Although I don’t usually talk about medieval times, Monday’s posts are called Medieval Mondays, because I like alliteration. In these posts, I look at the history of the English language.
I thought it fitting that I should begin my brand spanking new blog with a bit about the beginning of language and about the tower of Babel.
Before I go on, I feel the need to point out the beautiful alliteration of the above sentence.
Now that you have all basked in the beauty of alliteration…
And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.’ Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (Genesis 11:1-9)
Cool. So, according to the Bible, God mixed up language so we wouldn’t find life too easy. Except Babel doesn’t mean confusion. It means the gate of God: bab means gate and el means God.” Hence, “the gate of god. Balal means confusion.
… So let us look elsewhere for our theories. As romantic as the Tower of Babel is, let’s consider it a metaphor for what really happened.
What really happened then?
Among the earliest theories, we have the bow-wow, the pooh-pooh, the yo-he-ho, the ta-ta and the ding-dong theories. I like these names; they makes no pretences.
The bow-wow theory claims that words began as an imitation of animals. The pooh-pooh theory sees them as exclamations to express emotion. Yo-he-ho is based on effort and energy. In the way that tennis player make a grunting noise when they hit the ball, this theory claims that our ancestors made noise when exerting an effort, and these noises developed into language. The ta-ta theory states that humans made noises which corresponded to, or mimicked, movements and actions. Ding-dong is the idea that everything has a natural vibration which was echoed by man at the beginning of language.
As fun as the names of these theories are, they theories themselves don’t really hold.
If we look at language, instead, in terms of Darwinism, we can watch, to an extent, its development. Non-human animals can communicate. Birds’ songs may be pretty, but they’re territorial messages to other birds, or are communicating danger of some kind. As we move on in evolution, other animals can communicate more. Primates can communicate to each other, telling others where, specifically, food can be found, for example, or that there’s danger. Some have different calls for danger in the form of a leopard and in the form of a snake.
The difference with this and human communication and this is that humans don’t simply communicate for information. In primates communication has evolved as a necessity for survival; in humans it’s for pleasure. We discuss the weather or what we thought of a recent film; we read, we go to a book group to discuss the book.
Like everything the human race does, it is no longer a necessity. We don’t eat because we have to; we eat because we enjoy it, because it’s an art. Language is not something we have because we need it; it may have developed from this, though.
We have developed physically too: we can now make noises and words which our ancestors couldn’t. The human vocal system is incredibly complex: think about your tongue, your throat, your nose, and all the different noises you can make with them. This is the reason we speak the languages we do, and one of the reasons non-human animals can’t.
But the main difference is clearly not in the physical differences, but mental ones. The imaginatively named FOXP2 gene has been pinpointed as the gene which differentiates us from other animals – could it be what allowed a series of grunts to turn into the complicated, beautiful languages we know and love?
Yup. That’s right. I’m leaving you on a question mark.
There are theories you could read until you went blind, but the bottom line is nobody knows.
I think we developed our grunts and snorts into language in the same way we’ve changed our lives to revolve, not around the need for anything, but around luxury and the wish for it.
What do you think?