Origin of Language

Speech distinguishes man among the animals; language distinguishes nations from each other; one does not know where a man comes from until he has spoken. –Rousseau

NOTE: In this post I’m entertaining the possibility that Rousseau is right in his theory of the origin of languages. That’s not necessarily the case, but it seemed worth considering anyway. I’m not going to examine its’ truth, because even R. doesn’t want to do that. He says in The Origins of Inequality that he thinks it’s a worthwhile story even if it’s not true historically.

For War and Peace class we discussed Rousseau’s essay on the Origin of Language yesterday. It was fairly interesting, though I’m not entirely certain how it helps us to understand Tolstoy better – something about the French vs. the Russian languages. There’s also an interesting theory of early languages (at least in the South) being primarily poetic and tonal so that they were very close to song, and that it is only with writing and commerce that they had need of analytical vocabulary and grammar structures. He’s quite wistful about the thought of some great rhetorician standing in a plaza, and delivering a poetic, melodic, emotionally compelling address that the average citizens could both understand and find beautiful. I’ll admit it to be charming, but R. very often paints charming scenes that in the end are only that – things which may or not have happened somewhere, but are unlikely to happen now no matter how much we might wish things otherwise – and many of us would not even wish them.

Anyway, I wish to entertain the possibility, suggested by R., that knowing a particular language radically alters how we relate to the world, and is more or less the embodiment of culture. It’s obvious that some languages are better at expressing certain things than others; that they have different sounds, assumptions about the world, and kinds of musicality available to them. Some of the broad distinctions R. makes is between Southern and Northern languages – the former he sees as being more musical, passionate, emotive, and oratorical; the latter as more practical, harsh, a-tonal, and analytical. As a result, the Southern languages are better for creating moving speeches and poetry, and the Northern ones to either getting practical things accomplished and delineating ideas precisely. He further differentiates languages that primarily written vs. spoken. Spoken language will be more dependent on tone, and very often sound will take precedence of precision of meaning, because the speaker will be sure to communicate his meaning with tone and expression. Written languages, on the other hand, must have a very precise series of definitions and a complex grammar, because everything that would normally be communicated with expression and tone must now be shown with punctuation, structure, and word choice. So as the language becomes more precise it also becomes cooler and less able to convey feelings directly. So the circumstances of the people forms the language, and the language forms to dispositions of the people, very broadly speaking. In case you haven’t noticed, R. is not in the least afraid of stereotypes.

I want to take this toward the realm of education, and how American education in particular treats culture. English is a language as much written as spoken, and according to R. is therefore more fitted to precision than feeling, and indeed must be very precise to convey not only information but the intended meaning, like voice and expression. It has been commented upon in Education, and seems true, that to the extent you train young people to habitually express things in a way that would be appropriate written down (“academic English”), to a similar extent we become constrained in our use of tone and expression – we can say more things in a less lively fashion (we acquire an “internal editor,” as it were). Poetry and music become more and more separated from regular speech.

Where I’m trying to go with this is, to R., nothing that uses language, or music, or anything else besides very basic physical actions like eating and sleeping (and even those, when done in company) – can ever possibly be culturally neutral. Regardless of Kant’s possibility of Pure Reason, even mathematics is not culturally neutral, because while right and wrong sums may be the same in every culture, the desire to form minds that think with mathematical precision is specific to certain cultures. Language is no more culturally neutral than religion is: perhaps less so. And when it comes to forming, preserving, and teaching our culture, we in America seem to have no idea what we’re doing. Especially in the schools. Teaching a student to read and write is not a culturally neutral act. It is in fact, an audacious act: if successful in more than a superficial way, it will likely change more about a person and culture that we could possibly predict. Someone taught a wandering poet to write (or wrote for him), and we have as a result the Iliad and Odyssey, monuments of Western Civilization. But we also have a great many novelists, but no oral epic poets. Of course, none of this is absolute, and I’m still only entertaining a notion. While we, with Rousseau, way be wistful for those poets who would sing or chant or whatever they did for hours on end before the assembled polis, there are reasons why writing has won. It’s an excellent invention. If it weren’t for writing I not only would not be communicating these thoughts, but would not even be having these thoughts, since I’m currently thinking about Rousseau who was thinking about the ancient Mediterranean, and I have no reason to suppose I would know about either in an oral culture. But he’s right in pointing out that something has been lost: that something is always lost, whether it be primal freedom and innocence, or public song and dance as natural as walking or speaking, or particularities of culture and language. But something that also seems true is that we’re never in a position to judge until it’s too late. In the case of language, it requires analytical language and experience to compare the desirability of an oral or written language, or even to know that it’s a question. And analytical language is the mark of a culture that uses written language. Certainly complaining about writing is a mark of a written language. And no culture has ever chosen to go back.

Something that’s been hovering around the edges of my thought is Fr. Oleska’s talks on culture along with my own experiences at TLT. What we really want is to offer equality in the discussion of how education should be handled, and a choice. But the only way to articulate the question: is it good and fitting that we divide up subjects this way, that we divide up time this way, that we do Western academics, which must needs be read and written – even if they’re read aloud, they’re not really told as a thing belonging to us all, rather than to Rousseau – is like that, in somewhat complicated rational form. The crux of the problem lies in this: that if it is true that languages and therefore a medium in which to apply reason differ to the extent that R. suggests they do: that his primitives would not and cannot discuss (and presumably construct) rational arguments of the kind modern Westerners are used to, then no wonder we’re frustrated, because it is not even possible for a person to ask whether the oral culture is better and worth keeping, or to know what the stakes are, until he is already mostly outside it. Thus, not only is there an inequality of power, but of understanding and words as well. So we either forge ahead, come what may, or do like the Federation in Star Trek, and institute a Prime Directive of non-interference, or muddle along somewhere in-between. Usually the latter, and not very reflectively, either.


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