It's another of those coincidence things again. They keep happening to me. It must be a coincidence! Anyway, this one is the infinitely tricky subject of language, an attribute we take for granted because it appears to have been granted to us as of right, which has cropped up in two very different books I have just aquired. The first book, The Information by James Gleick, proposes that everything in the universe is 'information' in various discrete forms and Gleick investigates the various means by which 'information' is passed between humans. He begins with primitive language including perhaps the most primitive of them all - African drums! In so far as I have ever thought about it I always assumed they were generalised signals of feast-making or war-making or some such. But Gleick tells us that they were language, a highly stylised one but capable of transmitting simple but fairly detailed information. It was not until the mid-19th century that white men gradually realised that the drums were 'talking' - possibly about them!
Daniel C. Dennett in his book Intuition Pumps And Other Tools For Thinking, approaches language from a slightly different angle. As a philosopher he deplores (whilst recognising its utility) the way in which mathematics has impinged on philosophy. He prefers a return to plain, straighforward language - well, as straightforward as language can ever be! His opening reflections made me ponder, not so much on contemporary philosophical language but how and why the ability to speak and then to write evolved. I think we need to beware because so many of the things that evolution has wrought seem obvious, almost pre-destined - now - but it should never be taken for granted, as the last survivors of the zillion species which tried existence but failed would tell you if they were still around!
Most higher level creatures (and, no, I'm not going to define that because I'm not a philosopher!) have the means to communicate with each other, mostly through 'body language' or through whatever 'sound system' they have developed. They can indicate, for example, flight or fight or another word beginning with 'f' but it is signalling rather than language. For language it is, or was, necessary to take a truly giant leap. The signalling I referred to above merely indicates what I might call 'a mood' but to use language requires a being to think, and to think requires (I think) self-consciousness. It is necessary to recognise yourself as an entity and that will cause you to recognise other things about you as entities. Well, we're all aware of the difficulties and complexities that still surround the notion of self-consciousness, and once I have finished Gleick's book I look forward to reading what Dennett has to say on the subject.
However, I would add that whilst self-consciousness is one thing, having the physical ability to emit a variety of sounds is equally important. What a bummer to be a creature that has become self-aware but who lacks the vocal ability to form a variety of sounds that could be joined together to form something coherent and meaningful! (Perhaps that was Cro-Magnon man's problem but at least he didn't have to put up with his nagging wife as he waited for his species to die off!) So which came first, the vocal chords or the self-awareness and the desire to speak?
Anyway, gradually a cacophony of clicks, grunts, snuffles and squeaks gradually evolved into a language more or less as we understand it today. Truly miraculous! There then ensued thousands of years of human life in which communication was only ever verbal. As Gleick reminds us, it is almost impossible to imagine a world, one which existed for thousands of years, in which there was no writing. And lack of literacy, of course, entails lack of definition because, as we all know, 'word of mouth' is not to be relied on! In a non-literate world, Humpty-Dumpty rules because words 'mean' whatever the speaker chooses for them to mean. Well, the non-literate world was never going to last forever and eventually some 'trouble-maker' picked up a bit of soft clay and started making marks on it with a bit of sharpened reed and, hey-ho, writing was invented. Of course, many (most?) written words are not fixed forever in their exact meaning even when they're chiselled on stone but they are certainly more definitive that verbal communication. Once literacy arrived memory suffered and again Gleick reminds us, Plato bemoaned this fact in Phaedrus:
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixer not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.
Much of the uncertainty in written language stemmed from the fact that no-one laid down 'rules and regulations' to cover meaning, spelling, syntax and so forth. In English, Gleick tells us, it was not until 1604 that a village school-master and priest produced a book with the less than punchy title of: A Table Alphabeticall, conveying and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes. His name was Robert Cawdrey and, alas and alack, both he and his truly monumental work faded into obscurity and today only one example remains. In compiling his Table Alphabetical, Cawdrey discovered, the hard way, that in his age the act of defining words means choosing, first the spelling and then the meaning. The difficulties involved are demonstrated in Cawdrey's own title page in which he first writes wordes and then in a later sentence words!
At this point I feel the approach of a Shakesperean quote which constant repetition on this blog has rendered hackneyed so I will avoid temptation and bring this meandering post to an end. Needless to say, like most of the posts on this blog, it ends with absolutely no conclusion except, that is, to say that the history of language is a fascinating topic well worth investigating.