The following post was written by Dee Gardner, a Faculty Fellow at the Humanities Center.
One of our remarkable human endowments is the ability to learn and store words and their meanings. This is a process that continues throughout our lifetimes, and there appears to be no limit to how many words we can learn. Equally amazing is the interconnectedness of words, meanings, and experience in our minds. We often hear that “a picture paints a thousand words,” but I also believe that “a word can paint a thousand pictures.” In the humanities, we explore both of these maxims.
Some argue that words are merely arbitrary groups of symbols and sounds, and to some extent this is true—the word for cat is gato in Spanish and 猫 in Chinese. But when we talk about “the meanings” or even “the power” of words, something much more real and intentional seems to be at play:
For behold, by the power of his word man came upon the face of the earth, which earth was created by the power of his word. Wherefore, if God being able to speak and the world was, and to speak and man was created, O then, why not able to command the earth, or the workmanship of his hands upon the face of it, according to his will and pleasure? (Jacob 4:9)
I am fascinated by the possibility that words have an actual connection to faith and may even be the medium for commanding the miraculous to happen:
And so great was the faith of Enoch that he led the people of God, and their enemies came to battle against them; and he spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course; and the roar of the lions was heard out of the wilderness; and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch, and so great was the power of the language which God had given him. (Moses 7:13)
One thing is for sure—we have a lot to learn about the potential of words and language.
And after this manner do they bear record: The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father;
And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father. (3 Nephi 17: 16–17)
For me, the ability to consider these possibilities with language is one of the primary benefits of being a linguist and teaching in the humanities at BYU, where I regularly explore my own interpretations of Humanities Plus.