In the Beginning, There was the Word

The concept of human language is fascinating to me.  How is it that the sounds constituting Japanese and English and Arabic are so remarkably different, for example? And, quite apart from the differences in spoken words, how and why did written expressions of vocalized sounds diverge so radically that we have Japanese hiragana and Arabic abjad and the Cyrillic alphabet and the Roman alphabet…and on and on?

More intriguing still is the question of when human language emerged.  Did human language emerge as a single language and then diverge into the languages we recognize today?  Or did each language that today has such different sounds and written expressions arise independently?

To explore some of my questions, I looked for published material about the origins of language.  I found one especially intriguing, a simple piece published by the Linguistic Society of America.  It is a pamphlet entitled How did language begin Without claiming to have the answers to the questions it poses, it offers some rather simplistic, but probably solid, ideas, including:

We do know that something important happened in the human line between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago: This is when we start to find cultural artifacts such as art and ritual objects, evidence of what we would call civilization. What changed in the species at that point? Did they just get smarter (even if their brains didn’t suddenly get larger)? Did they develop language all of a sudden? Did they become smarter because of the intellectual advantages that language affords (such as the ability to maintain an oral history over generations)? If this is when they developed language, were they changing from no language to modern language, or perhaps from ‘protolanguage’ to modern language? And if the latter, when did ‘protolanguage’ emerge? Did our cousins the Neanderthals speak a protolanguage? At the moment, we don’t know.

Aha. That last statement sums it up: “At the moment, we don’t know.” That acknowledgement of ignorance is one element of the study of language that makes it so appealing.  We don’t know.  Can we know?  Do we now, or can we ever, have enough information to permit us to say with relative certainty how language emerged?  I don’t think we will.  Never.  But the quest for knowledge about questions without answers is thrilling, exciting, and utterly quixotic.  So why pursue answers to questions for which there may be none?  Because maybe people like me are wrong.  Maybe “never” is the wrong answer to the question of when we will find the answers.

I have the inquisitiveness of a child about such things, but I lack the discipline required to pursue them to their conclusion. I flit about, briefly, with deep and meaningful questions but then zip off haphazardly to something I find equally as intriguing.  It’s not that I lose interest, it’s that I do not seem to have the ability to remain focused. I suppose part of it is boredom with the lack of a constant influx of new information; gathering and processing knowledge requires work, which in my frame of mind as I gad about in the world of superfluous information, translates into boredom!

Now that I’ve successfully diverged from the focus of what I began to write about and, instead, made this post about my failure to adequately pursue my interests, I’ll return to the matters at hand.

As I skimmed online articles about language and its evolution, I kept running into names I know from other forays into topics which interest me but about which I know little: Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Carol Chomsky, Bruce Hayes, and others. What I find most interesting is that I’ve stumbled onto some of these people while exploring other topics unrelated to language.  Steven Pinker, for example, came up while I was engaging in an email conversation/debate with some guys about violence and the extent to which comments about, or exhortations to, violence are or are not truly violence.

At any rate, while I was exploring this stuff, I came across information about the January 8-15, 2015 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, which will be held in Portland, Oregon.  If I’d known about it much earlier, I might have actually made plans to crash the event, which (according to the LSA website) will have more than one hundred presentations on various aspects of linguistics in sixty sessions.  And when I found that a number of related organizations (e.g., American Dialect Society, the American Name Society, the Society for Pidgin and Creole Languages, and The Association for Linguistic Evidence, among others) are meeting concurrently, I kicked myself repeatedly for failing to keep abreast of such things so I could be an unwelcome participant.  While it appears the majority of presentations will address linguistic matters related to languages other than English, I suspect I could have enjoyed listening even to the programs that are far above my head (i.e., damn near every one of them).

I continue to lobby for radical advances in the acquisition of knowledge so that people like me, who are either too lazy or too old (or both) to acquire knowledge of interest can obtain it, nonetheless, by more palatable means than time and study.  My position is that work should be done to understand in great depth the changes in the brain that occur when someone learns specific information. For example, how is the brain of someone who speaks Japanese different from the brain of someone who does not?  With that knowledge in hand, scientists could develop chemical and/or electrical means of modifying the non-speaker’s brain so that those aspects of the brain that control language mirror those of the speaker. Then, voilà! The non-Japanese speaker becomes a Japanese speaker! If I could learn Japanese and quantum physics and mechanical engineering simply by going in for a day-long combination of injections and electro-shock therapy, I’d pay for the privilege.  It always comes back to this.  If humanity lasts long enough, I think just such a process will be not only possible, but practical and popular.  Yes, I most surely do.  And if you are in your right head as you read this, so do you!

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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