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

Cop Dog

I’ve had so much coffee I’m at the point where I feel like a complete raving homicidal maniac. I’m glad to have found my peace.

spotteddogFezby is in the corner, arguing with the dog. “See this cigarette? Dog! This proves my evolutionary superiority over you! Got it?”

Of course, the dog isn’t paying him any attention, but staring off into a gray memory of the good old days as a cop dog, sniffing out these ugly humans.

“Not only can we produce fire, we can inhale it!” Fezby takes a long drawn drag from this cigarette, and lets it pour back out over the dog’s head.

Of course, the dog outlives Fezby by several years, and makes a better tennis partner than that old crust could ever be.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter

Let Lying Dogs Sleep

Today’s Writing Group exercise: Your dog wakes you from sleep in the middle of the night, barking at the front door, at someone or something outside. What do you find when you investigate?

roxyYou do not know my dog very well. If she is barking at night, it means there might be a rabbit in the yard. Granted, it always seems to be the same rabbit, and yes it does seem to be taunting the dog. The rabbit will sit in the yard, perfectly still, seeming to stare at the dog through its sideways glance. Plus, I have never before seen a rabbit that can smirk.

Fireworks and rainstorms also freak her out– luckily the fireworks are limited to certain holidays, sporting events, general elections, visits from the Easter Bunny, tooth faerie or Santa Klaus, a kids good report card, a family celebration or event or commemoration or dinner together, an especially good rerun of the Simpsons on TV, or just to break up the general monotony of people being able to sleep at night.

And the storm has to be pretty severe, or at least highlighted with thunder or lightening, or be a heavy noisy splattering of water on the roof, or sometimes a light drizzle will do it, or if the weatherman might accidentally say the word ‘rain‘, or if someone down the block happens to be running a bath.

If it were to be, when  I opened the door and saw a person standing there, staring in, it would probably shake me out of my shoes. But, the dog, I don’t think would be afraid or get nervous, not if there was any slim chance of this stranger scratching her belly, or offering her a bit of food.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter