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On Words

A modern-day Helen Keller moment, or why the currency of communication is more complex than we think.

Words matter. They shape how we relate to one another and the world at large, they frame what matters and why. They can break your heart (“My feelings for you have changed…”), tickle your mind (“The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know…”) and enlighten your soul (“I have a dream…”). They can steer entire ideologies and even spark the extinction of species.

Words, a fantastic new episode of WNYC’s always-excellent Radiolab, examines the importance of words by imagining a world without them. From a look at Shakespeare’s linguistic chemistry to a first-hand account of what it’s like to have the language center of your brain wiped out by a stroke (yep, we’re talking about Jill Bolte Taylor of blockbuster TED Talk fame) to a woman who taught a 27-year-old man the first words of his life and revealed the worldview-changing insight that everything has a name, the hour-long program offers a profound perspective shift in this currency of our day-to-day that we take for granted.

What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols and we start trading symbols? It changes our thinking, it changes our ideas.” ~ Susan Shaller

The episode is available as a free mp3 download and we highly recommend you subscribe to the full series podcast in iTunes, also free.

For further reading, these four books referenced in Words are absolutely fascinating and paint a rich, comprehensive portrait of the layered significance of language in culture and human psychology.

Also of note and highly recommended, a trio of books by Steven Pinker, whom we consider one of the sharpest thinkers on language today:

via Open Culture

Published August 13, 2010




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