Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Language of Ideas

“For the first time in human history, cultural evolution began to outpace biological evolution as instinct and emotion were counterbalanced by custom and thought.”

The Emergence of Man: The First Men (1973, p. 110)

Language as Idea

Understanding and producing speech is one ability.  No one is yet sure how this ability emerged in our evolution as social animals.  But it is essential to who we are. 

Knowing what is meant by spoken words in episodic context is a separate, further kind of compound talent that takes a lifetime to develop in the refined, sophisticated art of listening for meaning.  Language in itself, as anthropologist Monica Smith points out in Cities: The First 6000 Years (2019), is necessary to pose imaginary constructs about both our history and future.  These make up the symbolic architecture that embodies ideas and the authority those ideas exercise over our thinking.  Stonehenge is a memorial and possible astronomical calendar; China’s eloquent Great Wall is a symbol of empire, while Di Modica’s charging bull sculpture is the ubiquitous symbol of Wall Street.

Language is a necessary precondition for thinking. As anthropologists Sarel Eimerl and Irven DeVore write in The Primates, “Of all the advances made by man, the invention of a spoken language probably did the most to set him apart from every other kinds of animal. We actually think in words and, without them, the great mass of human thought processes could not exist.” (p. 183)

Image (right): An example of early writing, inscribed on a clay tablet 4000 years ago.  This is a letter from a customer to a seller complaining that the copper ingots he purchased were of poor quality.  

Social Capacity

But of course, language is our great social invention, not only a personal and private way of flexing and developing ideas.  Language allowed for intensely personal habitats like homes and publicly symbolic spaces like temples and stadia.  Architecture and interiors—even the simple frame pergola--are always above and beyond functional.  They extend our imaginative world into both past and future.  This imagination of place illuminates who we are, privately and publicly, and realizes our potential through the art of design.  But that design is inspired by words and their exchanges.   

Language and speech began the human social capacity for planning and anticipating, without which no large design or enterprise would have had a chance of being imagined, plotted, or transformed.  The early communal hunt is exemplary.  The ability to manipulate ideas, images, and concepts is at the root of all our thinking—especially in describing things yet to come, but that we wish for and can imagine as real (Disneyland is just one example. So is going to the moon and to Mars).  Language is tied to symbolism – it is spoken symbolism, while the written word can transcend time and space – in the form of shared imagination. 

The endless combinatorial power of words adapts speaking and listening to our infinite human potential for shaping and reshaping the past, present, and future.  And it does so instantly as spoken language, and indefinitely as written record.  The art of speech, in tandem with the invention of fire for technological progress, can be considered the first stronghold of mixed reality, as any sentence can represent both the real and the potential.  As well as posing conjectures as a reality contrary to fact: as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, when Alice muses “When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one.”

Word Wiring

The human brain holds two main speech centers in the left hemisphere: one in the higher-order frontal lobes, the other close to the hearing center.  We are wired to learn language, but only up through the early teens, and not past age 13.  The development of the pharynx is the key structure that made human speech physiologically possible. And brain capacity—750 cubic centimeters, the baby-sized-brain-- appears to be the minimum requirement for the operational center. (The Primates, p. 109)  

While we cannot be sure when human speech actually took hold, we can begin with homo erectus from one to two million years ago as the stage when people could begin to communicate thought, not just emotion.  This goes beyond the emotion-based language of chimps.  Language thus set the bare stage for civilization.  A clue lies in static tool making as a marker of stalled language development for the Neanderthals, who disappeared 30,000 years ago from their last cave stronghold around Gibraltar.  Another clue comes from half a million years ago, when campsites became the meeting places that eventually extended to villages, towns, and cities.  Group life demanded coordination of ideas, not just action.  It was not until 6000 ago that full cities appeared, and now most of us live in them. 

The Idea Marketplace

The diversity inherent in urban life, as a site embracing multiple human groups, also engendered the art of trade—people, artifacts, ideas, and events—that makes every city a multi-layered experience, a port that draws in the region and the world.  The layered and combinatorial talents of language are indispensable to networking this much coordination and exchange within a single place.  Sumer was the birthplace of written language at the same time it became the home of the first larger cities. The reason is simple: the ancient world ran on trade, as does civilization as we know it, and Sumerians were well positioned as a trade hub with literacy and architecture.

The gift of language provides a magnificently efficient and versatile system of communication.  Its coded series of sounds conveys thought at least 10 times faster than any other method of signaling possibly can—faster than hand signs, moving pictures, or even other kinds of vocalization.  Language is man’s passport to a totally new level of social organization, the tool that allows him to vary his behavior to meet changing conditions instead of being limited by less flexible action patterns, as other primates are. (The Emergence of Man, p. 99)

As the first social stage of making imagination real (the first being inside our singular brains), speech allows us to step outside the self to see, name, and express things so that others can grasp them from our viewpoint and use that personal version to nourish and inspire their own thought and imagery. This was the first crossbreeding of ideas.  Ideas are also best implemented when they can be shared.  This mind-melding, knowledge transmitted through the flexible network of word play, is symbolic thinking indispensable to cultural evolution—running through millions on millions of language-based minds over eons. It created a feedback loop with the brain by which we not only communicate with spoken language (at about 120 words per minute) but think in it (along with images) at about 600 wpm as well. In terms of speed and thought trading, it is unequalled and unstoppable.

Increased linguistic competence led to growth and changes in the brain, which in turn led to the growing catalogue of cultural toolbars, concepts, and artifacts.  This process created the oversized brain that has gone on to create ever-larger inventions and devices.  As Terry Eagleton puts it in The Idea of Culture (2000), “What is peculiar about a symbol-making creature is that it is of its nature to transcend itself.” Language is the cognitive heritage that powers every artistic act, including architecture, literature, theater, music, the graphic arts, and beyond. “Human beings move at the conjuncture of the concrete and the universal, body and symbolic medium, but this is not a place where anyone can feel blissfully at home…Language helps to release us from the prison-house of our senses, at the same time as it damagingly abstracts us from them.” (p. 97)