Sunday, 28 February 2010

What are Words Worth? 1.) The origin of language

My own life story gives me many reasons to be fascinated with language. I have scattered, random memories of the first five years of my life before I learned to read, but one of the clearest truest memories I have is the feeling of incredible joy I had on reading my first books – the realisation that there were infinities of worlds waiting for me, and all I had to do to get to them was to open page one. Reading was the first addiction of my life; it has proved to be the most benign and durable.

Other incidents reinforced my interest in language. I spent nearly a decade as a member of a Catholic religious order formally known as the Order of Preachers – among such a group, words and language were always going to be central. I studied philosophy, and no-one who comes into contact with modern philosophy can fail to be confronted with the many thorny and compelling questions which crop up when one starts to think about language. And then, more than half my life ago now, I left Ireland and moved to countries in which I had to learn to communicate and live in languages other than my native one. Lost in translation is more than a description, sometimes it can become a state of being.

Evolutionary psychology is a branch of science where most details are controversial, yet its basic postulate is accepted by most mainstream scientists (I refuse to try to discuss such ways of thinking with creationists – it’s futile); evolution, our adaptation to changing, different circumstances pushed the development of the brains of one particular sub-group of primates in the African savannah so that the phenomenon we describe as human consciousness appeared. Personally, I consider the term consciousness – if often used – too general; I prefer to specify it somewhat more as self-reflective consciousness. That which makes humans different from other animals is not intelligence (which can be greater or lesser), or consciousness (for all animals are conscious), but a capacity for self-awareness; as humans we are aware and are aware of the fact that we are aware. This fundamental awareness leads to the basic bifurcation of our consciousness, the division of that which we perceive into “I” and “not-I”. The next step comes quickly, the realisation that some “not-Is” are also “Is” in their own right and thus have their own awareness of themselves. And all of this could not happen if we were not, concomitantly, developing the capacity, in some sense, to name this.

In the beginning was the Word …

It is my firm belief that language and consciousness are ineluctably bound up with each other. There are all kinds of indications from modern scientific analysis and philosophical consideration that support this.

Fifty-five years have now gone by since the legendary and, amazingly, still cuttingly intellectually active Noam Chomsky produced his theory of transformational grammar, which basically argues that all children have an innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structures common to all human languages. Incredibly, particularly given his propensity for controversy, good alternative models, which completely refute Chomsky’s basic insight (argument over developments, details and consequences are another matter) are very difficult to find. An immediate conclusion which can be drawn from Chomsky’s hypotheses is that the rules of grammar – the basic toolkit we use to combine words to express meaning – are built into our brains at a very deep level. This is an indication that language, words, naming, are part of the basic architecture of the way our minds work. Language and consciousness are Siamese twins sharing the same vital organ – the brain – and if we try to separate them, both will die or, at the very least, become very badly damaged.

Anthropologists tell is that anatomically modern humans emerged around 200,000 years ago in Africa and that there is firm evidence of basic human culture, including language, from about 50,000 years ago. This sub-species succeeded in quickly supplanting other proto-human groups, including the famous Neanderthals. It would seem then that the development of consciousness and language took place some time within this period. The experts argue about almost everything in this time scale but there is one train of thought which seems to me to be useful with regard to the way this happened.

Humans, like almost all primates, are intensely social beings. All primates have complex social structures and complex methods of expressing, communicating, preserving and developing them. One of the main social instruments used by monkeys and apes in this respect is mutual grooming, as anyone who has ever visited a zoo, or had the greater luck to seen them in the wild, will have observed. Who grooms who, in what context, in what way, for how long, etc. are all complex statements, confirmations, blandishments, challenges, realignments of position and status within the group. It is the communicative cement which holds the group together, the interactive lubricant which keeps it working.

Of the primates, humans have the most complex social structures of all yet, although we still find grooming in many – mostly intimate – situations pleasurable, it no longer plays this central role for us. What happened?

When our ancestors left the forests for the savannah, started going upright and developing their cooperative foraging to increase the proportion of animal protein and fat in their diet this had a number of consequences. Brain volume increased. A larger brain was an evolutionary risk – initially it posed as many disadvantages as advantages. Increased intelligence was necessary for this form of life, but such a large brain needed more nutrition and more oxygen. It also needed to be kept at a pretty constant temperature to function well and the general environment and the fact that its possessor had to be able to move fast to nourish itself and avoid danger in the savannah led to an increased danger of overheating. The physiological answer to this was a loss of body-hair (with the obvious exception of the head) and an increased ability to sweat.

This disappearance of hair made the intense and complex grooming practiced by primates more difficult – and more senseless. Grooming is also very time-consuming and works only one-to-one, so that it automatically limits both the size of the group and the possibilities of communicating information beyond a certain degree of complexity. Yet at the same time, the new way of life adapted by the man-apes demanded ever more complex communication within the group. The increased brain volume, with the concomitant increase in intelligence, however, also offered the processing power for an alternative, much more refined form of communication than grooming.

The solution to the problem of communication was the development of language, a much more sophisticated form of communication, which in turn led to a further growth in intelligence and somewhere in this process, slowly, incrementally, true human self-awareness developed. Without self-awareness, no language; without language, no mind.

In the beginning was the word …

(to be continued)


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