The Language You Use Determines Your Fate

"No" is the most dangerous word in the dictionary.

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Tuesday 5 December, 2017

Could the language you use determine what happens to you? Could it, even, determine what decision you will make when faced with a specific set of circumstances? One of the core concepts of The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal with Uncertainty, and Make Better Decisions is that it does.

To understand how and why we need to take a deeper dive into what language is and what it does.

Wittgenstein argued that language is an imprecise ‘language game‘ with many different rules for words depending upon how the word is used. That definition transforms words from sounds that have a representational value of some underpinning reality to cultural artefacts representative of relative values.

This takes language away from its more traditional and outdated fixed representational mode of some underlying reality and transforms it into a highly nuanced, cultural artefact whose value is contextual, definition is fluid and impact is depended upon the knowledge and awareness of its recipients.

Supporters of nominative determinism will argue this isn’t the case and will cite a 1948 Harvard University study that showed that a person’s last name was highly predictive of their profession and socioeconomic success. Before we go into reading too much into that study however it may be worth considering that correlation does not mean causation and as Will Self admirably argues names gain their value from their association with identity and personality and social perceptions play a large part in this.

This changes language from something that is learned by the brain as the world makes its presence known to it, to something that the brain applies in order to create structure in the world, generating taxonomies and classifications in the process.

When language is biological certain things happen. First, languages that are socially and structurally apart display similarities that shouldn’t exist and can only be ascribed to biology. While culture can throw up an incredible number of permutations, there are finite ways we can use our eyes, hands and brains. These become part of a wider, underlying, common way of seeing the world and dealing with reality.

Second, if the brain is the instrument through which we experience the world then language is an internal mental code that we happen to have externalized through oral expression. The Kekulé Problem highlights this beautifully and helps explain the difficulty we find in communicating, as a species which, given the long history of our ability to speak is hard to fathom.

Critical Decision Making Without Language

Once our legs are strong enough to carry us and our brains have learnt to coordinate our steps none of us finds walking difficult. Similarly we don’t find difficult using our hands to pick up and throw things. Yet, communication is a learned ability that none of us perfects without real effort.

The idea that language is not really a communication system is gaining more and more ground particularly as we realize that thinking doesn’t require language. As a matter of fact research with animals suggests that they are highly capable of executive decision making and can theorize about the minds of others even though they cannot and do not use language.

Wittgenstein (again) argued that language confers meaning and that meaning in language comes out of use. Meaning delivers value. Value justifies effort. Effort requires intent. Intent is never sustainable without a sense of purpose underpinned by goals. All of that requires a deep sense of identity.

But back to the original question about the language you use and where it gets you. While it is definitely possible to think without language the use of language exerts its own influence, producing pressures that trigger adaptive responses much like running forces our legs to change musculature which, in turn, allows us to find new ways to use them.

In a similar manner the language we use governs perception which creates our sense of reality, which then defines the parameters our thinking and motivation operate in:

This is a long way to say that when you respond “I cannot” to something, you really, truly can’t. We are unique in being able to change our ‘operating system’ to make our brains see things differently by changing our perception. We can’t do that without articulating it. The things we say do become the things we do.

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