Can words make truth?

A valid question as I feel words can do just that. The word ‘France’ makes us think of the good things of life, la cuisine franςaise, la joie de vivre, l’amour and of course la petite mort. The grand truths of life, these words seem to imply. But what if it’s just a wordy game?

How cleverly words make truth! They even make Vietnam sound like a tasty morsel, as they trip off the tongue of a reporter in the Sahara: ‘France has no appetite for another Vietnam.’ Isn’t the word ‘appetite’ here a subtle reminder of one of their ‘grand truths’? It doesn’t take much to spot how words are creating truth or at least an illusion of truth leading us up the garden path.

For me it is hard to know what truth, ‘the’ truth and ‘a’ truth is. Maybe ‘the’ truth is that truth takes its existence from a web of overlapping perceptions all firing each other as ‘a’ truth – a relativity theory of words? Where does that leave anything? Could it be there is an ultimate truth that isn’t as tricky? If it’s just a game the words are playing with us, fine, and funny too. But what if it’s a diversionary tactic?

Some words operate in a sinister way without it being noticed. Do they get away with it? ‘You are a bad boy!’ ‘You are a liar!’ So what? It’s commonly said. Ah, yes, but if these words batter a child long enough, they will organise themselves in the child’s mind so that they feel like a truth. This truth can undermine the child’s life.

Not washing his hands before eating doesn’t make him a bad boy. Kinder words would say ‘Wash your hands before eating.’ Or ‘Why don’t you put your toys away before going to bed?’ Words are quick to judge, criticise and blame, always finding a ready voice and yet remaining undetected. ‘You are inflexible’, they may say when you budget your energies. ‘You are obsessive’, when trying to do a job well.

I think words which ‘ascribe’ things to people tell them what they are. If people hear an idea long enough it lodges in their subconscious. Over time, it can become a fixed mental habit that may feel like the truth. We make informal appraisals of people all the time, even use stereotypes to make interaction easier. But could it be that ascribing observations about people to them as true character traits is a mirror game words play with the observer?

Words that ‘prescribe’ what to do don’t sound final and inevitable. They imply that things can change. They keep things loose and don’t harden them into apparent truths. Words that ‘prescribe’ what to do may in fact lead to a superior kind of truth, to inner truth. But I suspect words that create apparent truth are in greater demand though they cause much confusion. This is illustrated in Idries Shah’s story about how Nasrudin created truth, showing how words get the better of a despotic king.

The king decides to make everybody observe truth on pain of death. People who arrive at the city gates are told if they tell the truth they may enter, but if they lie their lives are forfeited. Nasrudin is asked where he is going. I’m going to be hanged, he replies. ‘We don’t believe you!’ ‘Very well, if I have told a lie, hang me.’ ‘But if we hang you for lying, we will have made what you said come true.’ ‘That’s right: now you know what truth is – YOUR truth.’*

Do we have any power over words we receive? If we do, is it developmental? Do we acquire that power along with height? So what’s my message? I suppose simply that it’s a good idea to leave words nice and open, especially to children in their formative years. Then words become wonderful flexible tools not sticks to beat us.

*Shah, I. (revised 2011) The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, ‘How Nasrudin Created Truth’, p. 7, Octagon Press, London.

Atkinson, R.L. et al. (1981) Introduction to Psychology, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego; See: Stereotypes – The Vividness Effect, The Primacy or Halo Effect, The Theory Effect.

Roberts, C. et al. (1992) Language and Discrimination, A Study of Communication in Multi-Ethnic Workplaces, Longman, London.