Apr 30, 2013

Babel and All That: What Is Language, Why We Speak Different Languages, and How Did Language Begin

written by Keith Blasing

Part 1: What Is Language?

It is not uncommon to encounter the notion that historical or technological progress will render the translation of languages obsolete (link to entry on Larry Summers’ NY Times article). As translators, we like to keep tabs on such theories, because if they are true then we will be out of a job. But in reality, language is such an intricate, complex, and inscrutable thing that anyone who thinks about it seriously can’t help but conclude that the profession of translator is safe for the foreseeable future. We do not even really know how language works and how we as a species came to have it. We have a reasonable facsimile of the “before” picture: chimps and other primates with relatively simple gestures and vocalizations that communicate some basic emotions and information about their immediate environment. And we have the “after” picture: humans, even tribes that have spent tens of thousands of years isolated from outsiders, that all have complicated, syntactic, symbolic speech systems. What we do not have a clear picture of is how we got from “before” to “after.”

To begin discussing the origins of language in humans, we need a consistent definition of what language is, and even this is not a simple matter. Primates, birds, dolphins, whales, and other animals use gestures and/or vocalizations to communicate emotions and information; does this mean they are using a language? What differentiates the human communication system called “language” from animal forms of communication that serve some of the same purposes? Linguists have lots of answers to this question. For Noam Chomsky, the answer is that human language is recursive, meaning that we can take syntactic units and embed them in other syntactic units in an infinite number of ways.  “My dog has fleas” plus “My dog’s name is Rover” becomes “My dog, whose name is Rover, has fleas,” and so on. Dolphins don’t do that, as far as we can detect. Human language can do it in the extreme.

Another feature of human language that differentiates it from communication in animal populations, and in my opinion the most salient one, is displacement – the capability of language to refer to things that are not real or present. Jane Goodall noted that chimpanzees find it very difficult to reproduce any of their usual vocalizations in the absence of the emotional state that the vocalization is meant to convey. Primate communication is very much reliant on the present state of things and even on the physical or emotional state of the “speaker.” Human language can be displaced from actual current happenings, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. We can talk and write about things in the past and the future, discuss matters that are entirely hypothetical or imaginary, and, crucially for those who ponder how and why human language might have originated, we can tell lies very easily.

What does the ability to tell lies have to do with pondering the origin of language?  Now that we have language, we can easily see how many benefits such an invention has. But, thinking about it from the other end, the inherent possibility of deceit using language would seem to give it pretty long odds of ever developing in the first place. The amount of trust necessary for Homo sapiens to take the language plunge – to agree that the potential benefit from this tool would outweigh the possibility of deceit – is not a common thing at all in primate populations. The fact that such trust is required for language to originate has shaped a good deal of the speculation about how that process began and progressed.  In Part 2 of this series we’ll look at how this and other ideas have shaped speculation about the origin of human language.

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