Human history changes all the time, like the landscape of a journey. Of course, there are constants and repetitions, seasonal patterns, recurring events, periodical celebrations. Yet every experience is like no other; no moment is the same. Our language tries to capture this mix of sameness and diversity by adapting through and with time, that is, "diachronically", to use a more precise concept introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of linguistics. So, language never sleeps; it is constantly changing.

Linguistic transformations affect both the structure (syntax), meaning (semantics) and available words (lexicon) of a language. I used to correct every split infinitive in my students’ essays because "to boldly go" is incorrect in British English, even if the journey is Star Trek’s. But it is perfectly fine in American English and, nowadays, Oxford students enjoy much more stylistic freedom and no longer have "to go boldly". A long time ago, my secretary at the time finally confessed to me that she did not understand why I insisted on making sure the hotel room would have a radio. I was astonished. But then I realised that she belonged to another generation, for which "wireless" did not mean "internet service" but "radio". It reminded me of the word "computer", which, before Turing, referred to a person who did calculations. Job advertisements for such "computers" were still available in the 1970s. I am glad I never asked my old secretary to buy me a "computer". Goodness knows what she would have thought of me.

Language changes more visibly when we introduce new phrases, slogans or ways of speaking. Philosophy is often remembered in terms of catchphrases: "know yourself", "I think therefore I am", and so forth. Advertisement can be as formidable. I recall explaining to my logic class the crucial importance of using precise and clear language to express any ideas, no matter how wonderful and complex, by relying on Pirelli’s famous slogan "Power is Nothing Without Control". I compared so-called Continental philosophy, often very deep and rich in suggestions yet obscure and confusing in its language, to power without control; and Analytic philosophy, so logical and yet often devoid of interesting or relevant content, to control without power. I told my students to follow Pirelli’s advice: power and control. The picture of Carl Lewis wearing stilettos on the starting blocks brought the concept home as vividly as I could hope.

Sometimes the meanings of words change, but this has little effect in everyday life, if it is a matter of scientific terminology. The concept behind "inertia" is very different before and after Newton or Einstein, but we still use the same word. And no matter what astronomy teaches us, we still say that "the sun rises" in the morning as if it moved around the earth. Things are very different with a cultural revolution, like the digital one. Then the linguistic transformations are felt by everybody. We did not have "apps" in the 1980s, and a "tablet" was a very different thing from what we have in our hands. With it, we can "google" and "zoom", "skype" or "tweet", all verbs that would have made no sense only a few decades ago, when "Amazon" was either a river or a legendary female warrior.

Language does not merely follow our experiences and their intricate journeys; it also shapes them by making it possible to understand them and even design them differently. Because the presence or lack of words and expressions is also a limit in our ways of perceiving differences, conveying exact meanings and creating new realities. Before the invention of the word "utopia", it was less easy to talk about an ideal society, even if philosophers like Plato or Augustine had done so. And it was certainly way more difficult to dismiss a project as merely "utopistic", something that can happen today to the wrong presentation of a future "smart city". As Wittgenstein once wrote, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world".

A Latin phrase states that "nomina sunt consequentia rerum", "words are consequences of facts". True, but the opposite can also be the case. One can plan to watch television for hours non-stop also because Netflix has a category called "Binge-worthy TV Programmes". And there are more significant cases in which we literally do things with words. We establish that something will happen through an oath or a promise. We name newborns through a verbal ceremony. There are countries where you could be sentenced to death for blasphemy. Contracts, wills, game rules, laws and court judgments are all everyday cases of facts being consequences of words. This use of language is called "performative": words do not merely describe the world; they change it. We find it relatively intuitive. And yet, in some cultures, this performative role can go too far. It is the magic use of formulae, believing that if only one can say the right words in the correct order, things will change or happen. "Abracadabra", or "bibbidi-bobbidi- boo", and the pumpkin turns into a coach. Allegedly.

Today, such a transformative role of language is everywhere. It is called code, and it runs the world, as this is increasingly becoming an "infosphere". From tiny "scripts" (small pieces of code) to immense and complicated programs, formal languages indicate what can happen and how to a digital world where we operate like minor gods, who only need to say "fiat lux" to turn on the light, thanks to a digital assistant. Logic, mathematics and statistics help us build our realities, not just describe or interpret them. Today "Sesame, open" could actually be a password. No wonder it all seems rather magic.

We need old words to understand and create new ones. And we need all sorts of words to understand and shape reality. This is why education is mostly about learning how to read and write in the languages of information, from one’s natural language to foreign languages, from the language of music to programming, from the language of architecture to that of chemistry and biology, from mathematics and statistics to the language of history. Languages are the most powerful tools for our minds. The trick with languages is that they muster those who do not master them.

Language needs clarity and the Pirelli slogan is a perfect example Language needs clarity and the Pirelli slogan is a perfect example