The Power of Words: Language Precedes Thoughtby Marvin Wilkerson on 03/14/16
Catherine is the owner of Walking Between Worlds, a shamanic practice based out of the Philadelphia suburbs. Catherine offers shamanic healing, reiki sessions and attunements, tarot readings and psychic development training.
One of the most profound things I ever heard anyone say was something my high school English teacher told us: "Language precedes thought."
I had never heard anyone tell me that. I had never even thought about it. She went on to explain it to us by asking what language we dreamed in. Being English-speaking teenagers, we of course said English. She asked if we thought people who spoke French dreamed in English. This made me remember my mother, who is fluent in both English and Spanish, telling me how she used to dream in Spanish a lot and sometimes still does. It was a simple observation but for whatever reason it stuck with me.
Language Changes the Way We Think
Later on, when I started attending a Spiritualist development group, the leader said something that made me remember my English teacher's statement. She was trying to explain to us how the language we use can, and will, change the way we think, and therefore, the way we perceive ourselves and others. She asked us to try a simple exercise: not use profanity for a few weeks and see what happened.
Being a person who spent many years undervaluing myself, and engaging in a negative perception of who I was and how I looked, I was no stranger to profanity in both my words and thoughts, especially my thoughts about myself. Nevertheless, I found abstaining from cursing out loud to be relatively easy. Initially, I didn't notice much of a change in myself or the people around me by not using profanity in conversation. Over the course of a few months, however, I encountered people who used profanity all the time. It was part of their conversation. These were people I had been friends with in the past that I fell out of touch with. I hadn't noticed their language before. Now, I did, and it made me somewhat uncomfortable.
I also began to notice that my "internal dialogue" about myself was still pretty profane. So, I tried substituting ugly names with "sweetheart" or "baby doll" as these were names paramours frequently called me that I liked. Those two nicknames made me feel good. So, whenever I found myself thinking of myself as a "jerk" or "a**hole," I'd catch it and re-think the thought with the pet names instead. After a few months, this became habit. After a few more months, I found that it was easier to see my positive traits, and easier to stand up for myself when someone tried to manipulate me or speak unkindly to me. I began to feel that I did not deserve that treatment. My perception of myself, and my worth as a human being, had changed. This was the result of a few changes in behavior and company I kept, but the change in my speech had definitely started the process. Today, I do not think so harshly of myself anymore. I am secure in who I am. I am able to understand that others who do try to treat me unkindly do so more because of their own self-perception than anything they actually see in me.
I want to share another example of language influencing perception. My former mentor was a Lakota Yuwipi man. One day he was explaining why the Lakhota language doesn't have a word for "love" that translates into the same meaning as "love" does in English. He informed me that their word for love also translated into a word for respect. You cannot love someone you do not respect. I began to wonder how my romantic relationships would be different if I saw my feelings of love for my partners as a form of respect. Would my behavior change? Would theirs?
Later, I met a man who used the word "respect" as if it was synonymous with the word "fear." This was a man who had been abused as a child by his father, and grown up to be psychologically abusive and controlling himself. In his eyes, showing fear was showing respect. He believed if others feared him they would not hurt him, and not being hurt was being respected. How would his life have been different if he believed respect and love were synonyms?