We create our futures in language. The simple declaration of “No,” or “Yes,” creates a new future for us every day. I am not talking about the outcome of the yes or no – but that fact of saying either one opens up very different possibilities. From an ontological perspective (ontology, the study of being human) it is the speech act itself that creates the future. In the uttering of the word, one future opens up, and another closes.
Have you ever thought much about language? Linguists and philosophers have ways of categorizing and describing the language we use every day, and I plan to talk more about this in future blogs. But today I would like you to take a look at language as a powerful action. Most of us experience language’s day-to-day utility; it describes events, lets others know what we want, (please pass the salt) – it is the way we describe our reality. But language is so much more. Language is not passive or merely descriptive, it is generative; it produces thoughts and actions and reactions. Have you thought about what are you doing tomorrow? If you have a plan for tomorrow (including sleeping in and doing nothing) you have created it in language before it happens. Because of this, whether we realize it or not, we create futures in language.
Let’s play with this. Go back and think about the major decisions in your life that turned on only two declarations, yes or no. What if you had said one instead of the other? Here are some scenarios:
College versus working right out of high school: If you went to college, what if you had said no to college and yes to taking a job right out of high school? Where would you be right now? Who would your friends be? What if you had said no to taking that first job and instead had gone to college? Where would you be? Who would your friends be?
Joining the military: If you did not serve in the military, what would your life be like if you had said yes to the recruiter and signed on the bottom line? Where would you have lived? How would your life be different? If you did serve in the military, what would your life be like if you had said no to the recruiter? What career path would have opened up for you?
Marriage: What if you said no to your current spouse when the subject of marriage came up? Would you be happier? (Don’t answer that out loud if your spouse is in the room!). Would you be married to someone else and living somewhere else? What if you had said yes to that someone whom you turned down? What would your life be like?
Regardless of how you answered, do you see how generative our language is? It is not outcome we are focusing on here, but rather the significance of how, when a declaration is made, a new future opens up, and others close. The examples above are, of course, significant turning points for most people, but the act of speech as we interact with our co-workers and families day-to-day also has consequences.
So I suggest you consider the power of your words to shape the future – two minutes or twenty years from now. Yes, or no?