The phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’ has always troubled me somewhat. Of course our actions should be in line with what we say, anything else is simply hypocrisy, but to reverse the order and regard action as of primary importance is to replace truth with efficacy. Language is intrinsic to society. Universally, every culture develops language of some description and many believe our ability to communicate in complex, seemingly unnecessary ways, is what makes humans so distinct from every other form of life on our planet.
At its heart language exists to convey information; to warn, to instruct and to request aid. However we use our words to do much more than this, instead we weave them into beautiful structures through poetry and song, we fence with them in debate and we build up relationships through conversation. It seems that language is far more versatile than necessary. Take German for example, its extremely flexible sentence structure allowing the speaker to rearrange articles in order to place emphasis where required. Word-order within a statement can be altered fairly freely without changing the information conveyed within and yet swapping two words can cause a tremendous shift in tone. In this way a discouragement quickly becomes an inspirational quote and a despairing comment can be turned into a happy declaration. This creates fantastic opportunities for creativity, where we can express our inmost thoughts and feelings, convey abstract ideas and encourage great progress.
Unfortunately, as with all things, this can also be abused. Language can be used to undermine and to control. Language can even be used to alter peoples thoughts, beliefs and desires – as we see every day through advertisements and propaganda. The rough separation of strong, ‘men’s’ and deferential, ‘women’s’ words in Japanese demonstrates this well. Some believe that this innate sexism promotes a constant subliminal message that women are inferior to men – although it is worth pointing out that this is an integral part of the Japanese language and is not intentionally created, nor would it be possible to remove it over any reasonable time period.
Understanding the importance of words is paramount to progress. Of course disciplines such as literature and sociology are more than familiar with this fact, but many parts of the scientific community are seemingly oblivious to it. Some scientists even go so far as to present their work in an opaque fashion in order to appear more intellectual. This thoughtlessness to others drives the wedge between various cultures even deeper. Instead we should aim to explain our work in an accessible manner, spending careful thought on the terminology we use and the structure of our communication. Anybody who has tried to understand large chunks of foreign texts using online translation sites knows the frustration of the underestimation of words. Take, for example, the concept of beauty in English – we have many words that convey beauty: ‘pretty’, ‘appealing’, ‘gorgeous’ etc. and yet each different word carries with it numerous connotations. You would rarely call a masterpiece ‘gorgeous’ and yet telling your partner they’re simply ‘appealing’ may land you in hot water for lack of sentiment. On my last visit to Romania a friend of mine tried to thank a shopkeeper for some ice-cream but was unfortunately ignorant of the fact that the expression he was using so fervently was literally telling her that she was beautiful. Though at first flattered, she soon became slightly disturbed by his enthusiasm and so we made a quick exit before her partner returned. It is clear that our communication is not only about the message we deliver but is just as dependent on the words we use, the connotations they carry and the tone in which it is said.
Furthermore our language is not only limited to words in the conventional sense, but to other notations also. Mathematical equations can encapsulate wonderful truths that teach us otherwise inexpressible things about our universe, chemical formulae succinctly describe structures of the building blocks of life and logical operators summarise complex arguments in a few lines. In many ways these are simply other languages alongside the more familiar English, French, Mandarin etc., although of course their purpose is much more defined and thus they are less flexible. If we are to have any hope of progress we must throw off the urge to dismiss language as replaceable. Translation is reliable to an extent, but deeper meaning is inevitably lost without further study and so we must seek to understand people on their own terms.
So do actions speak louder than words? Perhaps they do. Perhaps they are more noticeable, but are they more sensible? Action grabs attention and is memorable, but it conveys little information. A man who grabs somebody on the street could easily be a criminal or an undercover policeman depending on the circumstances – the action alone leaves us in the dark. This is my conviction and my plea to society as a whole, let us again realise the importance of communication. Twitter, Facebook, even blogs have become a source for people to satisfy their own urge to be heard rather than a constructive means of communication. In the meaningless chatter of talk-shows, advertisements and social media that drowns our culture, we have drifted away from the importance of communication and as such have devalued our language. Words are powerful things and so we should pay careful attention, seeking to understand others and to communicate constructively.