Saturday, July 3, 2010

In the Beginning

Chimps, gorillas, orangutans and a few other critters can learn sign language, but, even with the device they are quite limited in their ability to communicate. Maybe they can tell you what they want or what an object is. In terms of having a meaningful conversation about what it feels like to be a chimp, gorilla or orangutan, though, we can forget it. They don’t have the right brain structure for using language with any degree of sophistication.
More than anything else, our human capacity for speaking, because of the structure of our brains, sets us apart from all the other creatures on the planet. The more people talk to each other, striving to understand and to be understood, the more “human” they become. Our humanity improves as relationships grow more harmonious. In Genesis, Adam is the only creature given the capacity to name the animals and thereby have dominion over them. In the beginning was, well, the word.
Other life forms can and do communicate, some with considerable sophistication. Bees, dolphins and even the great apes do creditable jobs of sharing information. But humans are the only beings on earth that can communicate symbolically. That is, we can picture things that are not right before us and discuss them.
For example, I can say or write “Red bicycle leaning against a Christmas tree” and other English speakers and readers get the picture clearly. It is a symbolic utterance and it transfers a clear picture of something that is not really there.
Some may see a Schwinn and others a Huffy. Perhaps one sees a cedar and another an artificial Christmas tree. But, in general, my verbal statement causes others to vicariously experience my mental picture in their minds’ eye. It is the miracle of symbolic image transfer.
Language requires us to create in our minds eye what is spoken or read. One reason movies made from novels are seldom as enjoyable as the original book is that we like participating in the author’s creativity. We half perceive, half create as we read. By their nature, movies have to nail scenes down to a single interpretation, limiting possibilities and stifling imagination. There have been attempts to give multiple views in movies, such as in suspenseful courtroom sagas, but, overall, movies do not require much participation in the creation of imagery.
Further, our desirable participation in the creative process makes for interesting and lively conversation. As two people talk, each systematically reduces uncertainty in the other’s mind, until they see eye to eye. Thus, conversation becomes the basis of real community. Even when we don’t agree, with good language skills, we can at least make the other see our point of view.
What would happen to community if all humans spoke the same tongue? Would one world language help form a more homogeneous global community?
We may know the answer to that question in a few decades. Even today, English is considered to be the worldwide language of business and transportation. Though there are more people speaking Mandarin Chinese on the planet than any other language, I understand that English teachers are very much in demand in China. English has over 600,000 words, thanks to the entire French vocabulary being dumped into our original Germanic tongue after the Norman Conquest of 1066. No other language on the planet comes close to that number of words.

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