A Brief History of Language

Humanity is the only species we know of that has the power of speech. Language enabled a huge leap forward in our evolution; we could communicate ideas and thoughts and meaning that we could never have shared when we used grunts and whistles and hand gestures. Telling our clan, “The best place to hunt today is an hour’s walk away in the shade of the mountain, as there is a group of animals there with wounded members, so we’re going to find it easy to kill some of them off”, means that we can develop our group dynamics, share ideas, and grow our civilisation. And argue, of course.

Along the way, we develop technology to help us communicate; from papyrus and paper to the post office that allowed us to share our ideas around the world, we are able to talk far more easily with wider communities of people who share niche interests.

Modern-day communication has evolved far beyond mere paper and the letterbox. Just thinking about what methods I have used to communicate with other people in the past 24 hours, I’ve come up with;

Face-to-face – speaking to a teacher at the school gates as I picked my son up, as well as some fellow parents.

Social Media – saying hello to someone I used to work with on Facebook and seeking some advice on training through LinkedIn.

Mobile Phone – I replied to my mum’s text message.

Email – I replied to an email from someone at Tesco asking when they could call me.

Phone – I barely use my landline, but it rang today. I answered in case it was my son’s school or my mum; it wasn’t either of them. Instead, it was a spam caller wanting to help me get compensation for a car accident I’d apparently been involved in. I played along for fun; it passed a couple of minutes.

WhatsApp – I exchanged a couple of messages with extended family in Southampton.

And that’s a fairly average day for all of us, I suspect. We’re no longer worrying about where our next meal is coming from, because we don’t need to hunt across the savannah. We hunt down a bargain at the supermarket, but our language – and how it’s conveyed – has developed our culture. We arrange business meetings and coffee with friends, theatre trips and conferences, holidays to South-East Asia and taking our children to the beach. We’re social creatures, and language is the glue.

Whilst modern humans have possessed spoken language for 100,000 years or so, we only developed a written language about 5,500 years ago – a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms and in the history of our own species. Early images appeared on cave walls 20,000 years ago, but they were more isolated and not part of a full written text. Sumerians and Egyptians “wrote” using pictures carved onto ivory and bone, and the diversity of writing evolved from those early moments; random squiggles on a page became accepted as recognised alphabets, words, and sentences.

And now, five and a half thousand years later, we are at the pinnacle of communication thus far – with languages that are sophisticated, intelligent, and always evolving. Sometimes, we even bring around old ideas again; emojis are now in fashion, echoing the images earlier civilisations used.

One journalist bizarrely compared our current use of emojis as a indication that we’ve “regressed” back to caveman times. I am disturbed that he could make such a weird comparison; emojis add to our language, not dumb it down.

Sections of society panic whenever something is added to our language; there was a debate in the first decade of the 21st century when text speak threatened to destroy our entire civilisation – if you believed the media that railed against it. Yes, text speak can be irritating, but made sense in the early days of mobile phones when every message allowed particular numbers of characters, and each message cost 40p. It was easier to abbreviate our words, and it’s stuck; people still do it now, even off-line when writing letters or essays, and that’s depressing – but a sad indictment that this is considered easier or preferable over the full beauty of our language. It’s also a sad indictment of how lazy some people are.

But does that mean language is dying? No, of course not; people are always incensed by changes, and it usually creates a resurgence of interest in the rich variety of words.

People who say that emojis are a regression back to the early day of our written language are labouring under a misapprehension. Hieroglyphics are an entire language that makes sense entirely by itself; it has a grammar and internal logic all of its own. Emojis are an “add on” to written language. They’re a way of framing an online conversation with emotions that are hard to convey in written form. When a written conversation is often far more immediate (think of social media), then care needs to be taken about how people receive what we’re saying – people use emojis to give us a handle on the intent behind our words that, if they were spoken, would be coupled with body language, intonation, and context.

Written language has become our institutional memory of sorts, passing information from one generation to the next. In the early days of our civilisation, oral history did pass down between the generations, but it was hard to do that en masse – and Chinese Whispers would inevitably occur between parents and children, and between different tribes. As soon as we could record information in a written form, our ability to learn and grow collectively grew massively; we had an external memory that we could consult. We didn’t have to rediscover things with each generation; instead, we could build on it and discover more.

Language is a beautiful, ever-evolving entity, and writing is an expression of that. It will change with every generation and every challenge that we face. To insist that language must always stay the same is madness, and to resist is impossible. Rules will come and go, words will be popular and then fade away or enter the lexicon forever, and the beauty of that endless process is one we should all embrace.

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