Puzzling about the LANGUAGE thing

By | March 30, 2010

It seems correct to say that language is a way of acting in the world or a form of intelligent behavior.

“….in the beginning was the WORD, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (from the Gospel of John ).

But can we accept this as an accurate statement of our linguistic genesis?

Countless eons of evolution of life — and later the evolution of the mammalian brain – came long before anything resembling a word.

As the members of the human species evolved to the next phase of their development, they became language-users. At some point in their development, humans found it useful (maybe necessary for survival) to communicate. Certain grunts, yelps, signals, etc. came to signify something: a warning, a request, a threat, etc.

By some remarkable accident this occurred: an individual made certain marks on a stone or a tree, marks which had some significance for others of the group — maybe the reminder of a transaction or the indicator of a remarkable event.


How do we state this ‘language’ business?

1. Humans are beings who happen to use language. Language, thus, happens to be the means by which humans communicate with one another, express themselves, and perform certain actions. It is a way of acting-in-the-world, but not the only way or inevitably the way humans had to go. They could have evolved using another tool or another way.


2. humans are language-using entities. The use of language is an essential part of being human, i.e., essential to human reality. Without language there wouldn’t be any human reality (as we understand the term “human reality”).


Language evolves within a context of language users;
i.e., beings who use language in a variety of ways. At first, the way they communicate among themselves, and express emotion; later with the development of human culture, language-using beings express ideas and develop complex theories, eventually invent mathematics and science.

According to some anthropological accounts, human language probably evolved from oral-visual signals (within a group) to verbal-spoken language, and eventually to written language. At any phase of this development, what we understand by the term “language” only makes sense within a context of language users.

Another way of stating this: Language is possible only because of the existence of a group {tribe (?)} of potential language users. A piece of language (e.g., an utterance, a phrase) has meaning only because a community of language users has given it meaning.

Borrowing from Wittgenstein, we could say that only within a “form of life” is language possible. In general, that “form of life” includes a community of language users, a group of beings (in our world, human beings) who use certain sounds, tokens, marks, signals, etc. to communicate with each other and to express certain feelings and experiences.


….la mentalidad y la cultura

Writing is a form of behavior, similar to talking but different in that writing registers a record that remains, at least for a short time. (Of course, modern electronic and computer technology allow our talk, messages, and records to be digitally recorded.)

What you see here is writing only because a cultural convention has been adopted by a group of persons who share the language. Without a cultural convention, this would be gibberish, mere scribbled marks signifying nothing. Something analogous may be said with regard to the sounds (noise) we make when we talk.

All of this sits on a cultural, genetic structure. Genetic evolution and cultural development have resulted in linguistic reality of language users.

….la mentalidad, the lengua y la mano

The wonder of language: someone makes a series of scribbles on a piece of paper, and somewhere down the line others make a big fuzz over it.

What one thinks can be recorded on some kind of medium accessible by others.

Today we can see what Plato and Aristotle recorded for us 2500 years ago, and read what the writers of the Old and New Testaments recorded for others to read and puzzle over.

Sometimes I am amazed by language, that we can issue certain mutterings and thereby communicate our thoughts, and that we can make certain scribblings (marks) on paper, and thereby express out thoughts. From a biological perspective these things appear close to miraculous. Maybe John of the Fourth Gospel was not entirely wrong.

‘Mutterings and scribblings’, thereby the world is transformed.
(To what degree were we capable of thought before we became language-using creatures?)

Some one or some group must have invented signals and noises that signified something. Such primitive conventions allowed people to learn (determine) what other persons intended or desired. This required identification with a social group, the recognition that one belonged to that group and that members of the group shared much in common, that in a rough way, each member of the group was doing the pretty much the same thing, had similar needs and means of satisfying those needs and that by cooperating and combining work each could better achieve our goals.
It is not likely that we could communicate effectively with a totally alien creature. We would need at least a few things in common, that like ourselves the creature has a consciousness or awareness of things, a perspective on the environment; and the less likely assumption: that we both share an interest in communication.
A word or words do not exist in isolation. The very concept of ‘word’ presupposes the existence of certain types of beings and a certain type of culture, call it a “linguistic culture.”

A word is a piece of language; neither the word nor language can have any reality outside of a culture of language-using beings.

Language exists only as the tool of a language-using culture (cf. L.Wittgenstein’s “form of life.”)

At some point in their evolution humans became language-using creatures, and then these creatures invented gods and other mythical beings. (“the animal creature was the creator”)

With language comes the expression of thought.
Those early ‘mutterings and scribblings’ had more fateful consequences than anyone could have ever imagined.

Other animals have gotten along quite well without language. Why did human beings evolve differently?

“In the beginning was the word . . . ” — John’s Gospel tells us, but surely this is not completely accurate.

Much had to happen and develop before words could appear, i.e., before language was invented. Yet John is not completely erroneous here. Words marked a crucial development, if not a beginning.

“Without words life would have no meaning,” the poet exclaims.
Without words we are mute and dumb!

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