Lately I have been musing on this often-tossed-around idea that words can never hurt people, that language doesn’t matter, that what a person says is powerless and meaningless.
I find this argument disingenuous. For one thing, it takes language to make a statement about the impotency and harmlessness of language. But more than that, human beings use language to write their laws, state their wedding vows, name their children, tell the stories of their ancestors, lead movements and nations, incite love and hate, pray to their gods, invent poems and novels, and write blog posts. Humans didn’t just evolve the unique and amazing capacity for language in order for it to have no effect on individuals or the course of history.
As the great Jon Stewart said, “We can’t let the pen be mightier than the sword because that’s only the basis of our civilization.”
Museums are about objects, but also language: language that is part of objects, language that describes and explains and invites exploration of objects, and language as a theme or content area in and of itself.
One of my Weekly Museum Visits was at the tiny, now defunct National Museum of Language at the University of Maryland in College Park. Here is a very boring documentary shot of the small space:
And on the same day, I walked UMD’s labyrinth. For many people, in many ways, labyrinths transcend or at least elude words. But the journals provided under benches at many labyrinths in which walkers can leave their thoughts, the same phrase in many languages on the peace pole, and the statement and names on the memorial are markers of how language is intertwined with the spiritual and meditative as well as the everyday.
Yes, language matters. Use it to make the world a better place.