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Just what is language?

First, what it’s not. In his last book, the late author Tom Wolfe, known for his iconoclastic journalism in works such as The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff, took on language. In The Kingdom of Speech,[1] Wolfe skewered Charles Darwin for plagiarizing the theory of evolution from Alfred Wallace. He also pointed out that Darwin never showed that human language evolved from anything else — birdsongs, mother’s coos, animal grunts, and so on — though he desperately wanted to. No one has credibly argued for an evolutionary origin, since, as well.

Having done in Darwin, Wolfe then trained his sights on Noah Chomsky, who almost single-handedly invented the discipline of linguistics with theories of a “ language organ” somewhere in the brain that picks up on a “universal grammar” enabling us all to learn to speak a particular language. Using sources including a personal interview, he showed that Chomsky himself no longer believed in the ideas that made him famous. The great linguist now admits ignorance as to the evolutionary origin of language.[2]

In fact, Wolfe argues convincingly that language is a cultural artifact, something human beings created quite apart from evolution. And if a product of human culture, then it is a product of mind that we do not share with any other creatures. So, while humans evolved physically like lichens and lemurs and leopards, language is ours alone.[3]

Wolfe posits that the words we use are sounds that encode a memory. In other words, they function like mnemonics, the sayings that help memorize things. He thinks that words are compressed mnemonics, in other words, <yecch!> in some language could actually mean “delicious”. He does not attempt at all to account for the development of hieroglyphics, ideograms, and varieties of alphabets that one reads either right to left or left to right, or down. I find his explanation of the origin of language underwhelming. It just isn’t that simple.

So what is language?

Words are sounds that encode meanings. Written words encode those sounds. Furthermore, different languages use different sounds to convey the same or similar meanings, and they employ different systems of symbols to encode those sounds.

So “word” becomes: Wort, λέξη, mot, слово, စကားလုံး, palabra, 워드, kata, ワード, كلمة, 字… the list is almost endless.[4]Yet each of these symbols “spell out” “word” in their respective languages. And to return to English, “word” is pronounced “ˈwɝd” in phonetic symbols. You know what it sounds like, of course. Why does that sound convey the same notion as Wort, λέξη, mot, слово, စကားလုံး, palabra, 워드, kata, ワード, كلمة, 字… ?

The conventional answer is that people speaking early Germanic languages developed this sound as an artifact of their cultures. You need a sound to denote the individual acts of speaking that make up speech itself. I suppose they could have called it “kata” but they didn’t know any Indonesians at the time.

The more we discuss language (using words, of course), the more elusive the notion is. Everyone has one, so why haven’t humans come up with a way to mash them all together, or successfully create a new language for all, like Esperanto? As Rowan Williams points out, speaking (and by extension, reading and writing) is a good bit stranger than we usually think it is.[5] Besides the odd sounds of every language (ˈwɝd) there is the fact that speaking never really comes to an end: “even when we come to a fixed agreement about some disputed question — a problem in physics, say, or a disputed date in history — that is simply the platform on which more, and more interesting questions can be pursued.” So, there is no end of conversations.

Which brings us to the unlimited potential for questions that our minds possess. Questions arise because language (including mathematics), calls forth insights from what is discussed. Prior to the question is the experience that provokes questions, and the need to describe it. Once some answer is forthcoming, the need for judgment arise: is it in fact so? Language is the carrier of this quest for meaning. It enables intelligence to function by creating the means to communicate beyond yourself what you are experiencing and trying to make sense of.

And language is never perfect. Each one has strengths that are peculiar to it. English is enormously flexible, able to swallow words from other languages with barely a ripple. History forced a Germanic language with grammar as complex as modern Icelandic to strip to essentials and integrate a lot of French (some 50% of English words originated from French), as well as many other languages. German is incredibly synthetic, being able to string words together like beads on a string to make new words. Mandarin has no grammar a Westerner would recognize. Russian does very well without a verb “to have”. French can be very precise, so much so that treaties were routinely written in it as the official copy, even if the parties had nothing to do with France. And so on…

Each language is in essence a way of conceiving and describing reality. None can do so perfectly. Each one is always an open-ended work in progress, as its mother culture evolves and people use it creatively.

And languages die out, too. I always think it must be incredibly sad to know you are the last person on earth to speak your mother tongue. And when the last one dies, an entire, unique way of describing human reality in this universe dies too. No one will ever think quite like that ever again… Worth mourning and lamenting.[6]

[This story and another story, “Just the facts, Ms. AI”, are excerpts from my unpublished book, Set You Free: Know Your Own Mind. Write me for more information…]

[1] New York: Random House, 2016.

[2] See here.

[3] Some argue that Neanderthals had real speech too, however this will forever remain a conjecture.

[4] German, Greek, French, Russian, Burmese, Spanish, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, Arabic, Mandarin translations of “word”. Google Translate, of course.

[5] Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. ix.

[6] See for example this story.

Written by

Bishop in charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, 2001–2019. French-American. Musician, composer, author, happily married.

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