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Volume 3 Number 2, 2003


If (as the Greek states in the Cratilo)
the name is the archetype of the thing,
in the letters of rose it is the rose
and all the Nile is in the word Nile ...

From “ The Golem”
by Jorge L. Borges (Argentine writer 1899 – 1986)

Invariably when we read a book about clinical therapeutics, it never mentions the role of language, which paradoxically is the oldest and still one of the most useful means of healing, reminding us that usually physicians know very little about the real dimensions of language. Language is much more than a way of communicating, it is a real organ, the language-organ, the one that most characterizes our specie. This organ is not described in books of anatomy because it is invisible. As a matter of fact, language is based in a material substratum: the neuronal nets, however its own structure is essentially immaterial.
As an organ, language has particular characteristics: it is in the society before our appearance in life, it is mastered years after birth and with the help of another human being, it is shared with society during the whole life, and finally it persists beyond our existence. In fact, language does not belong to anybody, but it has been given to us on loan. Language reminds us that we are linked in a single organism.
Anatomically the language-organ is composed of a network of “cells” called words, each word is a double sign composed simultaneously by an acoustic mental image called the “signifying”, and a mental concept called the “ signified ”. Both components are mentally linked by arbitrary laws which make the correlation between sounds and meanings in any language. Word, as any cell, has subcomponents since each signifying is composed of a sequence of sounds or phonems, and each signified is composed of a group of mental concepts or semas, for instance: the word “ tree” is composed by the phonems “ t-r-ee”, and the semas “ living-thing, not animal, with branches, etc”. On the other hand, the over-structure of each word is represented by its connections with other words of similar or related meaning, in a process known as connotation.
Physiologically, two processes ensure that words are mentally linked all the time: analogy and agglutination. The former indicates the relationship among related words ( in their sound or in their meaning), and the latter implies the mixture of phonems in order to create new words. Not by chance, these processes play a role in the production of poetry, dreams, and even in the evolution of languages throughout the centuries, because all of them are part of the phenomenon of language, and they are ruled by the same laws.
This language-organ has many functions, such as communication, thinking, etc. but the most important one is to provide its users with a tool to explore the world, because, since people (thank to their language-organs) are able to name things, they automatically have the capability to operate on these things in order to analyze and even modify the world.
Healing is part of this world, and some words are filled with emotional sense and when we, as physicians, utter words to suffering patients, these words are like medicine through which we are sending them love, hope and compassion by means of the connotation process. The language-organ of the patient receives these words, and it metabolizes them, helping in the healing process.
Words, well-used, are a powerful weapon against disease and a good addition to the classical therapeutic armamentarium.

Carlos G. Musso
Nephrology Department. Hospital Italiano de Buenos Aires-Argentina

1) Saussure Ferdinand. Cours de linguistique générale. Buenos Aires. Editorial Losada: 1999
2) Eco Umberto. La struttura assente. Barcelona: Editorial Lumen;1986
3) Eco Umberto. A theory of semiotics. Barcelona: Editorial Lumen;1995
4) Eco Umberto. Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio. Barcelona: Editorial Lumen; 1990
5) Chiozza Luis. Un lugar para el encuentro entre medicina y psicoanálisis. Buenos Aires: Alianza Editorial;1995
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