Words and what they mean

shep quote copy

Shep quoting Lao Tsu and Sartre

It is an interesting hypothesis that once all humans spoke the same language.  Or that at least all languages derived from one prehistoric mother tongue.

Noam Chomsky’s theory is that language is so unique to humans that it must have arisen suddenly as the result of a single chance mutation occurred in one individual on the order of 100,000 years ago, instantaneously installing the language faculty.  Nice idea but I’m sure it is wrong.  It is not impossible that some individuals were ahead of the game in inventing language (as Leonardo was with submarines and helicopters) but there’s a lot of truth in the phrase ‘an idea whose time has come’.   Noam Chomsky I feel overlooked a fundamental fact about human nature and we haven’t really changed that much in the last hundred thousand years which after all is a mere blink of the eye in evolutionary terms.   I’m sure that if one evening round the fire an individual had suddenly announced ‘Hey listen up people I’ve invented this amazing thing called spoken language’ covert glances would have been exchanged, temples touched and he or she would have found themselves the recipient of the Palaeolithic  equivalent of care in the community.

Language emerged so far back in human prehistory that the relevant developments have left no direct historical traces but I tend to think it probably evolved in response to changes in our social structures.  Writing arose from symbols and I suspect language arose from signs and sounds in some way.  Plato believed that language developed out of sheer practical necessity and like a lot of his ideas it has some merit!  The theory I like best is what is called the lying hypothesis.  E. H. Sturtevant argued that, since all real intentions or emotions get involuntarily expressed by gesture, look or sound, voluntary communication must have been invented for the purpose of lying or deceiving.  He proposed that the need to deceive and lie–to use language in contrast to reality for selfish ends– was the social prompting that got language started.  It also very neatly explains why human communication is so fundamentally different from that of other species.  Bees don’t tend to lie about where the pollen is then piss themselves laughing as half the hive shoots of in the wrong direction.

Our language centre sits in the left hemisphere of the brain, the one that categorises and orders and language also creates false separations and objectifications through its symbolizing power.   Modern languages, for example, employ the word “mind” to describe a thing dwelling independently in our bodies, as compared with the Sanskrit word, which means “working within,” involving an active embrace of sensation, perception, and cognition.  Words and the way we use them subtly shape our entire way of life, including the way we think.   The language we speak limits us to the modes of perception already inherent in that language.  The fact that language is only form and yet moulds everything goes to the core of what ideology is.  The use of words to shift perceptions, to induce a change of attitude has been exploited by politicians and advertisers probably since the Neolithic because it works on our dependence on language.  Once the door to language opened it became impossible to imagine what we were like without it.

I come back to the subject of chaos thinking and the fundamental difference between knowledge by description not knowledge by acquaintance.  The former is a function of our left brain, knowledge that is mediated, inferential and categorised, the latter a function of direct unmediated experience of the world.  This direct unmediated knowledge is an important part of our ability to question and to innovate both as individuals and as a species.

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