I ended my last post with a grumble about the impoverished view of humanity that I often encounter when I read linguistic musings. Most of the articlesI report on do not seem to grasp how much had to change for a lineage of apes to become a lineage of, say, Kalahari hunter-gatherers that can sit around a fire and tell each other about their emotions.
We had to go through an evolutionary process that involved a lot more than developing a recursive function. We are at least as different from apes as ants are from grasshoppers, and any theory of language evolution ought to acknowledge that language requires unusual kind of animal.
Yet students of language origins rarely seem to even hint at how radically communal language is. The whole generative tradition with its emphasis on i-language (for internal language) seems madly solipsistic, and that ignorance of community's possibilities is probably what makes the field so barren of appeal to outsiders. It does not address anything serious about who we are or what our culture is.
I still think that one of the most important insights I have gleaned from writing this blog came in one of my first posts, a review of Nicholas Ostler's book, Empires of the Word which reports that a "language does not grow by the assertion of power, but through the creation of a larger community" [p. 556]. The great historical examples of the growth of languages make this same point. The rise of creoles and the newborn sign languages are part of the birth of new communities. National language histories repeat the lesson. Time and again they tell of areas with many separate tongues becoming united politically, culturally, and linguistically. Is there any evidence, any reason to believe, that language ever grew differently? From the beginning, the rule seems to have been: create a community and language will appear.
I'm talking about community rather than cooperation because, while cooperation is important, it is not the decisive factor. These days the woods are full of organizations whose members cooperate, but they aren't communities. People in communities are valued for more than the sum of their practical contribution to the group. I may go to work at a place where I am a readily replaceable cooperator, but at the end of the work day I can go among people who take me as I am and wish me well despite my faults. If I disappeared, I would be mourned, not just replaced. The workplace I'm describing grows by power, while the afterwork community grows by love in all its various shades and shapes. In the workplace I could get by with a pidgin; the afterwork demands a full-blown language.
Recognition of language as communal is generally absent from learned discussions of language origins and language evolution. Yet I find it is a commonplace when I turn to reading history, personal essays, novels, dramas, poems, biographies, memoirs and even a decent amount of criticism. Those authors take community for granted, as something fundamental to the human condition.
To use a well-known example, look at George Orwell's novel 1984. That story is about a world that seeks to rest on power alone. The promise Big Brother offers society is of the boot in the face. And what is one of the system's most ambitious tools for destroying community? Language, or more specifically a drastically impoverished language called Newspeak. The idea behind it was that if you force a shriveled language on people they will only think shriveled thoughts and lead shriveled lives.
I sometimes read critics who scorn Orwell, arguing that language doesn't really control thoughts. But readers should not mistake the beliefs of Big Brother for those of Orwell. The story of 1984 is precisely the story of a couple that threatens the operational view of society by finding love rather than power. In the end of 1984, power conquers love, but part of the story is that there will be an endless string of people finding love, people for power to place boot to face and squash.
When Orwell wrote about Newspeak, there were no examples around him. The closest things were the style guides used by various propaganda ministries around the world. But within a few years of Orwell's death, functioning Newspeaks began to appear. They had names like FORTRAN, COBAL, BASIC, PASCAL, C++ and so on. The wonder of these computer languages is that they are splended tools, enabling users and programmers to get machines to do as directed. There is no danger that a computer will go beyond the language of its programmers and start demanding love, respect or any of the other elements of community. They not only don't demand it, they don't know about it and do not seek it.
So there is one clear difference between computer use of language and human languages. Only humans introduce radically new topics into their discourse. Keep the word love out of FORTRAN and your computer will not coin it.
At one point in 1984, Orwell discusses the impossibility of translating into Newspeak Jefferson's, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness." You cannot translate it into FORTRAN either.
So there stands another difference between computer and human language. Not all human language is used for controlling the actions and outputs of themselves or others.
The reason for these differences should be immediately obvious. Yes, languages use symbols and computers are symbol processors, but computers do not ground their symbols in anything beyond other symbols. For human language to work, it must rest on more than symbols; so language scholars are bound to miss out on the big picture when they keep their eyes only on the symbols and the rules that organize them.
Language is grounded on an extra factor, one that needs a community of users for it to survive, and language in turn lets the community of users survive. Recognizing that mutual independence of language and language users was what got me started wondering seriously about language in the first place. It is why to this day I still prefer reading Orwell and Ostler to Chomsky and Pinker.