What's In a Word?

Recent public events have tragically brought to the fore the way in which we use words, and how language affects us. There can be little doubt that our choice of language deeply influences our thoughts and emotions -- but as longstanding research in psychology and more recent research in neurology shows us, language can control our perceptions as well, and our use of language alters the neurophysiology of the brain.

I recently had a patient who had suffered a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI). The long-term effects of mild brain trauma are only now becoming recognized, and few treatment options exist. In addition to other symptoms, this patient was having word-finding difficulties. In possession of a broad vocabulary otherwise, he would find himself stopping in the middle of sentences attempting to retrieve the appropriate word.

As many of my patients already know (having been subjected to my various diatribes on the subject), Esperanto has long been a topic of interest to me. Esperanto is an artifical language, created by Russian-Jewish opthamologist L.L Zamenhoff  in the 1880s, to be used as a universal second language. The most successful of the artifical languages, Esperanto is today spoken by one to two million people, and has an extensive literature of books that are not only translations from other languages, but written originally in Esperanto.

Esperanto, being designed as a universal second language, has a streamlined grammar and spelling system which is nevertheless as robust as any natural language.

And that was the important point for my patient, as I set before him the task of learning Esperanto. My hypothesis was that learning the language would stimulate the language centers of the brain to create new neuronal pathways as the additional vocabulary was acquired, and that this stimulation would secondarily aid the recovery of my patient's native language vocabulary. An associated benefit was that Esperanto's ease of mastery would give my patient a sense of accomplishment in an area where a great deal of self-confidence had been lost.

The treatment was successful, for over the period of six months as the patient learned the new language,  his English vocabulary improved concomitantly. He also took enjoyment in corresponding with other Esperantists around the world, reducing the feelings of isolation caused by the brain injury.

Zamenhoff developed Esperanto in order to increase harmony among the diverse peoples of the world, by giving us a common medium in which we could share ideas, emotions, and thoughts. He knew that all languages carried cultural baggage and biases with it, and that a language that was as neutral as possible would put all people on an equal footing.

What he didn't know, but which has only recently been discovered, is that our language determines what we are able to see. In an article published in 2009, a couple of Greek researchers found that the language you use determines how you see colors.

One of the researchers, Dr. Panos Athanasopoulos said that “Our language forces us to cut up the world in different ways. Greek speakers systematically use two different terms to refer to blue: the sky is ghalazio (light blue), never ble (dark blue), and a blue pen is ble but can never be ghalazio. English speakers would have no problem calling both the sky and a pen blue in an instant.”

To see whether language shapes our biological and physiological processes of colour perception, the researchers used a technique called event related brain potentials (ERPs). This technique tracks activity in the brain millisecond by millisecond.

The researchers found differences in visual processing of light and dark blues between Greek and English speakers as early as 100 milliseconds, suggesting that indeed, speakers of different languages literally have differently structured minds.

More recent research with deaf people has also demonstrated that language does not only control how we perceive things, but language is necessary and integral to sentience. That is, to be self-aware and self-conscious, the twin attributes most intimately tied to being human, requires that we have a language. Without language, there can be no self-awareness.

If language is one of the underpinnings of our humanity, it is not hard to understand the power of language to alter our behavior and sway our opinions. Edward Bulwer-Lytton's great adage, "the pen is mightier than the sword," is a concept that we should take to heart in these troubled days. Those who have a voice heard by millions must take great care in their use of language. Words alone can save lives -- or destroy them.

Dr. Avery Jenkins is a chiropractic physician specializing in the treatment of people with chronic disorders. He can be reached at or by calling 860-567-5727.