Language and the Lost Art of Letter Writing

Writing by hand

How does language create the mind?

Language is one of the most sophisticated cognitive skills we possess as humans. It expresses and shapes thought. It contains an implicit classification of experience and is designed to change the neural pathways to the brain, thus changing minds.

The changing patterns occur through the use of sounds and symbols. It's a process like that of using metaphors. A metaphor finds connections between things in the mind and new connections enable the mind to see the world differently.

In Metaphors we Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say metaphors are pervasive in our everyday lives and they influence not just language, but also our thoughts and actions. But:

Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like.

Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature. And we have found a way to begin to identify in detail what the metaphors are that structure how we perceive, how we think, and what we do.

Take for example the concept of argument and the corresponding conceptual metaphor that argument is war. “This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language in a variety of expressions:”

  • Your claims are indefensible
  • He attackedevery weak point in my argument
  • His criticisms were right on target
  • I demolished his argument
  • I've never won an argument with him
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out
  • He shot down all my arguments


Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground.

Imagine where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.

We would not think of it as “arguing” in the sense we typically do at all. Thus we would have the ability — and the freedom — to structure out thinking around discourse differently. This would bring about different outcomes. When we're busy arguing, we don't see all the other options we could have as part of the exchange — because we're down the warpath, of bringing that metaphor to life.

Now let's think about another very common metaphor — that of time. In this linguistic analysis we can see how “time is money” permeates our realities:

  • You're wasting my time
  • This gadget will save you hours
  • I don't have the time to give you
  • How do you spend your time these days?
  • That flat tire cost me an hour
  • I've invested a lot of time in her
  • I don't have enough time to spare for that
  • You're running out of time
  • You need to budget your time
  • Put aside some time for ping pong
  • Is that worth your while?
  • Do you have much time left?
  • He's living on borrowed time
  • You don't use your time profitably
  • I lost a lot of time when I got sick
  • Thank you for your time


Corresponding to the fact that we act as if time is a valuable commodity — a limited resource, even money — we conceive of time that way.

It is a relatively new metaphorical concept of our culture. “There are cultures where time is none of these things,” say the authors of Metaphors we Live By. Globalization and access are spreading ideas, images, and goods faster and more, but our identity is still tied to many elements that are cultural — made of heritage, environment, needs, interactions in the world where we grow up and live.

When we think of all this, communication may seem like a miracle. We should marvel that it happens at all. Two or more beings engaged in changing each other's brains. Sometimes, we enter conversations open to changing our minds as well. 

Many neurolinguistic studies have been conducted on how the mind creates language. Yet few follow the opposite direction — figuring out how language changes minds. By language I intend the deliberate and considerate use of terminology and phraseology to communicate intent, share vision, engage in thought, reach out to someone to connect and inspire.

In my welcome note more than nine years ago I talked briefly about how engaging in a dialogue is a way of thinking together and creating something new.

Writers often say that they do not know what they think until they put pen to paper. Putting pen to paper is a very different sensory experience than typing on a machine. Letter writing combines our desire to express what we think and feel with the art of calligraphy and more of our senses — touch, manual ability, and language — in a system that also provides stimulation back to us in a form of sensory feedback.

Letter writing is a lost art. Writing a letter is giving a gift of more. It implies a reciprocity that creates a two-way relationship with our experience and that of the person for whom we write. Addressee and writer connect in the tangible act through the power of the handwritten word and the container in which it comes — the letter, or card.

But we live in a culture of time is money, where we make efficient use of resources by automating messages, sending quick emails, text messages, chat notes, quick hashtags and tweets, one day perhaps grunts. For this reason, with no time for conversation we indulge in narcissistic monologues instead of dances, or exchanges, barely seeing the person behind the avatar.

In this “time is money” context there is little space for letter writing. We've done away with writing letters in the name of efficiency.

Email is helping us stay in rapid-fire contact with one another. Memos and emails give companies the ability to communicate with hundreds of employees simultaneously.

But there is something to be said for a hand-written note — it's personal, it's intimate, it communicates much more than just a desire to stay in touch. It touches us back. And maybe, just maybe dedicating the time to write a letter helps us change the conceptual metaphor of time itself.


[image via Unsplash]

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