On the August 2009 episode of Radiolab, there’s the story of Susan Schaller and a 27-year-old man she worked with who was born deaf and did not realize that people interpreted the world through sound, let alone words. He assumed that everyone interpreted the world through visual cues, as he did. One day in Schaller’s sign language class, this man realized that everything had a name. And his world was changed.
This radio piece is put together so beautifully. It’s science that feels like story. Schaller asks, “What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols?” and Radiolab answers: “Somehow (a new) word changes the world in some fundamental way.” The word allows us to communicate with others, as well as with ourselves, and to understand objects, people and places in ever-increasingly complex ways. The hosts explain that the basic process of living means, “You’re going to get filled up with all these things which you have to express, but can’t, until you get those words. Then BOOM! The door opens.” Everything has a name!
Here is the podcast episode.
Later in the segment Radiolab also discusses the idea that Shakespeare behaved more like a chemist than a writer — smashing words together as though they were elements, rather than layering them as we typically do. I am planning to use both of these segments in a lesson introducing high school students to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
Am I just a word nerd, or is all this stuff really exciting?