c) The Power of Language

This is a sample chapter from a book planned by Oxford University Press called ‘Humankind’ as part of a series for children that then got binned. This chapter on language was part of a bigger story that I was going to tell on the origins and nature of people, and I was sorry not to have the chance to do the whole work, as it was planned and in the process till the authorities decided the series was not going to work…

  • Why is the word, and not the wheel, the most important discovery in human history?
  • Where do languages come from?
  • What is the source of their power?

Do animals talk?

Chimpanzees make 25 different sounds, and foxes 36. Hawaiians make 13 sounds, Italians 27, and the English 45. Not much difference is there? So what do humans do with their set of sounds? They combine them into words. By the age of five, an average child will have mastered more than two thousand words, and hundreds of rules of grammar. An adult may use as many as 6,000 words in everyday speech, probably understanding double that number. Shakespeare used 25,000 different words in his works. The average human speaker produces 30,000 words daily (showing just how much humans enjoy talking). And the makers of the Oxford English Dictionary estimate that there are well over 620,000 words in this language, all made from just 45 basic sounds! Well, nothing in the animal kingdom compares to this. Animals use calls, but only humans have words. Animals communicate, but only humans talk. So how do we do it? How do humans create such an expressive language as Hawaiian out of half the number of sounds that a chimp can make?

Eyes behind sunglasses image                     Human eyes – with whites                Apes eyes – without whites

Speech uses more than just words. For example, why is it so difficult to talk to people when they are wearing dark sunglasses? Well, humans use eye contact to punctuate their conversations, rather as the written word uses the full-stop. The ‘whites” of the eyes make it easier to see when the eyes of others move, telling us who is speaking, and when to give way, or jump in. Sunglasses conceal the whites, so making it hard to punctuate the conversation. These ‘whites’ are absent in our close relative, the chimpanzee, but then so are conversations. The fact that we have them, and chimps do not, underlines the importance of face-to-face language in humans. The reason some people dislike the telephone is because all the visual information is missing. Sunglasses remove the eyes, but telephones remove the whole body.

What is a language?

A vervet monkey can warn its group of a nearby snake using a special call. So can a human (‘Aaargh! Snake!’). But there is a difference. The sound that makes up the call for ‘snake’ cannot be used to mean other things. Yet the sounds that make up the word ‘snake’ can be combined with other sounds, to make many other words (for example, snack, sneak, bake and stuck). Animals are limited by the number of different calls they can make. Humans are not. By combining sounds into more complicated units called words, the human race enormously increases its range of vocabulary. Then it goes further. Different classes of words are created, such as nouns and verbs, and these are strung together in a second and larger combination: the sentence. So language is about two combinations. Sounds that make words, and words that make sentences. Two inventions that give the human race the ability to describe the whole universe with just a few dozen basic sounds.

Why are words made of sound?

Around four thousand languages are spoken today, and they all use sound. Why sound? Why not light? After all, the sign languages used by the deaf-and-dumb are as good as speech (if their capacity to express humour and poetry is anything to go by). In fact, signing is better than speech in conditions where silence is desirable (as in hunting); where noise is excessive (as in the New York stock exchange); where sound carries badly (as in scuba diving); or where there is a fear of being overheard. So what about the disadvantages of sign language? Well, it’s hard to hold a cup of coffee when signing to somebody, and it is certainly a poor means of communication at night. But does this alone account for the overwhelming dominance of sound in the languages of humanity?

Imagine a small group of early humans picking berries in a forest clearing. Suddenly one of them espies a big cat hiding at the far end. He turns to his group, and signs frantically. But the berries are good, and nobody is looking. Well, it is easy to see how this might result in the death of one of the humans. The problem is that although ears work in all four directions, eyes only work in one. So sound is better than sign, as can be seen in the illustration below.

Which Works Best: Sign or Sound?

Which Works Best: Sign Or Sound?

Sound, and thus speech, works in all four of the situations pictured above. Sign only succeeds where both the signer and the receiver are facing each other, as in the last box. This is why our words are made of sound, not light.

Freeze-framing speech: look or label?

Dictionopolis is the place where all the words in the world come from. They’re grown right here in our ‘orchards.’ ‘I didn’t know that words grew on trees,’ said Milo timidly. ‘Where did you think they grew?’ shouted the earl irritably. A small crowd began to gather to see the little boy who didn’t know that letters grew on trees. ‘I didn’t know they grew at all’, admitted Milo even more timidly. (The Phantom Tollbooth, by N, Juster.) Sounds come from the voice box, but where do letters come from (the letterbox?). The historical answer is Sumeria, around 3,500 BC. Large numbers of clay tablets with written symbols have been found near the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in what is present-day Iraq and Iran. These developed from ‘pictograms’ (just simple pictures), into ‘ideograms’ (where the picture is more abstract). The illustration below shows how early pictograms were later.