Saturday, October 2, 2010

Keep Talking (part I).

For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals.
Then something happened
which unleashed the power of our imagination:
We learned to talk.
— Stephen Hawking.
I had a fairly long post planned on this subject but Miriam beat me to it, at least as far as the set-up goes, so I'll abridge the parts that she's already covered.

Speech — not just communication, but holistic, symbolic, infinite language — is what sets us apart from the other animals. Not in its own right, but because of the other abilities it gives us. Arguably writing is even more important, as it adds permanence to the list of properties of language and allows ideas to propagate across time as well as between contemporaneous individuals.

What do I mean by these things? Why did I put them in italics to grab your attention? Well, symbolic language means that the shape of the signifiers have no regular relationship to what they signify — the sounds of words have nothing to do with their meaning. We have onomatopœia, of course, but even then the shape of the word is a ritualised imitation, rather than a mimicry. There are also some relationships between words that shed light on their relative meaning, but not between words and their meanings themselves. Holistic means that the language can be adapted to express (in theory) anything at all. If you don't have a word for something, you can describe it in terms of other words, even if you have to use a lot of them. This is what gives human languages their infinite capacity; if you can think about it, and you both speak the same language, you can make someone else think about it.

Permanence is similarly straightforward: if you can write something down, someone can take your ideas in long after you're dead, and you don't have to trust to the Chinese-Whispers gamble of oral tradition. It's kind of amusing that I'm linking back to Miriam's treatment of the same subject, given it's precisely this "shoulders-of-giants" concept that sets humans apart that I'm using.

Part II is coming on Tuesday. I know this post isn't overly long, I'm just not completely satisfied with the second half yet.

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