Barking Up the Ancestral Tree

391090_10150475755449595_1079669056_nI’m of the belief that each language has limits on what it can contain. I also believe the language we think in influence our attitude and outlook to some degree. We think about things differently in English than someone speaking French or Aramaic just because of the parameters set by the words we can use. Different definitions, but more- different nuance, subtle differences in connotation more than meaning.

I think every language we lose is another tool we no longer have for studying and understanding this wacky world around us. Math is the language of science and is able to describe many of the wonders of the Universe in definite and concrete terms, but Math can’t convey the wonder. It is not possible to write awestruck existential poetry in the language of quadratic equations.

One thing that makes us Humans stand out as a species is the complexity and sophistication of our linguistic systems. I don’t believe we are alone, but farther ahead. Few would argue that Dolphins and other intelligent animals do not have a language of their own. Audio signals meant to convey ideas, feelings and instruction.

The sounds made by domesticated animals were once considered crude and carrying very little meaning. This notion has recently been overturned, many scientists as well as dog and cat owners will acknowledge there are different meanings for the different sounds they make, although they do convey a good deal more non-verbally.

In the wild, dogs and cats and their immediate relatives do not use barks or meowing as a way to communicate with each other. These are, in fact, rudimentary languages our pets have developed specifically for humans, to be able to converse on a basic with their people.

Our own systems are intricate, refined by several thousand generations of evolution and adaptation. Sometime recently, in the grander perspective, we learned to convert our words into visual symbols, no longer must we draw a bird to conjure the thought of a bird. The written word has been around five to fifteen thousand years, depending who you ask, but again in the big picture it is a splitting of hairs.

The impact of the written word is probably comparable to the impact the first spoken language had on us and our intelligence. The written word seems permanent, and carries great weight. There is still, this late in our own game, a percentage of the population that will believe something true simply because it is written, rather than spoken. If someone took the time to scratch it into a recognizable combination of characters placed in specific order to convey the idea, it had to be true.

Writing is not the only adaptation we have made of our languages, only the most sophisticated and inspired. We have also learned to communicate through a system of raised bumps, for those who cannot see.

COHERERWe have used blinking lights to exchange information, smoke signals, flags held at different angles, electric pulses converted and read as dots and dashes, and indeed even primitive ritual drumming which became akin to a political broadcast for neighboring tribes and approaching enemies.

A selection of beats and rhythmic patterns, and subtle variations applied to each could inform anyone within earshot of our latest achievements or intentions.

I won’t be surprised when the Archeologists or Historians announce proof that the first attempts at mechanical reproduction of rhythm was invented by ‘primitive’ societies such as these, and indeed the very first drum machines were created as an early attempt at the answering machine.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter

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