Is ‘meaning’ built on words?

How is ‘meaning’ constructed in our minds? Can we make meaning out of something without words? Is it through words that we understand the world? Let’s look into that.

It’s hard to even imagine interacting and making sense of the world without words. It almost seems that words are the very architecture of thoughts, and the memories formed thereafter. Is it possible to think without words? The answer to the question depends on what you mean by thinking. I think, thinking is a response, a way of making sense of things; it is an attempt to understand; an active derivation of meaning. Thinking is, essentially, processing life. Words are probably the most obvious way to think. Can you think without words? You can definitely feel and experience without words. But, experiencing pain is not the same as processing pain and understanding it. Experiencing music is not the same as processing it and deriving meaning from it. 

Oscar Wilde called language “the parent, and not the child, of thought”, suggesting that thinking is shaped by our words. He’s not entirely wrong.

But, we know artists and musicians who think in image or sound. The mathematical genius Daniel Tammet processes numbers by thinking in landscapes. Another interesting thing is how hearing-impaired people, who are cut off from both spoken and signed language, would think. There are records of a fifteen-year-old boy with hearing disability, who wrote in 1836, after being educated at a school for the deaf, that he remembered thinking “that perhaps the moon would strike me, and I thought that perhaps my parents were strong, and would fight the moon, and it would fail, and I mocked the moon,” before he was initiated into language. This is definitely thinking, processing concepts like ‘strong’ and ‘mocking’, and shows how thoughts, even somewhat complex ones, can be created without the help of words. 

So, does that mean that word and thought are independent? Not entirely. Mundurucú, a remote Brazillian tribe, has only words for numbers up to five. When studying their capacity to understand the concept of a number higher than five, it became evident that for many Mundurucú, the idea of greater than five was a difficult one to grasp. Although some showed signs of understanding the idea of ‘something bigger than this’, they were quick to categorise it as ‘a lot’, rather than attempting to define it more specifically.

We can certainly think and process information without words; using comparison, physical memories and associations with shapes, and colours; perhaps even symbols, sound, and movement. However, some meanings can only be completed in the presence of the word.

Mundurucu during a funeral process. Their perception of the world was limited by the extent of their language.

Mundurucú’s limitedness in grasping simple numerical concepts show that although ideas and concepts can be actively processed without words, they may not be fully understood in such cases. Certain ideas or concepts— most certainly numerical ones, as the study with Mundurucú suggest— cannot be grasped fully without the clarity and definition that a word would lend. That is to say, that there are certain kinds of thinking that are made possible only by words. 

Words are symbols, or pathways to symbols, that we can use to define, and zoom out of ideas in order to observe them. This means that, despite words being a very precise way to understand something, they are actually fundamental to abstraction and meta- thinking. Without words, it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t know that we’re thinking, because we would not be able to isolate the concept in order to perceive it. Sure; but, what does that mean?

How the brain processes language and meaning has interested scientific minds throughout time.

This means that for brands— whether personalities, businesses or organisations—words become fundamental to define and set themselves apart as a singular entity in a market. Brands are entities based on operating through a certain identity, and on the basis that the audience has good reason to choose their ideas, services, or products, over or in addition to others’. This decision of the audience to choose your brand is always made through a defining identity that sets you apart. Articulating this exact definition is where words become paramount to brands.

Writing content for a brand must begin with an articulation of what that entity is, and what it stands for in this world. This is why our studio Public Works often recommends new clients to invest in a brand articulation before purchasing any written content from us. It’s the most effective way to draw the true power of a medium as precise as the written word.

A brand articulation is a process where tacit knowledge about the brand is transformed into explicit knowledge. We sit down and outline the ideas, statements and personality frameworks with the involvement of its founders and key decision-makers as a workshop, or through an online questionnaire that the clients take responsibility to complete and submit. The outcome is a consciously articulated definition of your brand framing its core concepts, reason for being and the experiences that it delivers. In the brand articulations that we deliver from Public Works, a brand is first put it into words this way, then followed by a visual articulation that suggests the direction of the brand’s visual identity (depending on which point the brand is at, in its evolution). These are the most important elements for standard communications. A well articulated brand has solid ground to stand on, and speak confidently to its audience. It is from this brand articulation that all communications are drawn out from; In the case of new brands or those coming to a significant shift, sometimes even the name and visual identity are derived from the brand articulation.

Before words are strung together to communicate complex ideas, emotions and values, they are used to define fundamentals, at seed-level. Before a brand uses words to share its stories with the world, it must use the word to define itself at the core.

This is where words become fundamental to businesses. Most businesses would use words for communication—at the periphery of where a brand operates, and engages with its audience; and that is a good use of words. But, a great use of words is at the seed of a brand where it needs to be defined against the world, and brought fully into the light of our perception. It’s where everything begins.

If you want to learn more about the process and outcomes of a brand articulation, send me a message to find out how we do it at Public Works.


  • Danielle R. Perszyk, Sandra R. Waxman. Listening to the calls of the wild: The role of experience in linking language and cognition in young infants. Cognition, 2016; 153: 175 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.05.004
  • Brenda Schick , Jill de Villiers , Peter de Villiers and Bob Hoffmeister. Theory of Mind: Language and Cognition in Deaf Children. DOI:10.1044/leader.FTR1.07222002.6
  • Pica, Pierre & Lecomte, Alain. (2008). Theoretical Implications of the Study of Numbers and Numerals in Mundurucu. Philosophical Psychology. 21. 507-522. DOI: 10.1080/09515080802285461

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