Reframing: How language shapes perception

/ Photo by recursion_see_recursion /

Language shapes reality. Flip open your English dictionary. Leaf through several pages. What do you notice about all those words? The English dictionary is filled with nouns. For the English language, a dictionary is essentially a lists of things: ectoderm, marble, surveyor, and tortoise. The English language is accomplished at describing the material world. It is utilitarian. It is a language focused on precisely describing the material world in order to control it.

English has become the pre-eminent language throughout the world, the primary language of business, the Internet, and international politics. In that sense English has become a bridge between countries, nations, and cultures. English is also good at incorporating key phrases from other cultures as well as youth and techno culture: café au lait (France), delicatessen (Germany), wowser (Australia, New Zealand), or blog (online journal). English can be innovative, colorful, and far-reaching in its scope. These are some of the strengths of English as a global language.

But something essential and vital is missing in this utilitarian way of communicating and organizing our thoughts.

Language shapes reality

The English language loves nouns. Most Native American languages, by contrast, emphasize verbs and use very few nouns, or none at all. Think about that for a moment. In a language of verbs, everything is named according to its purpose. Objects are not simply things, but expressions of intention. Intention is an expression of spirit.

English is structural, focused on defining, acquiring, protecting, building, manipulating. The English language is incredibly powerful and useful as a result. Its major downfall is that through its many categories, labels, definitions, it breaks down and divides. It describes a universe of unrelated objects, isolated people, and events. The English language can be a very lonely, sometimes even spiritually bleak language as a result.

When the structure of our language objectifies people, places and things, that shapes the way we think about our world. This limits how we interact with each other. A compartmentalized language and thought process breeds prejudice and self-hatred because we don’t see ourselves as connected with the whole. We only recognize the segmented parts, differentiated from others.

“Language predicts the conclusions we reach therein.”
~ Paula Underwood

English is adept at describing the physical world. Like the scientific model, it tends to dissect in order to retrieve or relay information. This dissection also distances us from direct experience.

Paula Underwood, cross-cultural teacher and author describes two ways of perceiving – the Hawk and the Eagle – that she learned from her father and her grandfather’s grandmother who passed on the Native American traditions, the Oneida oral histories, and a specific shamanic tradition called the Strong Spirit Path.

“When hunting, Hawk sees Mouse…and dives directly for it. When hunting, Eagle sees the whole pattern…sees movement in the general pattern…and dives for the movement, learning only later that it is Mouse. What we are talking about here is Specificity and Wholeness. Western Science deals from the specific to generalities about the whole. Indigenous science begins with an apprehension of the Whole, only very carefully and on close inspection reaching tentative conclusions about any Specificity.”
~ Paula Underwood, from article Native American Worldview: Hawk and Eagle, Both are Singing

Native American language traditions merge with the world around them through bonding and feeling; there is an energetic umbilical cord to the source of all things:

“When I was a child, if I were trying to understand the process of a leaf growing, for example, the idea was to sit and think, allow my thoughts to flow into the leaf. Only after I was completely satisfied with my explanation would I ask the plant’s permission and hold it in my hand… Indigenous science is based on a profound immersion in and awareness of the whole circumstance. Rather than mistrusting personal experience, Indigenous science has learned to thrive on it.”
~ Paula Underwood, from the same article as above

Verbs accentuate living, doing, and feeling

In the mechanical worldview of a noun-based language, the world is functional, offering us the supplies to meet our material needs. In verb-based languages, there is the recognition of a living energy and an enduring relationship to all things. Verbs suggest action and movement, inner meaning, truth. An Indian mystic defines the verb cup in Tiwa, a native language of the Pueblo Indians:

“For instance, a cup is tii, but tii likewise means crystallized awareness, or awareness that is in the process of crystallizing and uncrystallizing. That cup is not fixed…Of course ‘tii’ is not a noun or a pronoun, but a verb; therefore, it means not a cup but a cupping, the holding of energy in the process of cupping, and it is cupping another energy that is in the process of being coffee.”
~ Joseph Rael, author of House of Shattering Light

English and other languages that are noun-based reflecting an objectified worldview, are extremely powerful, but we need more to be fully human and spiritual beings. I can envision three tiers of language:

  • A language that represents the objectified physical world
  • A language that recognizes relationship and the inherent interconnection of all things
  • And finally we need a language that gives full voice to transcendental experience and awareness.

The power of framing with language

In her book, Getting A Grip, social and health activist Frances Moore Lappe, talks about the “power of framing.” If we are always talking fear, poverty, scarcity, then we touch into our powerlessness. Framing, a potent mix of our language and core belief systems, can confine or enlarge how we view ourselves. We have a choice.

“Throughout this book, I’ve stressed the power of “frame,” the lens through which we interpret our world. But what creates our frame? Largely, it’s language – the words and metaphors we use every day.”
~ Frances Moore Lappe, author of Getting A Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad

Words have the power to extend our vision, so that we can conceive of a new reality. For example, the “subprime crisis” in the housing market suggests something “less in quality or value.” How many words are we using that translate to “less than” in our culture? Perhaps it is our whole cultural mindset that’s in a Subprime Crisis where we have the mental habit of undervaluing and underrating ourselves. We underestimate our capability to instigate change.

How can we prime the pump — our conceptual pump — with new words and new frames especially in challenging periods, so we can meet skepticism and despair with hope and new solutions? If we’re not sure of how to change the situation, we can start by changing our words — the thought-tools — we use to build visions of new potential outcomes.

Who would like to volunteer a new word, a new definition, a new potential?

Watch and listen to Frances Moore Lappe introduce her book, Getting A Grip:

12 comments on “Reframing: How language shapes perception

  1. Christine Santoro says:

    Oh My Gosh, Michelle, I can’t believe you should be writing about language and how it creates our reality. I am dealing with this very topic in my life!!!!I’m working on being aware of and changing the language that I use. The whole topic is so fascinating. I just get so confused on how to be in the process of changing my everyday language. If someone is always there to point out negative framing, self-defeating talk etc, then it’s easy. But it’s so hard when I just speak……Hope this makes sense to you all. I’m not sure how to stay in a state of awareness with the language I use. Anyone have any suggestions? Some of my language if not all of it is ingrained in my consciousness so it seems like a daunting task. Hmm, just realized the way I worded the previous sentence…….see what I mean? Thank’s for an enlightening topic and the books you quoted from sound awesome. I’m going to get them.

  2. Christine,
    Being aware of the language we use requires persistence because we are inundated with so many outside stimuli from the media to our own conditioning. Periodic fasting from TV and the News can help. Those catch phrases in the media are contagious, and sometimes filtering them out is important, and necessary to maintain a healthier viewpoint. Quiet time helps me tune in to my own inner radio station and I’m able to observe my thought patterns, then I can think and speak more consciously. Inspiration is a must, soul nutrition to help me keep my mind and soul on the right track: books, like-minded people, beautiful places in nature.

  3. Radha says:

    I feel that if one changes oneself from within by observing more ones attitudes, beliefs and ones habitual pitfalls, without condemnation but only with awareness then gradually ones language will change. Definitely change. It would be very difficult for anyone to remain aware even while interacting spontaneously surely? As well as only changing the language is a bit like changing the clothes without bathing.
    I’ve been working with affirmations and find they help, not only to manifest attitudes and things but to see the reaction of ones negative programmes and the hiccoughs that begin in ones settled patterns.

  4. Halfmoon108 says:

    Hi Michele,

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article! I loved the Joseph Rael quote, and have often wondered what the world would be like if I grown up speaking, say, Chinese ~ or another one of those pictographic languages? In terms of a language that “gives full voice to transcendental experience and awareness,” one that already exists for this very purpose is Sanskrit ~ the language of the Vedas and many other eastern scriptures. And people translating these texts into English often point out how challenging it is to find English words or phrases that are the equivalent of Sanskrit words describing metaphysical realities. Another cool thing about Sanskrit is that the actual vibration created by speaking a certain word is said to be equivalent to the object or state of consciousness being represented … which is why chanting Sanskrit mantras is such a powerful practice.

    thanks again,
    Beth Reninger (hi!)

  5. Radha,
    I love your comment, “only changing the language is a bit like changing the clothes without bathing.” Good point! We have to cultivate awareness of those internal patterns and mental habits to really transform our use of language.

  6. Beth,
    Welcome! Yes, pictograph languages are probably more right-brain oriented — intuitive, holistic, creative, artistic — and the connection to spirituality is preserved. Thank you also for your comment about the Sanskrit language! We need a language model that’s closer to ‘home’ where the vibration of the word can take us to new levels of consciousness. Are there some simple mantra chants that you would like to recommend or other resources we can explore to learn more about Sanskrit?
    Thank you, Beth!

  7. DrBob says:

    There are a few points where I see things a little differently here.

    As someone with a strong scientific background who has more recently come to entertain the notion that there are many descriptions of reality which hold validity, I found it curious that an article which espoused the values of a wholistic approach seemed, itself, to divide and categorise languages as well as world views (e.g. ‘science’ and Native American description).
    The Joseph Rael quotation was amusing. Expounding on the novelty of the definition of ‘tii’ as not ‘cup’ but ‘a cupping’. The idea of viewing the cup as a cupping is interesting alternative which might add to the richness of appreciation of the container. However, EXACTLY, this notion (“view the article as ‘a cupping’ rather than ‘a cup'”) is conveyed in the quotation … which is in English. “Just what is the idea that cannot be conveyed in English here?” I wondered, noting that the almost the whole article was written in English.

    English is certainly able to operate at many levels. While the count of different classes of words might be interesting to some, and the rules for formation of ‘well formed sentences’ has some value it by no means encompasses the richness of the English language:
    Consider imagery, idiom, dialect, rhyme, puns, sarcasm, analogy, metaphor. We can search through a dictionary and find a single definition of metaphor and yet the great works of literature are filled with it (as is, good scientific explanation).
    One can argue that the idea of levels of language, misses something both subtle and profoundly important by not considering the way that those levels interact with each other. See “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” and “I Am a Strange Loop” by Douglas R. Hofstadter.
    The splitting of our modes of verbal and written communication into three separate languages sounds like an unecessary step on the road to Babel to me. One, rich, language surely serves us better. Literacy rates are still noticeable below 100% globally. The notion that time would be best spent teaching students at my school another two languages when they struggle with a mixture of their diverse mother tongues and English seems questionable to me.
    Surely an alternative would be to seek a unified language … except we don’t need look far; we already have a perfectly good one.

    There are bigger questions here though …
    Clearly much of our communication is not codified into a written, or even spoken, language. We have graphic art, song, dance, the layout of gardens, nonverbal cues, a Mexican Wave approaching from our left as we sit in a stadium, the wink of an eye between lovers. Can we describe the intent of the ‘transmitter’ in English in each case? Sure we can. Can we describe what message is taken by the receiver? Sure we can. Are the two always the same? Rarely. Someone once said that the chief fallacy in communication is to believe that it has occurred.

    From a personal spiritual perspective we can experiment with the words we use and see if our world view shifts, and then decide for ourselves which view (or mixture of views) we wish to settle for. This does not need a change of language, it invites us to use language playfully. (When asked for an opinion, instead of saying “I think …” consider saying “I feel …” (or vice versa, depending on your Jungian type)) Try saying “We could…” rather than “We must …”.

    In the same way, I can look at a willow as a scientist, and artist, a gardener, a poet, a real-estate salesman, a lumber merchant or through Shamanic experience (well actually I can’t personally do the real estate or lumber approaches but you get the idea). My view currently is that no view is ‘righter’ than any of the others but that perhaps there is a value in richness of appreciation which is extended by viewing from more an more viewpoints. This is not quite wholism, as it embraces BOTH wholistic and reductionist views.

    Another wise person gave me this gem “When we speak … we are telling ourselves something, when we listen, we are giving ourselves a message.”

    “Subprime”? Some will read it as some kind of cultural undervaluing, while the people who invented the word simply related it to the credit worthiness of certain loans. All that is needed is for us to be open to alternative views. Is a person to be valued less if they hold a subprime loan? You are at liberty to choose, but that is not what the subprime adjective is aimed at … it’s aimed at the loan or financial instrument, not the person. How often do we use the word-stem ‘sub’? if I had to make a guess, I’d estimate that I hear ‘super’ more often. Maybe I have different filters on my ears.

    “Subprime” … a new word that we are all still learning to use, telling each other what baggage hear see attached to the word. But already there will be poems and plays being written using the word, telling a truth, untruth or uncertainty from the authors’ perspectives. The English language is itself a garden with new seedlings forever springing up. It will adapt to the needs of the community it serves, as does all living language.

    Anyway … thanks for your thought provoking piece … clearly, thoughts have been provoked!
    Best regards

  8. Christine says:

    Hi Everyone, this whole language topic is so interesting. I use to think that by going inward and getting to the core of my beliefs and attitudes that my self defeating language would change. It didn’t…I believe we need to address the inner issues but unless we just start becoming aware of and purposely changing our language then we can get stuck looking inward. The whole idea of Neuro-Linguistic programming is about how if you change your language your beliefs will shift. It’s kind of like when someone goes to therapy for ages but never actually takes action to change their life. Ten years later they still are looking inward when taking action on the outside is ignored. I believe you can analyze till your blue in the face but if you don’t change your physical actions things will stay the same. Just my ideas and personal experience on the topic……..

  9. DrBob,
    Welcome! It’s great to have a scientist on board to raise some good discussion. I hoped this article would stimulate some thought. Before I respond to some of your comments, I’d like to suggest to everyone to keep to shorter posts – usually a paragraph or two is best since these comment boxes are small as it is. We want everyone to be able to chime in. When you are feeling enthusiastic and you’ve got a lot to say, it’s generally better to post several sequential comments, rather than one long one.

    Joseph Rael talked more specifically about ‘crystallized awareness’ in reference to the cup and the cupping. He is really demonstrating how things are not really things, they are energy, even a cup. Energy is in constant motion. The Native American paradigm sees the forest through the trees, where science clearly identifies the tree in the forest, the contrast between Wholeness and Specificity. Both views are important. Why not merge the two? Are they already integrated?

  10. DrBob,
    I loved your comment about the richness of imagery, pun, and metaphor in the English language and in literature. I’ve come to appreciate the imagery and metaphor in language, especially as an intuitive. They convey layers of meaning.

    I recognize that I may not have been clear about how I was envisioning the three tiers of language. I wasn’t really suggesting three separate languages, but one language representing the physical world, the interrelationship between all things, and transcendental experience and awareness.

  11. DrBob,
    Beautifully said, DrBob: “I can look at a willow as a scientist, artist, gardener, poet, real estate salesman…” I believe that this is what Joseph Rael was trying to communicate – to encompass all these viewpoints into one – is to have a coherent view. Yes, we can experiment with different word combinations and phrases, and with a playful attitude, create new expressions. I pulled the word “subprime” from the financial sector just to take a closer look. When a word is repeated, especially as a catch phrase in the media, it can quite literally hypnotize us. It colors our perception, leading us to feel disconnected from potentials and possible solutions.

  12. Christine,
    Thanks for your comment! Yes, we can even overdo the inner work — that inner treadmill — when some kind of action is called for. Your suggestion is a good one: Start changing the language now. Initially, it might feel awkward, but the new words act as a spiritual elixir clearing our mental and emotional cobwebs.

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