Language is a fascinating thing. It allows us to share experiences with others who were not around.  It allows us to communicate. And, as we all know from social media, it allows us to miscommunicate faster than ever before!

It also defines our experiences.

What? It Defines our experiences? “No, it doesn’t, I’m using language to tell others about my experiences.”

Well…sort of. You are using the available words to tell others about experiences. But what if the words you use are imprecise? Then you aren’t able to use them to accurately describe your experience.

One example of miscommunication is the verb “to be.” In English, there is only a single type of word. It means something permanent and something temporarily. ‘I am a doctor” is permanent. “I am sad” is temporary. Both use the same words, though, “I am.”

Even skipping over the potential metaphysical/religious implications of these 2 words, can you see the issue? When you say, “I am sad,” it is difficult for your mind to separate that this is a temporary description. Far too often, people seem to be confused and think that “I am sad” is a statement of a permanent condition.

What if, on the other hand, we had 2 options for “to be” the way Spanish does? Ser is a permanent version of “to be” and estar describes a temporary condition.  Can you see how “estoy triste” (I am [temporarily] sad) is a better description of the temporary condition of being sad? It allows the speaker to understand that sadness is temporary.

As another example, the Eskimos/Inuit have 40-50 words for “snow.” Just imagine how much of a richer, more descriptive discussion could be had if you were able to explain the “snow” with that much depth.

So What?

By now, hopefully, you’re saying, “Well that’s cool!” But you’re probably also saying, “So what?”

The reason this is important because in US culture, we seem to have trouble understanding the transient nature of all things. “Trump IS president.”  “Obama IS president.” “It IS cold.” “I AM sad.” In a thousand little ways, we are saying that things are occurring, and our language doesn’t promote the idea that most events are temporary. This can lead to unnecessary stress and conflict over things that have little meaning “in the great scheme of things.”

If we thought of events as temporary, they would lose some of their power over us.


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Susan Rooks

An oldie but goodie, Michael: “The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Now, the quote has been attributed to several folks, and there are several similar versions, but I love the underlying thought.

And I learned something from your post: I had no idea Spanish had two versions of “to be,” and yes. I love that they/we could use the temporary version for things like being sad. Thanks!

Michael Barnes
Michael Barnes

I love that quote. Thanks for sharing :D

Susan Rooks

My pleasure, Michael. It’s most often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but there’s no proof. That said, I love it, too. Great reminder that what we think we know … may not be right.