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The difference between beast and man is language, our special gift but also our curse. With language we can communicate things that no other animal can imagine, but it can also convey exactly nothing or stand in the way of communication, and it can even have us forget abilities that otherwise could make life better or easier for us. Language makes us limitless, nothing is impossible for us, neither the greatest heroics nor the vilest crimes. Language makes us spiritual, we are creatures who can leave this world and create another with unknown perspectives of beauty and profoundness, but we can also destroy the physical world we live in utterly and completely.
Homo erectus, living from 1.8 until half a million years ago, very probably had a language, because the skull shows evidence of a language centre, and the larynx apparently was situated deep in their throats, giving them a wider vocal range than other primates. Their culture (Acheulean) was curiously uniform during all this time, but so sophisticated that it is difficult to imagine the recipe for it to be natural, genetical. It is most probably a cultural product, created and maintained with the aid of some kind of language. Even Homo habilis, living from 2.5 until 1.5 million years ago, made tools, e.g. by cutting chips from rocks, and possibly, they used some kind of language to explain how to do it. Even the older australopithecine forms of as far as 10 million years ago walked on their legs, which means that they would use their hands for other things, like carrying things in them. Probably, it was this ability to carry a large number of different objects with them, handling them and exploiting them that created a need to discriminate and identify them with names.
While the tools of Homo erectus remain astonishingly uniform, the species itself develops considerably during more than a million years, and the development of the average brain volume is particularly remarkable, increasing by almost 50% during this interval. Very probably, most of this growth is related to the development of language functions as we know them today and adaption to the changes in life that come with language. The next species to develop is Homo sapiens, that is, us - including Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. In us, the adaptation to language is developed further, we are the most specialized communicators on Earth. As we arrive upon the scene, the cultural development starts accelerating tremendously, and today, its pace seems uncontrollable. Innovation follows innovation; we invented written language, printing, radio, TV, telephones, computers and the internet. All these things give us more opportunities to utilise language, and language is becoming ever more important to us. The last 100 years has seen a huge increase in the impact of language in our daily lives. This may in fact impede our ability for abstract thinking. If you ask average persons on the street today, you will be hard up finding any that don’t claim to use their language for thinking. People like Albert Einstein who used words only for communication will be even further between than before.
The fundament of language is its symbolicness. Unlike other signals in the animal and plant kingdom with a pre-programmed, instinctive connection to their meaning, the meaning of human words are defined through agreement amongst their users. In principle, words can be constructed with no constraints whatsoever, and this is the reason why all languages change with time. In human language there is no inherent connection between the word and its concept. Shakespeare said: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Still, words that are constructed completely at random are exceedingly rare. Usually, when a new concept is named, a word or words with known meaning is used and modified a little. And it is common to use some sense of linguistic good taste as well, you want to find a word that "fits" the concept. Would anyone call a rose "muckyecch" or "uglyflower"? Thus language does not completely follow the principle of symbolic freedom.
And this is because we have also inherited a well developed ability for non-symbolic communication, probably used by our ancestors Australopithecus and Homo habilis before the development of the symbolic language, or perhaps simultaneously while they were developing it. Most compellingly, this is expressed in music. Music is just some kind of comfortable background noise to many people, but if you listen and sense how you actually react to the different stanzas of the music, you can feel that you are receiving a message, usually without interpreting and analysing and classifying it like you always do with a linguistic message. Some musicians and composers are particularly good at conveying such messages in their music, and they can paint sound landscapes and scenes where you may wander in strangeness, because you are wandering back to your own past, to the world of Homo habilis and Australopithecus who lived and communicated by their instincts only, the same world you visit each night in your dreams.
But in principle, words can be used to symbolise whatever you wish. This is of fundamental significance for us humans, because it’s an ability that’s unique for us. Instincts are genetically programmed patterns of behaviour developed to make us able to manage as well as we can in the environment we are born into. If an animal without language encounters a situation that it’s not programmed for, it will have a problem, which it may solve or not with its intelligence. If it finds an object which its insticts don’t tell it a use for, it usually won’t be able to use it or won’t even be interested in using it. Many animals have an intricate instinctive signal language, they can tell each other such things as the direction and the species of a cluster of fruit that’s ripe for picking. But for situations and objects that they don’t understand instinctively they have no signal, or a very limited ability to develop them. For man, there are no such limits. If we encounter situations or objects which we don’t understand, we analyse them and put them in a context using the abilities we developed to cope with language, then we name them in accordance with this analysis, which gives us a tool for handling them.
Language is our most important tool and
weapon and the essence of our identity as lingual beings. It enables
us to cross the borders that our nature sets for us, we can explore
the most crushing depths of the ocean and the emptiness of space,
construct the most sophisticated products and the most sophisticated
tools for making new products, solve the deepest mysteries of
nature and open passages in the corridors of our minds that are
closed to all other animals. But language also enables us to break
laws that nature has given us to protect us. Hence, we can also
kill, steal, lie and harm like no other animals. With our words,
we can talk our conscience into submission and it can also lull instincts that could have enriched our days into
deep, dreamless sleep. Like all other things, language is neither
good or bad, it is only itself, you can use it for whatever you
Some Norwegian translations of English technical words and terms which are hard to find in dictionaries. (I’m grateful for comments and additions.)
An overview of the world’s languages (only Indoeuropean as yet).
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