Recently, I’ve become fascinated with how the structures of different languages affect the minds of the people who speak them and how they live their lives.
Take Aborigines speaking the Kook Thaayorre language in Australia for example. This society does not have words for left or right. Instead, they must orient themselves by what is called cardinal-direction terms; north, south, east, and west at all times.
This orientation creates a culture with a hyper-awareness of not only geographical and astronomical markers, but it also requires one to put themselves in another person’s experience consistently. Without left or right to direct someone, people must give instructions from the other person’s perspective, such as “move northeast,” or “the knife is on the table southwest of you.” Likewise, the normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” To answer properly, one would say something like, “South-Southeast, in the middle distance.”
An entire society which is continually required to think from the position of another person, or understand exactly where they are planning to go bleeds over into broader social behavior. If you don’t know which way you’re facing, or your plans for movement the day, you can’t even get past “Hello.” This orientation has evolved into a social structure highly-attuned towards accepting and valuing another person’s perspective in life. Additionally, it has resulted in tribe members who always know exactly what their plans are for where they want to go.
Other examples are the many languages around the world that do not have a future tense. The Nordic languages of Europe, as well as those of the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, and even Mandarin Chinese are all examples. Futureless cultures conflate the present and future together and by doing so make the future feel closer and more tangible. Instead of saying “Tomorrow, I will go to the store,” people say, “Tomorrow, I go to the store.”
This same research also suggests that the brain is malleable when it comes to futureless languages. In Utah, native English speaking children who learned Chinese in school were more likely to exhibit “savings behavior” than those only speaking English.
Just as how we describe how time influences our minds, so does negative language. It activates our amygdala and releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals not only induce feelings of stress, depression and other negative emotions into our system, they also immediately interrupt brain function, impair logic, reason, language processing, and communication.
While expanding your life with positivity can be a lifelong pursuit, it can be difficult to know where to begin. One place to start is to remove words from your vocabulary that can contribute to a negative experience and replace them with more expansive ones.
Words to Remove and Replace
As a wise Jedi once said, “Do or do not, there is no try.” When we use the word “try” we are either consciously or unconsciously opening up an escape route for us when we do not achieve what we set out to do. You can always say, “Well, at least I tried.”
When you feel yourself wanting to use the word “try,” replace it with a word that represents a firm commitment if you genuinely want to do the activity or achieve the goal. If that pledge makes you feel a little uneasy, be honest with yourself (and others) and determine what commitment is possible and comfortable. By doing this, you will be living more in integrity and will have a better chance of enjoying a sense of accomplishment when you do reach your goals. Positive feelings of self-worth and confidence will follow.
Should, Need to, Have to, Must
Each one of these words is a pressurizer. They create a sense of obligation to achieve whatever the perceived directive is, regardless of whether it is your actual desire. Living a life of obligation creates stress in the mind and body, wearing you down and eroding your sense of a self-directed life. Instead, replace these words with “get to,” and turn each instance of obligation into a choice. As an example, instead of “I have to take out the garbage,” (and all the feeling of a chore it takes on), say “I want to take out the garbage.”
Making this choice transforms the task into something you want to do, rather than something you’re forced to do. Sometimes, a situation may dictate that the two options will result in a lesser of two evils choice, but even then, “get” allows us to look at the situation and our actions as activities we entered into willingly, and not by force. When we feel we have choices, we feel more in control, and this will reduce our negative emotions towards a task or event.
To be sorry is to say that you are feeling sorrowful. Even if you consciously do not believe this to be the case, your subconscious mind will tend to create the emotions of sorrowfulness, however subtly. In modern society, we often misuse “sorry” when we’ve done nothing wrong and instead use it as a way of being polite. If you want to show courtesy for someone try on these for size; “my apologies,” “pardon me,” “please forgive me” or “excuse me,” or “do you mind repeating that?”
The definition of the word “nice” is something that is satisfactory. It’s a neutral adjective that doesn’t say anything specific about what it is describing. In today’s society, it’s also used all over the place to hedge one’s self from putting in the effort of being more descriptive, or being honest about what is being described, either good or bad.
Take the time to be more specific with your descriptions. Instead of saying, “that person was nice” you could say, “that person was friendly.” Rather than saying, “that’s a nice outfit” you could choose to say something like “that’s a stunning outfit.” Feel the difference?
By replacing “nice” with more descriptive and exacting terms, we can elevate our life experience as well. Since we are what we think, replacing “nice” with words that are closer to how we honestly feel can add vibrancy to our lives and the lives of those around us.
Our language choices are merely a reflection of our thinking, and the words we use shape the stories we tell ourselves about who we think we are and how to view the outside world. Unfortunately, many of us are oblivious to the creation we bring to our lives when we allow our thoughts to manifest into sound haphazardly.
Regardless, whether we are aware of it or not, these words have a powerful effect on our state of mind, and our perceptions of people and situations. If we allow ourselves to remain on autopilot, we are relinquishing our choice to create the lives we want, instead becoming victims of our mindless thinking. However, if we consciously choose our words, we will inevitably shift our thinking into a more expansive and ultimately more positive outlook.
This week, pay attention to the Words to Replace listed above. Listen for them and notice how often people around you use them. How do they make you feel? Once you have fine-tuned your awareness, focus on catching yourself when you use them. Replace the words with more accurate and descriptive options and notice how different you feel using the one word over another. How does that shift your view of your life and the lives of those around you? If you miss the opportunity, reflect on how you could have rephrased what you said – even after the fact, you just might notice a more expansive shift in your perceptions.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” — Marcus Aurelius