When we are afraid of words

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Are you afraid to speak out your words? I moderated mine for many years.

When I was a child and teenager, I read a lot. So much so that my mother at a time forbade me to read more than two books a day. It was harmful to my eyes, she said. It was completely incomprehensible to me that it could be harmful to read books, and I thought it was totally unfair that I had to restrain myself. She was right, my mother. I ended up being nearsighted!

When we are afraid of wordsThe challenge of using a large vocabulary

But all the hours with my nose in the books has extended my language and my vocabulary, and I loved every time, I learned a new word – preferably a difficult one. I was fascinated by how the word looked, how it was pronounced, and what it meant. It did not matter whether it was an old word or a new word. All words, I had not met before, was exciting and had to be learned and stored in the right place in my inquisitive mind.

However, all the many words had a downside. When I spoke, the words also came out of my mouth, and then the problem was that my school friends did not always understand me. In the beginning, I was quite indifferent to it and had the great pleasure of explaining what the word meant. Later, I started slowly not to use the exciting and difficult words just to fit in. In time, my language was trivialized, being ordinary and boring, and yes, in fact sad.

Let go of self-censorship

Having taken this decision then means that my otherwise well-formulating daughter often says to me: “Mom, you are using old-fashioned expressions. Speak Danish!” (Danish being my native language). So again I have been given the pleasure of explaining what a word means.

A while ago, my children once again brought up my language, and now was the opportunity to send a message to the next generation. I told them that today I regretted that I had not held on to using my linguistic register fully, and explained why not, and why I had regretted it.

I concluded by telling them to stand by their manner of speech, and not be afraid to use words of any kinds.

How is your personal language? Do you use a large range of words? Do you customize your language to the people you associate with, or do you stand by your personal language? Please, share your opinion in the comments option below.

Stephen Pinker is a professor at Harvard University, specializing in visual cognition (another word for thinking) and psycholinguistics (the study of the psycho-biological processes).

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