Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.Martin Heidegger
As we look at how language as evolved over many centuries, we can see evidence of the way in which humans have shaped it. Over many years, we have merged together different languages to form new languages, we have created new words and we have changed old words. We have changed our expectations around grammar, and we have allowed spellings into our language that would have traditionally belonged to other countries.
So, if we have been actively changing language over time, I think it is quite easy for us to assume that we have power and authority over our language.
However, do we really control and shape our language? In the above quote, Martin Heidegger suggests that our language shapes us. I have to be honest; I genuinely believe that he is on to something.
We are constantly interpreting the world, and we use those interpretations to take action and create our way forward. Just this morning, I heard my husband say to our children “It’s cold outside. Grab a jacket.” His interpretation was that it was cold, and so the three of them went forth into the world taking action based on their interpretation: they grabbed jackets, they turned the heater on in the car, they probably parked as close to the dance school as they could so that they weren’t out in the cold for long, and so forth. Because they had interpreted the day as cold, they genuinely believed that it was cold (for the record, so did I).
However, we don’t have a defined standard for “cold”, so what is it? We do have a standard for what 6 degrees Celcius is, and we can use a thermometer to determine whether it really is 6 degrees Celcius. We don’t, however, have a defined standard for determining whether 6 degrees Celsius is hot or cold; I can’t look at a scale and say to my husband “Yes, you are right. According to the community agreed standard for cold, it is cold today.”
While most people would probably agree that 6 degrees Celsius (about 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit) is cold, there will be some people who don’t think it is cold. This does not make those people wrong. We could say that they were using their language to create a different reality about today. Just like my husband and children created a reality where it is cold, they have created a reality where it is not cold.
Our interpretations of the world are not only limited to the weather. Through language, we make interpretations about work colleagues, ourselves, what we want out of life, what is right and wrong, the situations that we observe, and, well, everything. We use our opinions and interpretations to inform the future actions that we take. For example, if I have decided that I cannot trust a work colleague with a particular task, then I will treat that colleague in a particular way – perhaps I won’t give them the task. I may also treat myself in a particular way – perhaps I will keep the task to myself and put pressure on myself to complete it when it would have been easier to delegate. Perhaps then I might stop delegating completely to the colleague. I could even share my opinions with other colleagues, potentially impacting the interpretations that they make about the colleague. And I will have done all of this because I have interpreted that I can’t trust a colleague to complete a task.
However, do our actions really come from what exists in the world? In the example above, is my hypothetical colleague really not able to be trusted to complete the task? Do we have a standard that we can use to tick of with certainty that the work colleague cannot be trusted for this task? I would argue that this is simply the interpretation that was formed by one observer (me in the example). It is possible that another observer may have a different interpretation of the same work colleague. Both of us have interpreted the situation and then created our version of reality based on those individual interpretations.
Quite often when we are creating from our interpretations, we don’t realise that we are creating. We think that we are describing the world how it is. My assessment is that what we are really doing is declaring (either to ourselves or out loud) our interpretations of the world, and creating our reality from those declarations – in the example above, I was never going to be doing the task myself until I created a reality where my colleague could not be trusted to complete the task.
If we don’t realise that we are creating from our interpretations and language, then we can be unwittingly using language to create a reality that we may not even be trying to create.
So, when Heidegger said that “…language remains the master of man”, I think his assessment was grounded. We think that because we created our language, we can own it and shape it. However, if we are not aware of how we are using language, the stories and interpretations that we create will go forth and create a reality for us and we may not even be aware that this is happening. And, if language is going forward and creating a reality on our behalf, this tends to suggest that our language is shaping us. In not being aware of how we use language, we are giving our language the authority to bring forth whatever reality may be relevant to the way in which we have used it. Imagine what realities could be created if we were to become aware of how we are using language and only gave it the authority to create what we would like it to create?
Points to Ponder…
- How are you using language?
- Are you aware of the realities that you are creating through language?
- How could you use language differently?
As leadership and life coach, these points are all points that I am able to help people to explore. If you feel that it would be useful to have a conversation with me, please feel free to view my services on the Leading and Being website.