Language & Literacy


In a previous post, Thinking Inside and Outside of Language, we channelled Cormac McCarthy and explored the tension between language and cognition. We dug in even further and considered Plato's long ago fears of the deceptive and distancing power of written language in Speaking Ourselves into Being and Others into Silence: The Power of Language, and how bringing a critical consciousness to our use of language could temper unconscious biases and power dynamics.

If you find any of that interesting, I recommend reading this short interview, How to Quiet Your Mind Chatter in Nautilus Magazine with Ethan Kross, an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan.

Two relevant quotes:

“What we’ve learned is that language provides us with a tool for coaching ourselves through our problems like we were talking to another person. It involves using your name and other non-first person pronouns, like “you” or “he” or “she.” That’s distanced self-talk.”

“The message behind mindfulness is sometimes taken too far in the sense of 'you should always be in the moment.' The human mind didn’t evolve to always be in the moment, and we can derive enormous benefit from traveling in time, thinking about the past and future.”

Check out the full interview here.

#language #research #unconscious #cognition

an image from behind the looming silhouette of the word, "Libertyville" astride a hillside overlooking a city at night.

Weaving back in a short poem to start our post:

The Influence Unseen of the Words We Use to Be

Part I: The Acculturation of the Mind

There is a fertile topsoil we are born with in our brains, imprinted by the interplay of sights and sounds and movement of those who interact with us. This immersive communicative theater, felt first in the womb, roots itself within the immediacy of each moment, even while gesturing at distant realms yet unknown. Climbing towards this mystery with our tongues and thoughts and technology bends the world toward our needs, and allows us to project our inner selves into the past and future. We ride rivers and build highways across our brains. This is our cultural inheritance, our storied legacy of language and literacy.

Part II: The Shadowed Underbelly of Words

Yet this glorified development harbors dissonance as well, darker truths of the animal and spirit world we project beyond ourselves and thus, distort. As we entangle each other in our webs of words, we may mirror and magnify influences unseen, that inarticulate undertow of us vs. them. When we summon forth our disgust and anger at someone or something else and wrap them into words until our vision becomes blinded, we may become its prisoners, trapped in the enchantment of language itself. As Alicia lived in the interlocution of the pages, the chatter of our minds can lead us unto rifts within. Do animals go mad, other than when rabies infects their brains? Language, in this sense, is viral, amplifying our extremes while shrouding our ensnarement. We can paint a veneer of progress over the denatured scars we leave behind.


Talking is just recording what you're thinking. It's not the thing itself. When I'm talking to you some separate part of my mind is composing what I'm about to say. But it's not yet in the form of words. So what is it in the form of? There's certainly no sense of some homunculus whispering to us the words we're about to say. Aside from raising the spectre of an infinite regress—as in who is whispering to the whisperer—it raises the question of a language of thought. Part of the general puzzle of how we get from the mind to the world. A hundred billion synaptic events clicking away in the dark like blind ladies at their knitting.

Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy

A hundred billion synaptic events clicking away in the dark like blind ladies at their knitting.

OK, so let’s take some stock of where we’ve been thus far in our explorations of the development of language and literacy.

We’ve spent some time poking at the notion of whether learning to read is unnatural or not, and landed on the conviction that terming it unnatural–though useful as a rhetorical device–may be less precise than recognizing that learning to read and write is more formal, abstract, and distal from the immediate context of human interaction – and thus requires more effort, instruction, and practice to master.

We then turned to the development of language and discovered that even here–despite the ubiquity and swiftness with which native languages develop anew in every child across our species–language may not be as innate and inborn as it may appear.

Both language and literacy have bestowed humanity with sacred powers for the transmission and accumulation of cultural knowledge that seems to–as of yet–have no ceiling beyond that of our own destruction. Whether this is natural or innate or not may be beside the point. What does seem to be clear is that we have something inherited within us that is unfurled and reified by the networks that are riven across our brains through storytelling, interactive dialogue, and shared book reading that connects spoken to written language, and further strengthened with the hardwon fluency we manage to achieve on our own across modalities, texts, and languages.