The History of Language

School is out in most places, so I will spend the summer posting about background subjects, with or without exercises to go with them.

I’ll write for a while about where language comes from, and more specifically, where English comes from.

On a recent trip to the Dordogne region of France, a group of us rented a house directly opposite the Roque St. Christophe, a hulking cliff with deep caves where humans lived 50,000 years ago (all years are approximations, of course).

Near the Roque St. Christophe are the Caves of Lascaux, where remarkably modern looking, abstract paintings of animals can be found on the walls, drawn with coloring and sophisticated perspective which take advantage of the natural contours and colors of the caves. The most recent estimates are that modern humans have been developing for as many as 250,000 years, and perhaps forms of art have existed for much of that time. The  oldest examples of this kind of art date back 32,500 or so years.

The Earth’s Children series of books written by Jean M. Auel, beginning with The Clan of the Cave Bear, depict how people lived in these older-than-ancient times in the area now called Western Asia and Europe. Auel’s botanical, anthropological, and historical research has been commended by scholars. According to her, Neanderthals grunted and gestured, and communicated very well, but the main character in her books is not a Neanderthal, she is a homo sapiens, and has a voicebox which is able to produce far more sounds. The development of specialized speaking organs was necessary in order for language to develop.

The orally transmitted stories and myths of these ancient people are lost to us, and the meanings of their symbolic cave paintings are opaque.  They may also have used sign language. Some of the earliest known cave paintings are the outlines of the human hand, and the hands could have been transmitting meaning through certain signs.

Dr. Holly Pittman of the U. of Pennsylvania opined in a New York Times article (Who Began Writing? Many Theories, Few Answers, April 6, 1999) how writing came about. Writing “arose out of the need to store information and transmit information outside of human memory and over time and over space.”

The Sumerians seem to have “invented” writing around 5,000 years ago. We don’t know exactly where everyone was or what was going on in the 27,000 years between the creation of the oldest cave pictures and the first discovered writing, but archaeologists suggest that there was increasing trade, and more settled communities as mankind mastered agriculture.

It wasn’t until the first discovery of examples of ancient written language that we were able to examine the syntax, vocabulary, morphology, and constant evolution of human language.

Some scholars argue that writing began first as a way of keeping track of financial and economic information. How many cows were traded? What is in the jar? I recall recently seeing that in some illiterate societies, political candidates choose a symbol which appears on the ballot. People vote for the parrot or the camel. We can learn much about how society functioned from this sort of graphical representation of facts, but it wasn’t until writing began communicating more sophisticated ideas that we could understand how their languages were formed.

One interesting (probably unresolvable) query is whether alphabets, and perhaps language, developed independently, or whether one proto-language branched out into different sforms.  The Sumerian, Chinese and Mesoamerican alphabets are so different from one another that many scholars think that they developed independently.

On the dark side of literacy, Dr. Piotr Michalowsky of the U. of Michigan is quoted in the same NYT article as saying, “Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Stalinist Poland, but I say coercion and control were early writing’s first important purpose, a new way to control how people live.” Today, that is still something to think about.  Storytelling, recording sales, and identifying candidates are cooperative activities, while writing can become edicts, instructions, and rules issued by an oppressive elite.

From these fragments of information, I found several key ideas.

First, the human brain was capable of artistic thinking long, long before we became literate. Our babies today show a similar evolution.  Perhaps we should value these separate talents more equally.

Second, some of the most important human activities do not require writing. Religion, politics, art, and music do not require graphic representation or words (though they sometimes use it). It is worth thinking about what the true value of writing is.

Third, it seems that as the human population multiplied and became more settled, in Asia, the Americas, and Europe, trade became necessary, and trade required keeping and alphabets were developed. In other words, a common human activity, trade, became the mother of invention – we invented writing.  Think what we, as the human race, are all engaged in these days which  will require a similar invention, and what will that invention be? Will we be required to enhance our intelligence and our bodies in order to, for example, sail into space? Will humans be divided into those who can manipulate the present technologies and those who cannot, with those who cannot being dominated by their tech-competent overlords? Will we develop a new means of communication as we plumb the capabilities of the human brain?





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