The Power of Language

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It is estimated that the human population currently boasts anywhere between 5,000 to 7,000 languages, depending on the distinction between language and dialect.

This number is quite impressive, and when you consider ancient, forgotten, and extinct languages, it’s even more interesting. Today we see a proliferation of languages never before experienced, even with the creation of various coding languages that computers and software use to communicate across an infinitely wide range of systems. Human language can express thoughts on an unlimited number of topics (weather, war, space, god, math, the past, the future, fairy tales…) It can be used to convey information, solicit information (ask questions), give commands, and various other functions.

But what makes our language any different than that of chimps who are able to communicate with their gang and inform them that another gang of chimps is nearby, or that there’s a tree nearby full of delicious grub?

Animal communication systems typically have at most a hundred “pre-set” calls that they employ to stay alive in such competitive environments.

Humans, in contrast, have developed more complex systems of conveying and elaborating their information. The question is what happened to humans in the 6 million years or so since the hominid and chimpanzee lines diverged, and when and how did hominid communication begin to have the properties of modern language?

According to modern developments in linguistics and neuroscience, the changes crucial for language were not just in the size of the brain, but in its character, the kinds of tasks it is best suited to do.

Why Can’t Animals Talk Like Us?

There are many theories that aim to understand the evolution of human language and what exactly differentiates us from the multitude of species and allows us to develop extremely complex and detailed systems of language. One such theory is known as the cognitive tradeoff hypothesis was proposed by Japan’s foremost primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa.
Tetsuro postulates that a tradeoff between superior language facility at the expense of memory ability based on social life occurred sometime during human evolution.

In comparison to chimpanzees, who possess far superior short-term memory abilities, human evolution de-emphasized short-term memory for the benefits of an extraordinary language capacity. Matsuzawa claims that this may be one mechanism for increased collaboration and altruism between humans.
Another theory is by the famed American linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky. Human language, says Chomsky, “appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world.” Chomsky argues that language is an innate faculty that is largely genetically encoded in the human genome and hence genetically inherited.

Darwin, whose work on evolution is timeless and still applicable to this day, stated that “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.” This is in stark contrast to the theories of behaviourism that developed over the 20th century and argues that human language is a completely learned product of the interactions between humans and their environment.

How we developed language will be an endless debate that will no doubt rage on for the foreseeable future. Regardless of how we developed the faculties of language, it is important to take into account the worldview of the thousands of languages that are found on earth.
Languages are living things, meaning that their vocabulary can change over time. In addition, various communities within a country develop different dialects based on their environment and culture. For example, one can see the distinct change of language from each generation as culture and language evolve simultaneously.

How do Languages Shape the Way We See Things?

One of the most interesting things about language is how it shapes the worldview of the speaker. There was a recent study focused on an Australian indigenous community that lives in the Cape York Peninsula. The members of the community don’t use the “traditional” word of ‘right’ and ‘left’ but instead use the cardinal directions in their daily interactions. For instance, the way you say ‘hello’ in Kuuk Thaayorre is you say, “Which way are you going?”

The receiver would in turn respond by stating which orientation they were walking; north, west, south, east. Even something as simple as saying “You have an ant on your left leg” would be interpreted as “You have an ant on your south-west leg.”

Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist and social scientist, was studying Hopi, a Native American language spoken in northeastern Arizona, in the 1940s and came to the conclusion that the speakers of Hopi and speakers of English see the world differently because of the differences in their language. For example, Worf sai that because English treats time as being broken up into chunks that can be counted – 30 days, 5 minutes, half an hour – English speakers tend to treat time as s group of objects – seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years – instead of as a smooth unbroken stream. This, he said, makes us think that time can be saved, lost, or wasted. In contrast, the Hopi don’t talk about time in those terms, and so they think about it drastically differently than English speakers. It seems likely that language, thought, and culture form three strands of a braid, with each affecting the others.

Another interesting point is that of gendered nouns. Gender can play a significant role across many languages in cultures. In languages such as German, Italian, and Spanish nouns are gendered. This means that there are masculine and feminine words, rather than neutral terms.

For instance, in the Italian language, the word beer is “Birra” which is a feminine noun. The Italian word for wine is “vino”, which is a masculine noun. Research indicates that the way that native speakers describe these objects depends on the gender of the noun. For example, “vino” may be described as strong and full-bodied, which are more masculine words. “Birra” may be described as “light” and “bubbly”, which are more feminine characteristics.

This also explains why modern research has found that multilingualism can induce a
profound change in the neuroplasticity of the brain. Because learning a new language can be such an immersive task, it helps sharpen the brain’s faculties immensely. Being multilingual can help you make choices faster, disseminate information more efficiently, and understand a vast array of perspectives not available to you before.

Finally, some words of wisdom from the Holy Roman Emperor Charlegmane who said “To have a second language is to have second soul.”

Thanks for reading!

Kareem Abdurazag


Writer | Culture & Humanities Blogger

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