I used to be intrigued and mystified by the origin of languages. Modern linguistics did not help me much as most theories seemed to be solely in terms of one language with little attempt being made to give them a wider application. Our common linguistic ancestry seems to have a truly inaccessible past. I was alarmed that according to some evolutionists, the distant common ancestor and the ‘material cause’ of all modern language might not even have been a language, but a form of vertebrate evolution: of body, brain and behaviour, or whatever this means.
My understanding of language took a giant step forward when I realised that all I needed to know is that there is a relationship between what is going on ‘in my head’ and a bodily activity that produces sounds and gestures which are perceivable by others and interpretable by them. Language seems to be my capacity to try to alter the mental organisation of someone else. Sometimes, I succeed in this, but more often I do not, especially, or so it seems, in relation to my teenage children. In this regard, I find it easier to change my own mental state by talking to myself!
Wild African parrots provided me with an important key to the understanding of language. I read that they coordinate their mating ritual by producing a common song. While each bird appears to be singing a full melody, it is actually a duet in which the two birds progressively expand upon each other's phrases. What is intriguing is that the level of the ritual is determined not so much by the 'meaning' of the sounds but by the intensity and dynamics of the melodic coupling. It seems that the mating ritual has 'reciprocal altruism' (you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours) bound up with it. The mutual coordination of the mating behaviour develops from a 'back and forth' kind of relationship where each parrot benefits from the response of the other. Surely, this must be true about language.
The last 19 years of our new democracy in South Africa has taught me a lot about language. We have eleven official languages-ten indigenous ones and English. Previously, the different languages were viewed as the cornerstones of the cultures they supposedly represented and for a variety of reasons generally kept the people apart from one another. Now, within a framework of democracy, they are bringing people together. Many South Africans are going out of their way to learn and speak as many of the other languages as they can and even with just a smattering they are communicating. Personally, I have found that it does not even matter if you can’t speak the language properly but if you just stop and greet a person, using gestures and a smile, one can communicate. I had a conversation the other day with a complete stranger: we smiled, we laughed, we used one or two common words, we slapped hands, we touched and although we did not know what the other was saying, both of us came away knowing that we had bridged a divide and it was a very valuable experience. Languages are also in the process of blending. This may horrify the purists but it is a trend that nobody can stop as it has powerful tentacles driving into all aspects of our unique society, including music, writing and the media.
My firm view of language now is that it is a powerful instrument and constitutes one of the principal forces controlling and forming human behaviour. Language needs to be supported by face-to-face contacts where gestures, facial expressions and tone complement syntax and understanding. Unlike the African parrots, human beings need to see one another to maximise the co-ordination of behaviour through language. It is indeed necessary for all of us to learn other languages but, firstly, we need to truly ‘see’ one another.
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