Yanda Kotoba, Iyasu Kotoba, Ikiru Kotoba (Words That Make a Difference)
November 12, 2021
The essays collected in this book address various topics in the fields of education and literature. The author focuses on the way language works in human society. We interact with others in many different ways, but the use of language plays a key role in the process.
Since ancient times, people have resorted to violence and force to get others to do what they want. Later, mankind became slightly wiser and instead of resorting to force, developed methods and devices for the successful delivery of words. Of particular importance among these was the discovery of the method of studying other languages. What falls into the category of “other people’s languages " could be a foreign language, a new method of inquiry, or the arguments of an adversary. It could be a very particular sensibility or feeling. Quite often, there is an unfamiliar grammar embedded in it.
It is impossible to fully understand "other people's language.” Even if you spend your whole life toward this goal, you will never acquire such a skill. Human beings, however, growing wiser after years of troubles and conflicts, have learned through the process of "studying other people's languages" that it is natural that words do not function well. Words are not reliable. They are misunderstood. It is normal not to be understood by others. Other people’s words are forever other people’s words, and they never completely overlap with your own.
The same is true of the relationship between words and their referents. With the development of science, we feel as if we can verbalize and explain everything in the world. As made clear by the arrival of the new coronavirus, however, this is an illusion. No language can neatly explain everything in one-to-one correspondence with things. Beyond things, even the human mind is full of inexplicable aspects. There is only so much that can be put into words.
To use words is to struggle in such a situation. One should not expect that one's words will reach other people seamlessly. There is no such thing as the ultimate ultra-communicative method of communication. Words are misunderstood, misplaced, or missed. Only when you are very lucky, they reach those you aim at and make a difference.
We tend to seek force in our words. The desire to convey the message is often connected to the desire to use words like a powerful weapon. We want to speak strongly, effectively, persuasively, and make other people say "yes." We want to dominate them by telling them what to do. People believe that it is such users of words, that is, the kind of users who can dominate, that are great. We admire them for it.
But words are inherently weak, which is why we often fail to understand them. It is quite natural for words to break down. We are successful only when we overcome such obstacles. Human beings, wiser than before, are aware of it. Nevertheless, they are also aware of the fact that words have power because of their weakness. Because they are weak, they can help us step into the dim recesses of our minds to discover extraordinary treasures.
The 31 essays in this book all address this aspect of language. Behind the weak, unstable, often failing, and shifting words lies a human nature that is also weak and unstable. Interestingly, the more vulnerable a person is, the more circumspect and attractive he or she becomes.
Words can be both poison and medicine. Words that carry a disease may bring healing, but they may also further spread the disease. They should undoubtedly be handled with care. But since we must live with words, we will inevitably be exposed to them and encounter their dangers and attractions. We cannot pretend that language and disease do not exist. Just as we cannot act as if there is no such thing as a human being.
(Written by ABE Masahiko, Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology / 2022)