Before being known by its current name, and before the British labelled it “Ceylon”, Sri Lanka went by the Persian name of “Serendip”. In the 1500s, a fairytale about princes of Serendip made its way from the tiny island, through the Middle East, and into the storybook of an Italian author called Michele Tramezzino. He wrote of these princes, their escapades, and the remarkable luck they experienced. From there, the story was translated into English by Horace Walpole. English readers adored the story, the princes, and the charmingly happy coincidences that peppered their journey. They alluded to it in their conversations, applied it to their own fortunate circumstances, until, centuries later, we speak of “serendipity” without any thought of Persian princes.
For as long as we have been able to, humans have put our thoughts into words. These words were not handed to us by some preternatural force, nor were they devised by linguists to best capture the concepts humans may want to express. Just like brightly coloured beetle shells and frogs’ webbed feet, language evolved – and continues to evolve – as a response to a need. The way language changes over time mirrors the way we change, both within our own lifetimes and as a human race. Language is a map of what it means to be human.
Where do words come from? Language was born at the intersection of biology and community. Human brains evolved more complex left hemispheres, their larynxes lowered, and they begun walking upright, allowing them greater control over their vocalisations. At the same time, humans started developing societies, insulating themselves from the pressures of survival and allowing communication that was social, not just strategic. The more language evolved, the more thoughts humans were able to articulate. We became able to have abstract discussions, share our feelings, refer back to things that others had said. With the development of writing, language was no longer ephemeral; human ideas gained immortality.
The words we have at our disposals have changed in the millennia since language came to be. Each speaker has their own mental lexicon, their own associations and understandings of the words that are spoken to them and that they speak. Over time, this causes language to splinter, to gnarl like the branches of a tree. Minute differences in pronunciation village to village became entrenched, creating different dialects and then different languages entirely. Words got forgotten and left behind. Speakers made up new words to put labels to new phenomena — until the last few decades, saying you were going to “Google” something or “unfriend” someone would have been unintelligible. Language has no choice but to keep up with the rapacious and ever-changing minds of humankind.
Because of this, language and thought exist in a chicken-and-egg equilibrium. It’s hard to tell whether a word exists to put a label to a concept, or whether a word existing makes us aware that the concept it describes could exist. Feelings like “déjà vu”, “melancholy”, and “nostalgia” all seem like easily identifiable phenomena, but research suggests that people whose native languages do not include equivalent terms may not experience these sensations at all. If we do not know a word exists for a certain concept, it is really hard to put a finger on it, let alone notice it in the stream of ideas and sensations we are constantly processing. Anthropologist Robert Levy described this as hypocognition. He observed that Tahitian has negligible vocabulary for describing sadness, potentially contributing to high rates of poor mental health and suicide within Tahitian communities at the time of his research. We at once command language and are beholden to it.
Learning new words, then, has the power to shape the way we experience the world. With each addition to our vocabulary, the tools we have to understand and describe the world become richer and more diverse. Learning new words can be vindicating: being exposed to words like “gaslighting” and “love bombìng”, for example, can help survivors of abuse understand and express their traumas in specific ways. Having names for processes like “gerrymandering” or “voter suppression” can make it easier to recognise and call out inequality, making discourse about those inequalities more productive, as all interlocutors can be on the same page. Having a richer vocabulary also makes it easier to describe everyday experiences precisely and evocatively. A singing voice is not just “nice”, but “mellifluous”; a soup not just “tasty”, but “unctuous”. The more words we have, the better we can conceptualise our experiences.
As a consequence of this, humans are ravenous for new terminology. There is no panel of language-makers that coins new terms for public use: even if such a thing were possible, identifying phenomena that need names are difficult because of hypocognition. You cannot generate a word for a concept you cannot describe. As such, the words we use are a pastiche of historic, intuitive, and communal meaning. They can come from metaphor: “love bombing” uses military metaphor to make sense of being overwhelmed by affection. They can combine concepts to delineate their intersection: “gerrymandering” is a portmanteau of the surname of a governor who redrew district maps – Elbridge Gerry – and “salamander”, which is what his redrawn map allegedly resembled. They can appropriate cultural knowledge: the term “gaslighting” refers to the 1938 play Gas Light, a thriller whose heroine is psychologically tormented by her husband. “Serendipity” is an example of exactly this. We are so desperate to put our thoughts into words that we cling at scraps of meaning and rebuild them anew.
This transformative process occurs on a macro level; the broadly agreed-upon definitions of words change over time based on how speech communities use them. On an individual level, though, the relationship people have with words is transformative. This relationship can be furthered through reading broadly and consuming as many new words as possible. Beyond that, putting your thoughts into words by writing is an exercise in self-discovery. Passing your experiences through the sieve of language crystalises them. We pen diary entries, love letters, and apologies, not necessarily because we want them read, but because we want them written. There is catharsis in actualising your experiences and emotions by concretising them in language. There is comfort in knowing that billions of speakers before you have shaped the words you use to describe your pain with their tongues, with pain of their own. There is beauty in slotting the otherwise boundless love that you have for someone into words on a birthday card or in a poem that they can read to learn they are loved. There is serendipity in learning a new word and feeling it click into place, a puzzle piece you didn’t know was missing.
Humans create languages, and languages shape what it means to be human. Our societies and cultures would not exist without a tool to externalise our thoughts, a common lens through which to share our experiences. The processes of speaking, writing, and signing are as vital to us as breathing and metabolism, sustaining our minds rather than our bodies. Words are both relics and harbingers of humanity. There is so much beauty in language.