The Inner Life of Words

An exploration of the power of the subconscious to shape and transform our lives. This book offers an insight into that life that goes on in the wings instead of the stage. The world that is filled with strangely vibrant life. A world which is relentlessly active even during sleep. A world which is directly influenced by and that can only be reached through words.


A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt. Mark Twain

What’s in a word? Because our language is primarily a spoken language, we could say that it is a sound or a group of articulate sounds to which those who speak the language attach an intellectual value. If words are mere intellectual fodder, why is it that certain words resonate within us, making us joyful or fearful, furnishing us with utopian landscapes in our dreams or twisting them into the stuff of nightmares?

Language has sway over the unconscious and particularly our emotional and spiritual lives. For example, studies have shown that simply reading emotionally charged words is akin to the processing of painful or traumatic memories. Listening to angry, hate-filled speech begins to activate neurological centres of the brain that are associated with fear and the survival instinct. This is particularly disturbing in today’s media-manipulated world, where every newspaper editorial or political speech is a calculated assemblage of value-laden words that trigger emotional responses. Woe beget the poor shmuck who confuses the label for the thing.

Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born — the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience; the victim insofar as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell

For, language, though seemingly a deeply personal and ingrained part of us, is a heritage and great tradition handed down to us from our forefathers. Though we speak for ourselves, our sounds, tone, accent , syntax, and tune originate less from ourselves than from the society which has formed and shaped us. Webster’s dictionary defines a word as “a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use”. This symbolisation is the basic formula that underpins our language, formulas whose provenience lies deep in the hidden history of human experience. Our language determines as much as it reflects our psychological responses, for we perceive and conceive of the universe and of our experience within our mode of understanding of an essentially flexible and fluid system of symbols.

Our brain is a product of millions of years of evolution and, for wont of a better word, is a kludge of many ramshackle parts; some more elegant than others, but all thrown together into a working mélange of sorts. The ordinary action of our mental life is a perpetual coming and going of inward events, in the marshalling of sensations, feelings, ideas, and images, which associate with or repel each other if they share common emotional underpinnings. Language cannot get hold of consciousness without arresting its protean character. For, as soon as we try to describe a feeling or state by expressing it in words, we will change its constitution. The deeply personal state, when dissected by the cold and precise scalpel of language, can only exist as detached, impersonal objects that are related to one another. This is because language employs general concepts, sharp and precise distinctions, denoting, and thereby missing, the delicate shades of the ever fluctuating states with simple uniform words. But the very rules that constrain language foster our creativity, for, just like the rules of form and colour free the artist, the rules of language challenge us to break free of laws and restrictions both from within and without. That is the beauty and complexity of language. It is the preeminent tool of the intellect, but its ability to shape our lives and our world is only possible when conscious action is mediated by an unconscious capable of reflecting on the multiple meanings of words.

According to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the inner life is, at once variety of qualities, continuity of progress, and unity of direction. The necessary and sufficient conditions to bring the the activities of this world into consciousness have long evaded us—the quest for this answer being the Holy Grail of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. The inner life is that activity of the mind that goes on without us being aware of it. It is that back shop of the mind stacked with the furniture, ornaments, and other relics of the past. It is the life that goes on in the wings instead of the stage. A life whose strangely vibrant activity goes on even during sleep. It is a manifestation of that mode of the mind called the unconscious or subconscious and is not limited to the Freudian notion of the seat of repressed memories and emotions. Rather, the unconscious is the natural or default state of being, conscious and deliberate action being an intermittent state requiring concentrated effort and a unity of consciousness that can be enormously resource intensive.

As without language not only no philosophy, but no human consciousness at all is conceivable, the foundations of language could not have been consciously laid; and yet the deeper we penetrate into it, the more clearly does it appears that its invention far surpasses in profundity those of the highest conscious product. It is with language as with human beings; we think we behold them come blindly into existence, and at the same time cannot doubt their unfathomable significance even in the smallest particular. Schelling, cited in Hartmann (1893)

One of the most effective ways to tap into language’s infinite potential, its infinite generative capacity, is to observe your own metaphorical language. Metaphors are so ubiquitous and have become so ingrained in our conventional ways of thinking that we do not recognise them as such. So , contrary to popular opinion, metaphors are not a linguistic extra device for the use of elite poets and orators. Paying attention to which metaphors people use will give us insight into how their world is structured. We use metaphor to extend and amplify our thoughts and to convey our meaning. Most importantly, by juxtaposing two dissimilar things, metaphors build patterns that are crucial for understanding and interpreting our world. The more adept we are at framing our own metaphors and apprehending those of others, the more effective we will be at communicating and listening. Attention to metaphors can improve the precision and depth of both our ability to express ourselves and to understand what others are indicating. Because we use language not only to communicate our thoughts to others but to make them known to ourselves, the metaphorical basis of our mental and spiritual vocabulary has been a favourite subject of many great writers.

The Inner Life of Words back cover


  1. The fluidity of language
    • Borrowed words
    • Symbology
    • Modern complexity
  2. What words do to us
    • Trigger words
    • Process words
    • Categories & labels
    • Cerebro-sclerosis through verbalisation
  3. What we do with words
    • Nominalisation
    • Organ language
    • The narrator and the narrative
    • Identity and personality
  4. Resonant words and recalcitrant figures
    • Global metaphors
    • Personal metaphors
    • The bodily basis of meaning
  5. The symbology of feelings and emotions
    • Faith, fate, and rumination
    • Neurological truths
    • Satir categories
    • Sub-Modalities and Sense-Modalities