The purpose of this post is my attempt to describe the insufficiencies of language and to explore better plausible solutions. The development of languages was slow and took thousands of years of biological and social evolution to attain the beginning of what we have today. Our concern with language is not so much about how it evolved but rather how it influences our relationships with other human beings and our natural habitat. We will also explore the attitudes which are shaped by what we hear, say and read. We react to language in a complex manner and in multiple ways simultaneously, namely mental, emotional, and behavioral. We call this semantic reactions. In order to reduce the reflex reactions to words we consider ‘bad,’ it would require our attention for us to understand the speaker first.
“There are no bad words.” — Jacque Fresco
Having reached a time that demands an investigation of all aspects of human affairs, we will be looking at the evolution of language briefly to emphasize how necessity along with biological evolution has brought about more and more effective communication for the events of the time. After this, we will focus on an overview of General Semantics.
Evolution of Language
Evolution of language in humans, which is a taboo subject for some, has been discussed for decades. In the last few years, there have been several proposals of how the ability to speak came about, by comparing humans to other species.
The Evolution of the Vocal Tract
Lieberman noted an unusual difference in the human vocal tract vs other primates. Homo sapiens seem to have their larynx positioned rather low in the throat. This means that in order to avoid choking we have to coordinate breathing and swallowing carefully. Lieberman suggests that this trait in humans is the result of an adaptation to communication. The descent of the larynx over our evolutionary history changed the shape of the vocal tract from one which essentially had the acoustic properties of a straight tube to one where that tube has a bend in the middle. This increases the diversity of vowel sounds produced, which in turn increases the carrying capacity of information carried by the vocal channel.
Fitch and Reby have shown that other mammals actually do lower their larynges during vocalization, and some other species have a permanently lowered larynx in the male of the species (red deer). Here we may ask, what might be the outcome for animals that have complex vocalization?
The lowering of the larynx also increases the total length of the tract. This changes the sound in such a way as to increase the perceived size of the animal making the sound, i.e. this perceived size enhancement may add to the driving force behind the descent of the larynx in species without complex vocalizations. Males that appear to be large may be more successful in competition for mates, or they can be more successful in alerting for predators or intruders (communication.) This might also be the case for Homo sapiens since there is some sexual dimorphism with the male larynx descending a second time around puberty. At some point, this ‘drop in the larynx’ anomaly was what made some fitter to survive their existing environment.
This brief example merely demonstrates the role that other species can play in the understanding of the evolution of language, even if those species do not necessarily possess anything like a capacity for complex communication.
Researchers are not entirely sure of how the first word was established, i.e. a minimum of 2 people agreeing that they will use a sound to represent an object observed through their senses, something existing in the physical world. As Martin H. Levinson, Ph.D. states:
“Strictly speaking, words don’t mean; people do!”
But people do agree that this happened somewhere between one hundred thousand years ago and ten thousand years ago. It is obvious that there is a huge gap between the communication systems of our nearest primate relatives and human language. Just like the gradual process described by Richard Dawkins on the evolution of the eye. The same is true for language as is for the eye.
We can safely hypothesize that communication amongst primitive men was slow. When someone wanted to say, they didn’t like something they would push it away. When their leg hurt, they would express themselves through simple utterances similar to the ones used today, such as moaning and groaning. If they held their leg, moaned and groaned, this communicated pain. When they wanted to show where the food was, they would point towards a direction. When danger was close, they might have made a loud noise, something like screaming.
There are many hypotheses, which are flawed, such as the “bow-wow” hypothesis even accepted by Darwin himself, the “yo-he-ho” hypothesis, the “ding-dong” hypothesis, and the “ta-ta” hypothesis. No matter which hypothesis is correct, or if a combination of these were responsible for making the ‘first’ language, I think I can boldly speculate that the mechanism for language was a necessity. The necessity for more effective communication in order to pass valuable information on, to organize and plan, or even deceive as is suggested by some.
That initial language development came about by using the senses that are in direct connection to the surrounding environment. Unlike the intermediate stages of the eye which have left behind fossil records, language, unfortunately, has not, simply because the language does not fossilize. So, we can briefly mention examples of three kinds of linguistic behavior that seem to have been identified by some to be living fossils; these are Pidgin communication, child language at 23 months of age and language of trained apes.
The similarities between these three, regardless of their drawbacks, are that all have some minimal structure, i.e. sentences are made of words which have been given distinct meanings, and the meaning of the sentence is in a limited way composed of those designated word-meanings. However, this is very far from what we have today in human language. But these three types of simple language can still be used to communicate the needs of the time. As needs change according to biosocial pressures so does the requirement for more complex or simpler communication systems depending on the situation. The Venus Project goes a step further by proposing a language which is relevant, meaning updatable, to our current understanding of our environment in order to reduce misinterpretation just like in mathematics or chemistry. Necessity once more has brought us to that stage that we need to formulate a language that will build a saner attitude towards communication and reality, which is implied by Jacque Fresco in his lectures.
As communities got bigger, and tools were created, people started specializing in particular areas, such as skinning of animals, making clothes, getting water and hunting, and the interaction between people became more and more complicated. At first, people communicated about things that other animals communicated and still communicate about, for example, food, water and predators, and things they could observe with their senses. Today we also communicate about things that do not exist as physical entities. For example freedom, free will, metaphysics, and rights. Perhaps it is these things that seem to separate us from other animals. Yuval Noah Harari illustrates very well how these myths also tend to unify us in entire groups which are against other groups depending on what myths they believe. Maybe without these myths, we would not have been able to unify the uninformed, scarcity driven people of that time to form villages, towns, cities, regions, countries and eventually entire unions.
Communication and interaction with each other evolved. Eventually, through necessity and gradual development, we came up with languages which branched off into different languages as villages split and people lived in different areas. We used these languages to attempt to control large groups, using metaphysical references to attempt to maintain some sort of morality in a much more uninformed population. Something which is easily overcome today by providing more relevant education, as done by The Venus Project.
Different conditions in the new environments discovered by those leaving the original village had to come up with new words for things. Also meeting other tribes caused them to adopt other words. Our languages, just like us, evolved very gradually with no end goal or purpose. If the system works within its environment, it survives. As we can see today, in our language we use words that our parents didn’t use in their youth. Such as ‘the internet’, ‘Facebook’, ‘Google’, ‘iPad’ and ‘iPhone’. These words produce whole sentences, “I connected to the internet, googled Facebook with my iPad and can also do so with my iPhone.” If you could go back in time and say that sentence to a person several centuries ago, he would think you were speaking a different language. The Venus Project proposes that we place a purpose to language, allowing us to communicate information more accurately, concisely and to the point, with as little misinterpretation as possible.
Depending on who is counting we have anything between 3000-8000 languages in the world today. Unlike our evolution, we cannot know if all languages that exist today had a single common ancestor at some point which scattered into different directions with migration out of the plains of Africa. Even though it would be interesting information to have, it will not stop languages from being just adequate, adequate enough to survive as a simple system in an attempt to control human behavior but not adequate enough for human survival.
“Languages we speak today are subject to interpretation and therefore we speak ‘at’ each other rather than ‘to’ each other.” — Jacque Fresco
He uses such examples to bridge the gap between our ignorance and existing relevant information. One phrase can be a whole field of study summarized by simple words. In this case, he is referring to the subject of General Semantics.