Language, Thought, and the Power of Words

Differences in common phrases and censorship from communist Romania to capitalist New York reveal a link between language, thought, and the power of words.

| March/April 2013

As a child in Romania, I would choose a word and repeat it over and over until it lost its meaning. The syllables would overlay one another and sound like a foreign language, not invented yet or long-ago abandoned, something mysterious and antique, rough and absurd. Instead of opening up and shining acoustically, the sounds choked like marine animals tossed into a boiling cauldron. The word would then become tangible, heavy, like a clay rock thrown in the ocean. I would wait for it to dissolve while I repeated it, compulsively, unable to control the joy of my offense. What are words? I asked myself. Where do they come from and where do they go?

The Power of Words in Romania

Writers, I thought, have a most difficult task: to keep the mystery inside the words and save their power for the world beyond. At that time, I was not aware I would become a writer. While I was studying mathematics, I dreamed of becoming a theater director but our communist Eastern European universe was not open to dreams. We lived under one of the harshest dictatorships, watched by the secret police, completely isolated from the rest of the world. We tried to survive within a closed society, struggling to find our own ways to cope with the obscurantism of the political system.

Of all the restrictions imposed by the system, the worst was that against freedom of speech. We all knew that if we even entertained the idea of criticizing the Communist Party or its leaders, we could easily end up in jail. We weren’t supposed to complain about our miserable lives, either, or about the nonsense surrounding us. Spies were everywhere, even in the midst of artist gatherings and literary groups. The restaurants, hotels, or mountain cottages were equipped with hidden microphones; our phone lines were under surveillance. To speak loudly and straightforwardly was dangerous. Despite the fact that the dictatorship controlled every aspect of society, the rulers, ironically, were afraid of our real thoughts and words: the only weapons we could use against them. The political censorship was severe and forever watchful, keeping every form of communication under control.

The words allowed by the dictatorship would take up only two dictionary pages: empty and precious slogans, political jingles, and the like. Artists hid in metaphors; regular folks would whisper and swear. Some would make peace with the system and become megaphones of ideological emptiness; others would assume the loneliness of their own thoughts, awaiting more and more hopelessly, a liberating miracle.

Most of us lived a double life, each in a different language. We talked in a certain way in public arenas and institutions, and differently among ourselves. Paradoxically, we were still communicating. Through that communication, we were surviving culturally and keeping our minds and souls sane. The language had become a living animal, insinuating itself in our milk, in our walls, even in the design of our rugs. It flew—simulating freedom—from one window to the next, condensed, profound, intense, alert; and we cherished each word as our only hidden treasure.

At the time, almost all of us thought communism was with us to stay, at least for the duration of our lifetimes. So in addition to the official language based on fear, caution, and slogans, a parallel language had to be developed—springing from one’s inner sense of freedom, truth, and fairness.

6/5/2018 8:57:03 AM

I wish to thank you for this deep, eye-opening, spiritual yet pragmatic beautiful thoughts about a subject rarely observed let alone analyzed. Thank you and I mean every keystroke of it. Bodhivata

6/5/2018 8:57:00 AM

I wish to thank you for this deep, eye-opening, spiritual yet pragmatic beautiful thoughts about a subject rarely observed let alone analyzed. Thank you and I mean every keystroke of it. Bodhivata

6/4/2018 11:52:29 AM

Growing up in Sweden in the 50s and 60s there was a word for love intended for only your sexual partner for life, ÄLSKA. It was later extended to your children and nearest family. Presently it is even used for ice cream! That is the American influence of using superlatives for everything. There is no word left anymore to express your love for your MOST beloved!