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A World Without Words May 5, 2011

Posted by nrhatch in Humor, Mindfulness, Word Play.

How did we think . . . before we had words? 

As a child, if we had been born to someone who did not use words, how would we have learned to think?

I’m not talking about learning how to communicate basic needs, like hunger.

That’s easy.

As a baby, we would have cried and left it to our silent caretaker to figure out if we needed to be fed, changed, bathed, or cuddled.

Later, we would have learned to grunt and point to communicate our needs.

If we were hungry, we would have pointed to our mouths and then to the type of food we wanted to eat.

But those basic communication skills don’t allow for nuances the way verbal expression of thought does:

Hey, Mom.  Feed me.  is not quite the same as Hey, Mom.  I’m hungry.  Do we have any of that delicious lasagna left?

Without words to label and categorize our thoughts, how would we learn to think?  And, if we thunk an interesting thought, how would we communicate that thought to others in a meaningful way?


First, by using pictographs.  Similar to the cartoons that Carl puts together to amuse and educate us:

Cartoon History: Illustrating the Concept of “Idea”

Then, by using text speak . . .


What would happen if all our words evaporated?

That’s what happens to Alzheimer’s patients.  They lose words one by one and eventually lose the ability to think.

Are we headed in that direction? 


3D-ApeMy Best Friend Is A Screen raises lots of interesting questions with no easy answers.

Let’s give it some thought.

Let’s use words.

No rules.  Just write!

Related posts:  Pepper Speaks!  (Reflections from a Cloudy Mirror)


1. Greg Camp - May 5, 2011

You like to ask easy questions, don’t you. . .

Certainly, symbolic language is the skill that separates humans (and dolphins?) from other animals, and the ability to put thoughts together without having to have the associated sensation present is the basis of consciousness.

The lack of a shared language is a painful element of a relationship with a cat or a dog. When my cats meow at me, sometimes we understand each other, but there are still too many times when I can’t get what they’re trying to tell me. It would be lovely to see the world through their eyes, but that’s not available to us.

It is a blessing to be human and cause for celebration. Keep writing and talking.

nrhatch - May 5, 2011

Thanks, Greg. How gray, dark, and dismal our days would be if we could not communicate with one another.

It is cause for celebration . . . or should I say sell-a-br8-shun?

2. Lisa - May 5, 2011

One thing that always fascinates me is our ability to communicate cross-culturally and the way language develops in different ways with similar meanings. Of course, cross-cultural communication is full of misunderstandings but it is still fascinating. I think learning to communicate in another culture (that speaks a different language from your own) is valuable to creating a new understanding of the world. If I were a zillionaire, I would create a fund that enabled all young people to spend time in a world unfamiliar to them, with a language they don’t understand.

nrhatch - May 5, 2011

I love that you said that since that’s the post I’m working on right now . . . cross cultural communication.

Not just between nations but all between religions and even cliques.

It won’t be a treatise . . .

I also love that you and Little Miss Everything were working on communication posts the same time as me.

One mind . . . one muse. 😎

Lisa - May 5, 2011

I look forward to reading it. I think I have an old post that relates if you are interested. I’ll try to find it and give you the link.

Lisa - May 5, 2011
nrhatch - May 5, 2011

Please do!

It’s rolling right along and may be posted later today. More likely, tomorrow.

Depends on whether my muse continues to cooperate. 😉

3. carldagostino - May 5, 2011

Honored !!!

nrhatch - May 5, 2011

Yay! Your cartoon illustrates this post to perfection! Thanks, Carl.

BTW: I just added you to my Blog Roll ~ you would have been there sooner if I had realized you weren’t already there. I went to click on your link to go “borrow” this graphic and scrolled up and down without finding a link.

You’re now listed as “I Know I Made You Smile (Carl D’Agostino)” . . . if you want that changed, let me know.

Thanks, again

carldagostino - May 5, 2011


4. Maggie - May 5, 2011

I read Little Miss Everything’s post on the subject. I’m scared of where communication is headed. We’re shortening nearly all of our words for the purpose of text-messaging. It’s going to take away the beauty of our language, but to be more realistic, language evolves just like anything else.

nrhatch - May 5, 2011

Now, I bet you’re even more intrigued to see Wall-E.

The photo above encapsulated the essence of these folks lying about with singular focus on the screen in front of their noses while robots cater to their every need . . . except of course for the need to communicate, and think, and get off their fat asses once in a while. 😀

5. Rosa - May 5, 2011

Wall-E was such a cute movie- but at the same time, kind of a horror film! Too scary to glimpse that future!! I think, like Maggie said though, language has always been evolving. Think of Shakespearean speak and old English spelling, for example… Now I’m off to check out “My Best Friend Is A Screen”

and “Non-Communicative Future.”

nrhatch - May 5, 2011

Wall-E is a combination of Dystopia and Post-Apocolypse . . . very deep for a kid flick. Lots of layers. Like an onion. 😉

6. Richard W Scott - May 5, 2011


I’ve taken on this very topic repeatedly on UhW, and almost always get blasted by people for it. Looks like you swim in a better ocean. ))

I’m studying linguistics as research for my current novel, and one of the things I’ve heard is that we have a “language instinct” which goes so far as to form grammatical rules in our brains. (Sapir).

Frankly, I wonder if his observation that all languages have certain grammatical functions in common is less indicative of a language gene, and more that we all sprang from the same seed? Ah, well.

In any event, I am a strong believer that language, vocabulary in particular, aids us in our ability to think, reason, even to envision.

I’ve taken a lot of flak for this notion, but, ah well. It’s just “words” after all.

Or, is it?

nrhatch - May 5, 2011

I know I’ve read posts on UhW that swim around this issue. If you have links that you want to post . . . come on back and post them.

This post popped into my head while watching a video of 12 mos. old twins communicating in “twin speak” with each other.

It sure sounded like they were talking . . . using words that made no sense to me.

That got me thinking, and I realized how much my thoughts depend on “finding the right word” to hang my hat on.

Even when communicating with myself, it’s (almost) impossible for me to think without first translating images into words.

7. Vixter2010 - May 5, 2011

Wow Wall-e is really opening our eyes 🙂 I find it scary how many Facebook posts are text speak, poorly spelt and bad grammar! I also hate how people pronouce the letter H. Thanks so much for linking my post!

nrhatch - May 5, 2011

When I told Maggie about Wall-E the other day, the context had little to do with language or communication:

Another movie that is a combination of both Dystopia and Post-Apocolypse . . . WALL-E. Very deep for a kid flick. Lots of layers. Like an onion.

After posting that comment, I added Wall-E to my NetFlix queue to watch again.

Then I saw Lisa’s post and your post today and decided to weave them both into this post that I’d been working on.

Now I have another reason to stick my face into a screen and watch Wall-E. It’s not Entertainment . . . it’s Education!

8. Paula Tohline Calhoun - May 5, 2011

Ooooh! Love this! It is a topic of lots of conversation in my family, and between me, myself, and I. My granddaughter is being taught sign language to communicate certain wants and needs, as she sometimes gets frustratied with not being able to talk yet! Works very well. But, that is not the essence of your post. Anyway. . .

Ric mentions neuro-linguistics research, which is fascinating for me (ah! A post for Sidey!). Our son Adam is considering/planning on pursuing a Ph.D. in that subject. I bemoan frequently what is happening to our language, and wonder if the same is happening to other languages as well. I know the French HATE that English and English slang have infiltrated their language as much as it has. words have immense power, but that power is often “lost in the translation.” The saying that “one piture is worth a thousand words” might be true, but in the end, the words are able to carry a more specific meaning, rather than be open to interpretation – although we know that EVERYTHING is open to translation. I think that the interpretaation takes place in a narrower context with spoken language than with pictures.

What you say about Alzheimer’s is true to a degree. Particularly in the early stages, but what truly evaporates is the whole concept of thought, and its translation into language. That is actually fortunate for the sufferer because it takes with it is the frustration of being unable to come up with words to express the thought.

Much to think about and ponder – as if I needed something else right now1 😀 BTW, the cartoon reminds me of something I have always said about myself: “If it had been up to me to invent the wheel, we wouldn’t have wheels.”

nrhatch - May 5, 2011

Great comments, PTC. I think that Zoe learning sign language ties in rather nicely with the gist of the post.

Cultures and mammals (like gorillas) that are tongue tied are at a disadvantage in the communication department. By teaching the Great Apes how to sign, we allow them to give “voice” to their thoughts.

Once that happens . . . and they have access to words and language will their thoughts become more complex?

Alzheimer’s just popped into my head as an example. Iris Murdoch, a writer, lost words first. That diminished her ability to think and communicate. Fascinating movie ~ IRIS.

If I lived in a Northern Climate . . . I would have discerned the benefits of fire quickly enough! The wheel . . . I’m not so sure. 😉

9. Non-Communicative Future « Woman Wielding Words - May 5, 2011

[…] another of my favorite bloggers chose to write about this topic today as well. Check out her post  " A World Without […]

10. Booksphotographsandartwork - May 5, 2011

I sure hope I won’t have Al… I lose words all the time now! Really I am always losing words and asking what word I am looking for. Sometimes I just say forget and never even go on with the conversation. I used to be great at spelling. I never forgot names or faces or places or directions or stuff like that. 51 really can not be old enough for all of this too happen.

nrhatch - May 5, 2011

I find that mindfulness meditation helps with concentration. By giving my mind a break from the constant “monkey chatter” . . . clarity surfaces.

If you’re interested: http://alwayswellwithin.com/2011/05/04/mindfulness-saves-a-lot-of-hassle/

11. Julie - May 5, 2011

So long as we have emotion, we’ll have to find a way to express them. Hopefully we won’t lose words, but often they are inadequate anyway.

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

So true, Julie.

We think we know what we thought and we thought we conveyed it well, but that’s not always what our readers think we thunk. 😉

12. Cindy - May 6, 2011

What a bleak idea that we may lose words … I don’t want to think about it …

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

Did you ever see the movie WALL-E? Such an amazing commentary about where our lifestyles might lead.

And IRIS is fascinating. Stars Judi Dench.

13. jannatwrites - May 6, 2011

The text-style writing drives me nuts. Maybe I’m just jealous because I have to Google the abbreviations, since I don’t know what they mean.

I’ve been concerned about how technology will affect social interactions. Last year, I saw two teens sitting at a table in the mall’s food court. Neither of them talked to each other because they were typing out text messages on their phones. Strange.

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

It is so odd. It’s such an awkward way to communicate . . . in “sound bites” ~ and it causes folks to be tethered to their phones.

Makes sense if you have a quick note to send and don’t need a response: C U @ 8.

But the endless streaming of texts. Ack!

Paula Tohline Calhoun - May 6, 2011

You are so right! AAAAACCCCKKK! For one thing, texting is a huge pain in the butt for me because I have to do it one-handed! I’ve gotten pretty good at the abbreviations out of necessity, but my sons – the ones who text me the most, never seem to grab on to the fact that actually calling me is so much easier on their poor ol’ Ma. I’ve gotten very good at my standard reply to them: “Call me when U can.”

As far as “wordless” communication goes, I am reminded of that video that went viral recently – the one with the twins holding a conversation in “twin-speak.” Not an “intelligible” word, but very effective communication. Anyone who thinks they were just mimicing what they heard from adults is nuts! Their inflection just slayed me! Wonderful!

Of course we could discuss the definition of “communication.” Does the definition imply that one is understood, or simply that expression has been made. It’s sort of like the definition of “teaching.” Does teaching imply learning, or is it only putting the information out there, whether it is learned or not?

Interesting concepts. . .

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

I do NOT text. If someone sends me a text, I read it and respond by e-mail or phone.

Same with IM on FB. I’ve had a few unsatisfactory “conversations” that way ~ too time intensive for the information relayed and conveyed.

As Blondie sung, “Call Me.”

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

Those twins (see my comment to Rik) are what sparked this post. 😀

Communicating need not be understood by THE recipient ~ but it must be capable of being understood by someone other than the sender.

Otherwise it’s just word masturbation. 😉

Same for teaching ~ it need not be understood by the immediate audience, but it must be capable of being understood using the “reasonable man standard” found in the law.

14. Cities of the Mind - May 6, 2011

I’ve got a good one for you to puzzle out: My best friend is deaf, and didn’t get hearing aids until we were three, but I clearly remember communicating with him when we were both much younger.

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

Wow! You have young memories. I don’t have any/many memories until maybe age 5. Then they’re pretty sporadic until age 8-10. I don’t remember being 1, 2, 3, or 4. When I look at pictures, I stir “something” but it’s not an accessible memory.

I expect we lose many early memories because we’ve “misfiled” them. With an inadequate vocabulary, they all just get dumped in a drawer some where. 😉

The one year old twins were definitely communicating with “words” . . . “twinspeak.” Their “language” made no sense to me, but it didn’t sound like a bunch of gobbledy-gook either. They either emulated the nuances and pitch of the adults they’d been around OR created those nuances themselves. Fascinating stuff.

Before I could speculate about you and your friend, I would need more information about what you mean when you say “I clearly remember communicating.”

Do you mean you had actual conversations? A give and take of ideas? Or did you communicate through physical gestures?

15. Tilly Bud - May 6, 2011

This is a scary, scary thought.

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

This piece started at the other end of the spectrum . . . how did we learn to think without words. Obviously we did.

Then I read Lisa’s post about deteriorating communication skills and began thinking about the downward slope.

As Greg pointed out, our ability to communicate is a tremendous asset. Now, due to advances in communication technology, we are losing the ability to take advantage of our innate communication skills.

How ironic!

16. eof737 - May 6, 2011

I’m fascinated by that picture of the blue bathing suit crowd… Pictures still work for me. 🙂

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

Depends on the photo. Some are self explanatory, others are not. Context is key.

If I hadn’t seen the movie WALL-E, I might have thought it was just making fun of people overdoing the midnight buffet on cruises . . . and missed the point entirely.

Pictures only go so far in enabling us to share our thoughts, hopes, ideas, and dreams. 😎

17. granny1947 - May 6, 2011

I know exactly what Jasmine and Tom want and they can’t talk.
We would adapt.
It would probably lead to world peace if we couldn’t verbalise!

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

But all that Jasmine and Tom want is to be fed, walked, loved and kept warm and dry.

They don’t create art, or music, or literature. They have no need for intellectual or gustatory stimulation.

Humans were designed to reach just a bit further than that, in my opinion.

18. oldancestor - May 6, 2011

If we didn’t have language, my wife wouldn’t be able to complain for a half-hour straight about how incompetent all her co-workers are everyday.

Hmmm. Maybe the lower animals are onto something…

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

True dat! If we didn’t have language, we might not have mucked up the world into such a muddled up mess.

We would be more focused on eating, sleeping, loving, and . . . um . . . processes of elimination. 😉

19. flyinggma - May 6, 2011

Dean and I often comment of the switch to icons vs written words in vehicles. A lot of them are not self-explanatory. Just give me words and I can figure out the instructions.

nrhatch - May 6, 2011

Good point, Jeanne!

I feel the same when looking at some of the icons on my camera or my cell phone.

No sprecken ze icons! 😉

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