Are Words Empty Vessels of Sound?

A zen brush-stroke defines an empty bowl. Using typography, I carefully placed the following words near it: “words: nothing but empty vessels of sound.” You may check the calligraphy and design here: writing.
words: nothing but empty vessels of sound

I must have authored the original design somewhere in 2001. A few hours ago today, in 2008, I received the following email from a complete stranger called Ian. I immediately wrote back to him, and sought his permission to share this email with you. Says Ian:

“Words cannot be empty vessels of sound. Words work fine in written form, yet no sound is heard. Words are not the vessels for sound – Sounds are the vessels of words. Words have an idea behind them. They represent realities that we grasp in our minds as ideas. God made a physical universe that has true reality because He is REALITY and was able to communicate reality to His creation. Reality is lent by Him. He made this creation by WORDS. He communicated the reality by speaking (in infinite power) it into existance. Its reality existed first with Him, and He communicated it with “let there be..”. He gave the gift of words and language to man. We cannot “speak-create”, but we can transmit the ideas behind things by sending and receiving words.”

Hmmm. Here’s a question, Ian, though it’s a little more like a zen-koan: Can the deaf, especially those born with total-hearing impairment, learn to read and write? The answer is a surprising yes. Discover more here: Raising Deaf Kids. You may find something even more fascinating here: Deaf People’s Inner Voice.

The essential point, is that even the deaf create an ‘inner auditory’ sense equivalent, or maybe equal, to what we experience as sound. You may search the web for more case-studies and research into how the deaf learn to read and write, and often so eloquently and with much better grammar and style.

Magic Moment: The word, then, is indeed a sound. Words to me, are vessels of sound. When you learn to read a word, you learn to say it loud to yourself. Soon, the subtle and magic moment arrives when your parent or teacher recommends you read the word ‘silently’ to yourself. The sound then becomes internal. As humans, we impart thought, and soon, abstract thought, to words. For example, the word ‘apple’ makes you think of the tangible fruit. The word ‘innovation’ is a pure and abstract thought. Beyond thought, as humans we impart emotions and moods, and even cultural and other connotations to the words we use. Nevertheless, each word has first to be a sound heard in the mind.

Empty Vessels: Students and participants to my various workshops have almost always asked me why I describe words as “empty vessels”, especially when I earn a part of my livelihood and name as a professional author and editor. I leave that for you to ponder over, but I do hope you find inspiration in the sufi poetry and lyrics sung in this exotic music video. I especially love the sequence with the sufi-whirling:

And inside,
We’re all still wet.
Longing and yearning.

How can I explain how I feel?

5 thoughts on “Are Words Empty Vessels of Sound?”

  1. My comments will be brief: The facts concerning deaf people I think confirm my earlier statement. People who never heard a sound understand words. The fact that they have, perhaps, a kind of sense of sound within is simply a consequence of the overall plan of God’s wiring us for sound as part of His creation of a being capable of speech and communication. Far be it from me to diminish the place of sound in the total picture. The connection between sound and words is part of being human. However, the apparent message of the video (shudder) above, disconnecting meaning from words is sinister indeed. I am not surprised that such a grotesque video would accompany such a lie. Words have meaning – they are the building blocks of truth. Humanity robbed of truth is hopeless and perishing (and ugly).Let me share a poem of my own with you:
    Words – Oh who can tell their power – or gauge their worth?
    Which save the darkest hour – which made the earth.
    Words – The building blocks of truth – the power of God,
    The great ideals of youth – the preacher’s rod.
    Words – The messengers of hope – and promise made,
    The faithful made to cope – foundations laid.
    Words – Reprove, rebuke, exhort, – and lastly bless,
    The power of Satan thwart – give righteousness.

  2. Ian, thanks so much for sharing your poem with us. may I recommend you please assert your copyright over the poem with a copyright notice, and then head over to to choose an appropriate license under which you may freely share your poem with the world.

    thank you also for sharing your point-of-view and taking this discussion forward. As a counter-point, may I share that in Far Eastern mysticism, across all its branches and disciplines, there exists the opposite approach: “Truth cannot be spoken. That which can be spoken cannot be the Truth.”
    Of course, a clear distinction is already established between facts and truth, where truth, usually with a capital ‘T’ refers to an existential and ontological ultimate-reality.

  3. very interesting discussion niyam . after reading the entire discussion above, I want to refer to the following pointers which perhaps are not completely related to what you are talking but yet relevant to the discussion.

    1. Read the following example of sentences which I once found in one of the articles on evolution of language.

    a. John loves that girl.
    b. That girl loves John.
    c. That girl, John loves.

    despite same words being used in all the 3 sentences, they point to different meaning mainly because of the rules laid down by the english language. Slowly and steadily it has started to appear that creation of languages or characters was a futile exercise. I mean what’s the point of these empty vessels of sound when you can’t communicate with each other. A classic example is chinese language, the language has more than 20000 different symbols which are used commonly in their popular culture. At the same time due to vast difference in chinese and other languages of the world, chinese people face major problems everywhere in learning new languages.

    2. Another problem is that the world is obsessed with visual representations & symbols. this brings me to the discussion that we had with niyam during one of our workshops on DTPD where we talked about communion & collective conciousness. I think the biggest blunder we are committing worldwide is to only emphasize upon the importance of written & verbal language. Educational institutions are simply trying to test the memory power of a child which restricts his/her expression w.r.t the laws of a particular language. We are completely ignoring our rest of the senses like hearing, touch, smell and taste. Blessed were the civilizations who lived in a language free world.

    PS: A milkman does not require these vessels of sound to ask for milk from his cows. Nature is trully amazing 🙂

  4. Interesting. Niyam, do ypu have any open-for-all workshops anytime in the near future? I would like to go over a couple of things again. Please let me know.

  5. In Response, Niyam:
    I am forced to take the position that Far Eastern mysticism is wrong – and in this case leads to absolute confusion. If truth cannot be spoken then why even bother entertaining the subject. And if the statement itself is true, then it applies to itself also, and is therefore false. Also, facts may not be distinguished from truth in any essential fashion. Facts are aspects or branches of truth. I insist again that all reality is of God. By definition, God is Sovereign. This means that history unfolds in keeping with His sovereign purpose. He works out all His sovereign purposes in the seemingly random and uncontrolled train of events we call history. History has then rightly been called His Story. So historical facts are an element of truth. Distortion of history is telling something that is contrary to God’s sovereign purpose and so is a lie. Scientific facts also begin in God. The Lord of Creation not only originated and created the physical universe with all its laws, but continues to hold is all together by His Almighty power. All kinds of facts then relate back to God and because of this they are in the fullest sense TRUE.
    I also believe that truth is understood in its fullest sense when we recognize Truth. However, I believe this refers to something far more easily defined and yet infinitely profound. God is Truth. And specifically this was claimed by an historical Person, Jesus Christ. He also claims to be the WORD of God. He is the answer to all the greatest questions of the human race. The ancient Greek philosophers groped after the truth. They looked for a “LOGOS”, an underlying principle of reality. The Gnostics tried to develop a religion based on the idea that emanations from God made the world. They apparently also realized that all the meandering of the great philosophers somehow fell short of a conclusion. Man could not find the answers by speculation and analysis alone. Man needed a revelation, needed to find an oracle to deliver the secret that answered all the great questions. At this point, a decision must be made as to what is to be accepted as genuine revelation. The Gnostics apparently looked back into the ideas and methods of Eastern mysticism.
    They were wrong. But God had a schedule of His own in which He would send the Revelation, ultimately a revelation of Himself, and of the way of life. The Christian Scriptures say that in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, made of a woman. The revelation of God is a Person. The Truth is a Person. John, chapter one says that the true LOGOS (Word) is a Person, and the Person is God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.” His true deity is emphasized in His Creatership. “All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” He was the author of life. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of man.” He made one special being in whom the life was light, man, made in the image of God.
    Yet the ancient Scriptures tell us that man had fallen into a lost and sinful estate. The Word came to bring life once more to those who had fallen under the condemnation of death. This is why the Eternal Word, God’s eternal Son, came to the world by a virgin birth. “The Word was made flesh”. Without the stain of sin Himself, He could pay the price of redemption. He did this when He was crucified, suffering the just for the unjust. He rose again according to the Scriptures, and from heaven today offers eternal life to those who turn from their sin to faith in Jesus Christ.
    Eastern mysticism, however, is fundamentally opposed to the revelation of God and truth and salvation set forth in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. It looks for a revelation from within, where God says there is no good thing. By various exercises and mind numbing practises it opens itself to other kinds of revelations from other spirit sources.
    The most fundamental fact of any human being is his worship life. AS a man worships, so is he. Period. Your God determines who you are. Nobody is a non-worshipper. Your worship life determines who you are and where you will be in the next life.

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