Our elite Mastership Sourcebooks for NCFCA and Stoa will release soon! Check them out here!

Let’s say you’re visiting Australia.

On the western edge of Cape York Peninsula, there’s a group of people called the Kuuk Thaayorre. The language they speak doesn’t have words for left or right, forward or back. Instead, its speakers describe locations using north, south, east, and west. So instead of, “Move the cup to your right,” they would say, “Move the cup to the north/northwest.” If you ask someone where they’re from, they might reply, “From the south/southwest, middle distance.” Everything is oriented around the cardinal points.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to survive past ‘Hello’. But it’s fascinating to me, how the language they speak affects the way they think.

Because of their language, the Kuuk Thaayorre always know what direction they’re facing, the way they think about space and direction is unique, and they perceive and express time differently.

Language isn’t just a way to express thoughts; it affects the way we form thoughts.

Can you imagine the impact this could have on a debate round? The very words we choose to use will influence the thought formation of the audience.

This isn’t a new concept at all. In fact, Ethos has written about it on multiple occasions. We call it rhetoric.

Rhetoric, for the purpose of this post, is defined as ‘the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively’. But why does rhetoric work? How can word choice have such an impact on the listener?

Fast vs. Slow Thinking

The brain has two ways of thinking (actually, probably a lot more, but we’ll stick with two for now). Most of the time, your brain is using a quick, easy-access method. We’ll call it fast thinking. You use fast thinking for reading fluffy novels, for computing 2×2, and for recognizing the fact that right now, I’m using English (a language that you understand).

When faced with a task that requires more effort, your brain calls on the second process—the one that requires more concentration and effort. We’ll call this slow thinking. You use slow thinking for things like reading Shakespeare, for calculating 43×837 (it’s 35,991 in case you were wondering), and for learning a new language. Basically, assimilating new information will require slow thinking.

The thing is, unless we are really motivated to do something (like study for an exam, or memorize information for a business presentation), we only dedicate a small portion of our mental energy to the task. Once we get bored, or tired of focusing, the brain simply says, “This isn’t worth the effort,” and switches out of slow thought.

It’s not the end of the world if this happens to your judge while they’re listening to the orientation slides. But what about in the middle of a debate round? You need them to stay in slow thought for at least part of the time (i.e., during your 2AC where you’re madly spiking every argument you know the other team is going to bring up in the Negative Block). So how do you keep them engaged? Yeah, you guessed it: rhetoric.

Some researchers at Liverpool University did a study on what kind of language stimulated the brain. They took a variety of sentences and presented them to test subjects.

A) The pizza was too hot to eat. (This is a typical, boring, grammatically correct sentence.)
B) The pizza was too hot to mouth. (This is grammatically incorrect, but makes sense—you can figure out what the intention is.)
C) The pizza was too hot to sing. (Technically, this is correct. ‘Sing’ is a verb, but it makes no sense.)
D) The pizza was too hot to elephant. (This is incorrect AND it makes no sense.)

When the researchers mapped the subjects’ brains, they found that the weirder the word, the larger the brain wave. For example, ‘elephant’ caused a larger one than ‘sing’ – at least ‘sing’ is a verb and therefore could logically follow the word ‘to’. These were negative brain waves 400 milliseconds after exposure: N400.

But when the brain sensed a violation of grammar, (i.e. it understood what was being said, but knew something wasn’t quite right), something different happened. A different type of wave: a P600. The effect of a P600 is to prime the brain to look out for more difficulty, and to work at a higher level. In other words, it triggers a move to slow thought, raises attention, gives more weight to the sentence as a whole, and makes it more memorable. So when we encounter words put together in an unusual or exciting or different way, our brains switch to using slow thought.

Yep. Rhetoric.

Stephen Fry once recalled the first time he realized words could do more than just communicate basic information. He was ten, and watching Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest. The line was: “Would you be in any way offended if I said that you seem to me to be the visible personification of absolute perfection?” He stopped in his tracks and repeated the words over and over to himself. He said, it was like my mouth dancing.” Probably, his brain had just experienced a P600. He recognized and understood each of the words in the sentence, but had never heard them put together in that particular way.

Professor Neil Watson, one of the authors of the Liverpool study, said,

“The effect on the brain is a bit like a magic trick; we know what the trick means but not how it happened. Instead of being confused by this in a negative sense, the brain is positively excited. The brain signature is relatively uneventful when we (easily) understand the meaning of a word (or sentence) but when the word (or sentence is unusual) brain readings suddenly peak. The brain is then forced to retrace its thinking process in order to understand what it is supposed to make of it.”

Look at Abraham Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address. “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” This, as you may know already, uses three devices: Anaphora (repetition at the beginning of the sentence), Asyndeton (lack of conjunctions), and Tricolon (sets of three). But it’s not grammatically correct. The ‘correct’ version would be, ‘We cannot dedicate, consecrate or hallow this ground.’ Any English major could tell you that. And technically, they’d be correct. But would those words have stood out from the millions of others written over the years? Probably not. Because Lincoln stretched the rules, those words have become some of the most well-recognized words in the English language.

You have the ability to do that, too. Okay, so your next 2NR probably isn’t going to go down in history as the most quoted speech of all time. But you have the capability to make your words powerful: to impact an audience; to persuade them. Don’t underestimate the power of language.

%d bloggers like this: