"Silence is the language of god,
all else is poor translation."
With words, we gossip, chatter, inform, reprimand, explore, invoke, refute, argue, threaten, recite, sing, whisper, grumble, and on and on. The list is quite literally inexhaustible. It is not only our personality, and our self, that are so wrapped in words, it is our very being, the very essence of what we might be, or imagine ourselves to be.
Without an adequate words and language, we feel shrivelled, hesitant, clumsy. We do not feel quite human.
Language gives us identity. It gives us a sense of community and belonging. So often it is an essential part of our national identity. That is how 'language wars' go on in so many parts of the world.
Language gives us ways to laugh and play with words. It gives us poetry, a way to express thought and a feeling; it even teaches us how to go beyond words; it lets us imagine and build castles in the air.
In every culture, however primitive, a civilized man is one who weighs his words carefully; he understands their power to heal or to hurt. As such, he must choose his weapons with all the care he can command.
For instance, not too long ago, black people in America were referred to as 'niggers'. With the emancipation of the slaves, language too went through transformation: from niggers to Negroes to Blacks to Afro-Americans, there has been a steady appropriateness of language that is meant not to be hurtful to others in social communication.
Same is true in India with reference to people who have been treated for millennia as 'untouchables' or 'achhoot', and called by many other words that were meant to denigrate them. Mahatma Gandhi coined a new word, Harijan' - 'Children of God' - to render them some dignity.
Today that word is rarely used. Instead, the new neutral word is 'Scheduled Castes', as many of them dismissed the word 'Harijan' as condescending, questioning the very motive behind labelling them 'Children of God'. Many of them now choose to be called 'Dalits' - 'The Oppressed Ones".
In the same vein, the word 'bastard' was the most devastating word for a child born out of wedlock, of an unmarried mother. We see how this epithet in so many of Charles Dickens' novels humiliated children and adults alike, and was a life-long stigma. Today, in most Western societies, such a word would be considered thoroughly offensive. New words then begin to reflect new social morality.
To rob a person of his dignity - however heinous a crime he may have committed - would now be regarded as 'Cruel and Unusual punishment'. Even when Saddam Hussein was being hanged for his crimes, it was forbidden to take a photograph of him during the hanging itself, lest it deprives him of his dignity.
Religious wars which insult and infuriate people of other faiths as infidels and kafirs now seem increasingly foolish and uncivilized.
At present, in all institutional settings - in schools and hospitals, in offices and law courts, in banks and factories - what words and expressions are to be used, or are not to be used, are closely monitored. Any breech of the accepted words and expressions can invite discipline. It is clearly understood by such measures that every member of the institution has a right to her dignity.
Not too ago, all over the world, in a family, and between members of the family, what words and expressions were to be used, or were forbidden, were clearly enunciated. That is no longer the case. Family as an institution is faltering, whereas social institutions are defining political and social correctness far more clearly and rigidly.
Now bosses and colleagues cannot easily curse and shout without consequences.
With use of less angry or more polite words, are we less angry, resentful, frustrated or hateful? Perhaps not. We may seethe with anger and frustration, but mostly inside. We cannot easily express it externally. But we do express it internally. Unless resolved, we slowly burn ourselves. We live in a state of stress. We live in a state that is far from harmonious.
How to create such harmony would be the next and a necessary step in our social evolution.
In the great epic Mahabharata, Draupadi mocks Dryodhana with biting words as he fumbles into a pool of water thinking it to be glass: "Andhe ka beta andha hai", 'A Blind Man's Son will remain Blind'. One humiliation leads to another; after the loss of game, Draupadi is dragged into the court and disrobed; Bh?ma vows to take revenge. Humiliation. Revenge. War. Devastation.
Can a war be triggered by thoughtless words and acts of humiliation? After the end of the First World War, the Allied Forces heaped humiliation on Germany at the Treaty of Versailles, refusing to give, literally, 'five villages' to them to survive. German currency was reduced to mere paper. Out of this humiliation was born Hitler and his vision of new fascist Germany; over the next two decades he set out to take revenge by burning six million Jews and scores of millions of others, engulfing the whole world in his fury.
The tongue has no bones in it, but it can inflict wounds that no dagger can match. In school yards, among brothers and spouses, between strangers and friends, in churches and mosques, sometimes fierce words fly out like arrows, laced with such venom that puss oozes out of the wounds of the inflicted for years and decades.
By labelling others infidel, heathen, kafirs, slut, bastard, Commies, and more, for centuries scorn and destruction have been heaped upon others. Indeed, words have been far greater weapons of mass destruction than cannon and guns.
I do not know how far back in the human journey words have had the power to heal or to destroy, to cajole and inspire, to threaten and to devastate, to seduce and to romanticize. But in our epics - in Homer's Iliad no less than in the Mahabharata - and in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales as much as in Man of La Mancha and in Shakespeare's King Lear, what is most evident is the power of words, literally to shake and threaten heaven and earth, and everything in between.
The greatest gift we can give our children and our students is to use the words with compassion, courtesy, love and utmost thoughtfulness.