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As humans evolved so did our ability to speak, but how and when language began remains a mystery. Linguists who study the nature of language see patterns in related language families— some expanded while others died out. Although languages were never fixed, several universal aspects of their use allowed our ancestors to express ideas about invisible spirits and gods; to formulate rules; to plan ahead; and, when plans failed, to talk things over.
Language became universal among humans because the advantages of its use were so great that only those who learned to use it survived. How and when human language began remains unknown. Changes in the shape of our throats and voice box were necessary before the full range of sounds used in human languages could be voiced, and only bones survive from when those changes in our soft tissues occurred. New connections in human brains were also necessary, for children’s brains are genetically ready-wired to learn a language, as anyone who has watched a small child effortlessly learn to speak will realize; but that aptitude disappears among older persons, who use entirely different brain cells when trying to learn a second language.
If we ask what advantages the use of language brought to our ancestors, the first and most obvious answer is that resort to words permitted larger numbers of persons to cooperate more predictably and efficiently than ever before. That in turn made larger bands of hunters and gatherers able to defend their hunting grounds more effectively than any and all neighbors who had not mastered speech, so soon only those who talked survived.
But languages were never fixed. Always they conveyed an unstable pattern of meanings to humans through shifting sounds uttered according to grammatical order. Multiple, mutually unintelligible languages presumably took shape very quickly among different groups, and never stopped changing. The process continues today: some languages expand, others die out, and all of them alter, partly deliberately by the invention of new words for new things, or by borrowing from another language. But often, too, unconsciously, grammar, accents, and intonation alter among local speakers and sometimes accumulate locally until, with sufficient isolation, a local dialect turns into a new and different language.
Linguists study the nature of language and how it evolved. They have discerned families of related languages that spread widely in times past and are now used by millions of speakers. But thousands of other languages exist even today, some only spoken by a few hundred persons and likely to disappear entirely as contacts with the outside world multiply, and compel these small groups to deal with outsiders in a language other than their own.
Talking about Spirits and Gods
But amidst all the changes, some aspects of language remained worldwide, and they are worth noting. One of the most fundamental was the way our ancestors used language to expand the human experience to include a world of invisible spirits whose power was such that managing relations with spirits (later with gods) became a critical growing point for human society as a whole.
The initial notion of an invisible spirit almost certainly derived from noticing human breath and observing the fact that when breath stopped death ensued. Though invisible, breath obviously mattered. It kept us alive, allowed us to move, talk, and think, and was our “spirit.” Wondering about how breath could do so much, coming in and out of our bodies unseen for a lifetime and then departing, suggested that other important aspects of human experience, especially dreams, trance, fevers, and illnesses, might result when our breath or some other invisible spirit—either friendly or hostile—invaded or departed from our bodies. From this understanding it was easy to assume that everything that moved—especially animals, air, water, and storms, together with sun, moon, planets, and stars—did so because spirits visited them too. It seemed, in short, that the whole world was also inhabited by invisible spirits, interacting with one another and with all the different bodies they chose to inhabit or abandon. It followed that all human hopes and fears depended on how the world of spirits behaved by either helping or hindering us at every turn.
This worldview took shape very early; perhaps soon after language itself came on stream. When human hunters spread around the inhabited Earth, beginning about 40,000 years ago, they carried these ideas with them. Moreover, most or all hunting bands relied on experts for dealing with the spirits. They became the first specialists, since assuring good relations with the spirits through rituals, prayers and offerings was obviously necessary to assure success for every human undertaking. Modern anthropologists call this world view “animism,” and it still lurks in our speech when we speak of “inspiration.”
When writing was invented, language and religion attained still stronger, and more lasting, hold on human minds. Prophets, teachers and law givers, by writing their messages down, created texts that were believed to be directly inspired by God, or so wise and persuasive that later generations ought reverently to obey them. But later religions and most philosophies preserved a central idea of powerful invisible spirits (and later of a single omnipotent God) who demanded obedience and punished those who disobeyed.
Religious ideas were critical for the elaboration of early civilizations, for after agricultural villages supplanted hunting and gathering in a few unusually fertile regions, what persuaded ordinary farmers to part with a portion of their harvest was the harsh reality that they needed protection against natural disasters and human raiders. In the land of Sumer (modern Iraq), where the first cities arose, priests who specialized in serving invisible gods argued that to assure a god’s presence and good will it was necessary to build a magnificent temple, complete with a cult statue to live in, and to then persuade the god stay by giving him or her daily offerings of food, music, incense, and dance. Only when richly and reverently attended could the god be counted on to grant the priests prayers on behalf of the population at large.
Splendid and rare furnishings for larger and larger temples were needed to attract and retain a suitably powerful divine resident in each city, so priests collected a large share of the harvests to pay for rarities from afar as well as for their own upkeep. This was a recipe for resorting to long-distance trade employing donkey caravans overland and ships along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Before long the temples of Sumer, like spiders at the center of their webs, consumed indefinite quantities of precious imported goods and used extra grain to feed large numbers of spinners and weavers, who manufactured woolen cloth for export to distant places in exchange.
A new scale of human communication and interaction ensued, tending to expand the reach of cities and of other city-based specialists—artisans, merchants, and warriors—across hundreds of miles. Other early civilizations also accorded a leading role to priests who served different gods, with rituals and theologies as diverse as the languages they spoke. But over and over again, when cities and temples became conspicuously wealthy, armed raiders from marginal lands tried to seize that wealth. Military leaders thereupon organized armies to protect everyone from raids, and eventually professional warriors overshadowed priests as the rulers of civilized peoples. Yet religious ideas and leaders always remained powerful; and belief in the power of an invisible God who controls human affairs remains profoundly influential today in monotheistic societies.
Regulating Behavior / Planning Ahead
A second and no less significant effect of language among our ancestors was to regulate everyday behavior by putting what everyone should do in all ordinary situations into words. When such rules survived the test of time, they became customary; obedience became almost universal, easing personal decisions and making interpersonal encounters more nearly predictable. Above all, cooperation became more efficient when customary codes of conduct, learned in childhood, minimized frictions, stabilized human life (insofar as that was ever possible), and guaranteed continuity generation after generation in most circumstances.
But continuity never banished change, for language also had a contrary effect of provoking new behavior whenever human expectations were disappointed. We can be sure that disappointments arose long before language developed among our ancestors; and humans and proto-humans had always been more apt to change their behavior than less intelligent species. But when language made use of tenses—was, is, will be—and other devices to describe the stream of time, the range of human consciousness widened enormously—so much so that we really cannot know what it was like to live in a sensory present without words connecting what our senses apprehend each moment with past and future happenings. Animals live that way, and most certainly do have memories; but they may not be able to conceive of the future as we do with its uncertainties, risks and, rewards.
It seems sure, however, that when time distinctions took hold of human consciousness two things happened. First of all, it became possible to plan ahead, and by talking together in advance to agree on what each person should do to ensure success in the hunt, or whatever other task they set out to accomplish. Smoother and more precise cooperation must have resulted, together with more frequent success. This was, in all probability, by far the greatest advantage language initially brought to our ancestors.
But success was never total and when plans failed, people were almost compelled to ask, “Why”? And by talking things over they might agree to do something different next time. Prayer to appease angry spirits, especially those of game animals, may have been the most common remedy they could think of. That would seldom make any difference, though sometimes might make individuals braver or more vigorous in pursuit of a kill. But occasionally different tactics, different tools, or some other innovation brought success more dependably, and in such cases one can be sure the new ways quickly became the norm and spread among neighbors whenever imitation was feasible.
The fact that about 40,000 years ago, styles of shaping stone tools began to change in Europe far more quickly than before perhaps signals the effect of language on tool making. At any rate, it is the earliest known example of accelerating technological change which became obvious and swifter in subsequent ages and has recently increased our impact on other forms of life, and on the whole ecosystem, in ways that may not be sustainable much longer.
Yet language may also allow us to talk things over as before and alter our behavior soon enough to survive by minimizing disastrous effects of the recent pollution of our ecosystem. That is an optimistic view, for we can also imagine the possibility of life-destroying catastrophe—atomic warheads, global crop failure, or lethal disease—that might end our career on Earth with a bang or, alternatively, with a whimper.
Either way, our future, like our past, will be shaped through the use of language, thanks to actions inspired by words used to create agreed-upon meanings among us.
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- Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. (2001). Genes, peoples, and languages. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Deutscher, G. (2006). The unfolding of language: An evolutionary tour of mankind’s greatest invention. New York: Holt Paperbacks.
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