The power of words

How language affects our existence

Language as we know it emerged about 1,000 years ago. Where exactly – in East Asia or South-West Africa – is a matter of debate. Initial onomatopoeia gradually turned into fully articulated words. Today, there are more than 6,000 active languages worldwide. Europe is a prime example of the great diversity of languages. With twelve per cent of the world population living in Europe, three per cent of languages are spoken there. In comparison, the 60 per cent of the world population that live in Asia speak one third of all languages. 

Okay, enough of facts and figures! What does all of this have to do with the mind-boggling number of words we use every day to describe our feelings and surroundings?

„No-one understands anyone else because no word ever means the same to two people.“
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Speak up!

First, you have to know the following: The words we speak are generated in our brain. The regions of our brain linked to speech production are mainly located in the cerebral cortex, more precisely in Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. Together, these two areas control our motor function and are responsible for forming words.

The power of words becomes apparent in the way well-versed speakers and writers use language to fascinate people and influence our world.

From small talk to big talk

The ancient Phoenicians developed early pictography into an alphabet with letters. This left less room for interpretation and made it easier to understand the actual meaning of words. What’s more, sentences and vocabulary became increasingly more complex. Along the way, the emergence of communication media further boosted the power of words.  

For instance, in 2016, a whopping 192 billion e-mails were sent worldwide. The biggest difference between e-mails and face-to-face communication? E-mails have to make do without indicators like body language or voice, making the written word all the more important. If you communicate, you generally want to provoke something: a reply, a solution to a challenge, laughter, tears, an offer of help. Words are used to express feelings, emotions, needs, states of mind – and so much more.

All of it is based on one foundation: the classic communication model by Karl Bühler. Bühler’s model identifies a sender (an active part) and a receiver (a passive part). By putting his thoughts into words, the sender sends a coded message to the receiver. The meaning is all down to WHAT is said and HOW it is said. Emotional and factual aspects are sent, received and interpreted.

If the sender speaks in superlatives, he is likely to be extroverted and open. If the receiver is the opposite, two communication worlds collide.

An example:

“Don’t you just love this super amazing weather? The sun is simply awesome, don’t you think?,” exclaims the extroverted sender.

“Yes, the weather is nice,” the shy receiver might answer.   

There are many reasons for malfunctioning communication: contrasting linguistic environments, different age groups, different cultural backgrounds etc.

Using words to inspire and enthuse

The Obama myth

Barack Obama is one of the great speakers of our times. The former president of the United States of America managed to convince and inspire millions of people with his words. So what can we learn from the man and his powerful words?

The most efficient form of discourse is repetition. Plus: Metaphorical descriptions and history-charged anecdotes encourage our brains to “think along”. They have the power to captivate an audience and make them hang on a speaker’s (or writer’s) every word.

For instance, during the economic crisis, Barack Obama never actually used the word “economic crisis” in his speeches. Instead, he talked about hardship, shortage of money, desolate houses, poverty and employment offices. Basically, he used associations and catchwords that all described the word “economic crisis”. This allowed him to plant images in the brains of his audience, to make them think about desperate people looking for work and a place to stay. As you can see, Barack Obama is a real wordsmith …

Barack Obama bei einer Rede | © pexels
Little helpers

Punctuation marks

Punctuation marks are valuable linguistic tools that can help underline and clarify a message. They ensure that a sentence is meaningful and understood by the reader the way it was intended. After all, you can’t switch off “hearing” when reading and are still guided by concepts like intonation and rhythm.

Note to all writers: Keep in mind intonation and sonority when writing! Use punctuation marks to accentuate your message.

Schachfigur mit Krone | © pexels

Punctuation marks in a nutshell:

  • Full stop: used at the end of a statement that is considered to be complete. 
  • Comma: makes long sentences easier to understand.
  • Question mark: encourages interaction.
  • Exclamation mark: underlines a statement or indicates a command.

As you can see, words have incredible power, whether they’re spoken or written. If you are aware of this power, you can use it to your advantage. Just try it, broaden your vocabulary and linguistic skills! After all, words should be followed by actions …

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