apart most distinctly from other species is our use of language.
Because we live in a culture that urges us to compete with one another, it’s easy to forget that success commonly depends far more on cooperation than competition. We humans are herd animals, and language is what makes human cooperation possible. From cavemen hunting woolly mammoths to medieval builders erecting great cathedrals to modern engineers brainstorming about cyberspace, our ability to work together depends on the skillful employment of words.
Conversely, the wrong use of words - or the inability to use them at all, such as occurs when we meet someone whose language we don’t know - can lead to suspicion and distrust. It’s no accident that most wars occur between nations whose languages differ. And it’s axiomatic that we can’t truly understand another person until we can speak a common tongue.
Then, too, there’s the will to understand. As any married couple can attest, in the presence of such a desire misunderstandings can be bridged. In its absence, the simplest of communications go awry.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we Americans demonstrated an urge to work together. Fearful of what might lie ahead, we set aside differences of opinion and made a vigorous effort to get along. In the years since then, we’ve allowed ourselves to drift apart, choosing to focus on those issues that divide us rather than cultivating our common ground.
Words - and the varying meanings we assign them - may play a part in our discontent. But I suspect the larger factor is our will.
So long as we choose to follow the path of peevish disagreement, all the words in the world won’t bring us back together. That, I think, will require a basic change of heart.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.