Talking the Talk

on September 28, 2012

In the previous entry, I laid out a scenario which carried human history back to the point when ancient geeks began gazing up at the stars and dreaming of a world more perfect and eternal than their earthly reality of hunger and sex, birth and death.

At that moment, which might have been as much as 150,000 years ago, the original harmony among the transformation, kinship, and spirit visions was broken and history as we know it began.

But what was going on before then? When and how did those three visions come into being, and what was life like when they ruled unchallenged?

That’s not an easy question to address, since even our most ancient stories are more recent than that. Those stories tell of the first ancestors, of the days when the world was filled with animal-people instead of people-people, and of a fall from grace and the disasters that followed. But even if they contain some nuggets of truth, they give little hint as to what actually happened at the start of all things back in the Dreamtime.

However, there is one human endowment even older than story, and that is language.

Over the last few decades, it has become apparent that the archaic Homo sapiens who appeared perhaps 800,000 years ago must have had some form of language that was sufficiently complex to transmit important information from person to person and from generation to generation. But just how developed would their use of language have been?

If you examine present-day human languages, you find no sign of any evolutionary progression. Even the simplest hunter-gatherer societies have languages that are subtle, elaborate, and capable of expressing profound thoughts and feelings. But although there are no “primitive” languages, there are hints of something more archaic within the structure of language itself.

As a former college linguistics major, I was interested enough in my children’s process of language acquisition to keep detailed notes. When my older son, Adam, was two years and two months, he knew about 150 words and was adding three to five new ones every day. These were mostly nouns, plus a few simple action verbs like “jump” and “kick,” a handful of adjectives, and the words “up” and “off.” He was also saying a few two-word combinations, such as “big truck,” and “more apple,” but he was not yet forming real sentences, and he would often intersperse words and babble in long chants.

Then, quite suddenly, at two years and four months, he began producing complete sentences, like “Dada watch football.” A couple of weeks later, he was showing an awareness of relationships, saying things like, “Almost same, one big, one small,” and was displaying self-awareness with statements like, “No soup! Ice cream! Like ice cream.”

Toby followed a slightly different path. He started talking a few months earlier than Adam and wasn’t as intent on learning the names of things. His initial vocabulary seemed more emotion-based, including commands like “Stop!” exclamations like “Oh wow, neat!” and self-descriptions like “I sweet!” But he went through the same stage of constructing simple, non-grammatical strings of words, like “Skywalker rocketship,” and of enjoying nonsense chants like “Toodle, toodle, bank, bank” — after which he would helpfully explain, “Song me.”

And with both boys, there was the same abrupt leap in consciousness just before and after they turned two-and-a-half. This was marked not only by increasingly complex sentences — like “I love work machines and cows” or “Those two boys ride horses” — but also by imaginative play, a fear of monsters and of the dark, and an ability to recall events from several months earlier.

My best guess is that Homo erectus of 1.8 million years ago might have had the incipient language skills of a modern two year old — a vocabulary of a few hundred words that could be loosely strung together in ad hoc ways — while the archaic humans of 800,000 years ago would have already made whatever leap in brain organization it took to start adding rudimentary grammatical structure to their speech.

And along with that leap would have gone the ability to remember and describe past events, an impulse to dress up in skins or feathers and pretend to be animals, and a fear of the dark and what might lurk within it.

These basic characteristics seem sufficient to account for what we know of the material and social culture of Neanderthals and other archaic humans. But what strikes me in particular is that they also appear to correspond to the three different kinds of visions.

The steady accumulation of vocabulary — which is associated with a desire to give everything a name and then categorize things according to appearance or function — can be seen as the earliest expression of a scientific approach to the natural world .

Grammar — which requires the ability to construct an abstract system of rules and use them to structure the raw stuff of experience — grows out of the same mental capacity that underlies kinship systems, law-codes, and all the other rule-based systems that are essential to human societies.

And memory, imagination, and fear of the unknown are the most basic components of inner experience.

But there is a crucial aspect of human cognition that is missing even in a bright, alert two-and-a-half year old — or presumably in an equally bright and alert Neanderthal. There is a point at which all these cognitive activities turn back on themselves, become self-reflective, and expand into higher dimensions.

The basis of that reflectivity appears to be an ability to identify the mental processes of others and put oneself in their shoes. This includes not only the capacity for empathy, but also a vital intellectual dimension.

Suppose, for example, that you, I, and John are all standing several yards away from one another. From my point of view, John might be standing next to a tree — but from your perspective, he might be behind the tree. And it takes a kind of mathematical transposition for the two of us to recognize that both things can be true at once.

The same principle applies to social relationships. Not only do we grown-ups know that the people I refer to as “my mother,” “your mother,” and “his mother” may be three different individuals, but we also know that my mother, your aunt, and John’s grandmother may be one and the same. And our language provides us with the appropriate nouns and pronouns to keep these relationships clearly sorted out.

Languages also support our understanding of relationships by providing a bewildering variety of ways to qualify our descriptions of events. We can specify that they are happening now, happened in the past and then ended, or began in the past and are still continuing. We can assert that they will definitely occur in the future, might potentially occur in the future, or might or might not occur in the future depending on other circumstances.

We can also bring in factors such as motivation, purpose, and knowledge, using different verb endings or helper words to indicate whether we are doing something or having it done to us, doing it intentionally or by accident, and whether we can vouch for it by personal observation or only know it by rumor.

Not every language has all these possibilities hard-baked into its grammatical system, but every one has certain areas of particular subtlety. English, for example, employs a profusion of auxiliary verbs that can be strung together in statements as complicated as, “He might have been being given the money in secret.”

As adult speakers of a language, we take these linguistic devices for granted. They are simply there, and we use them without thinking twice — or being properly grateful to the long-ago ancestors who invented them.

But they indicate something very important about us, which is the ability to construct detailed virtual realities in our own minds — elaborate multi-dimensional maps of our experiences and knowledge that locate everything precisely in space, in time, in terms of social relationships, or in terms of causal relationships.

That mapping ability, I believe, is what finally made us fully human. And it is also what has enabled us to construct the successive visions of existence that reconcile ordinary knowledge and higher knowledge.

Archaic humans would have already had an extensive store of ordinary knowledge, along with the first glimmerings of higher knowledge in the form of imaginative play and make-believe. But what is unique to modern humans is the impulse to put all the pieces together — to match up our higher intimations with the gaps and mysteries of ordinary knowledge, to create a mental map that include both, and then to slot all the rest of our factual knowledge and emotional aspirations in around the edges.

But we modern humans are not just map-makers. We also dream of what lies beyond the edges of our maps — and I believe the two must have evolved together in a powerful feedback loop.

The better we become at making maps that incorporate higher knowledge, the more intense a dose of higher knowledge we are able to handle. And the more our brains loosen up and admit the flashes of higher knowledge that challenge all established certainties, the broader and more expansive our maps have to become to accommodate them.

Maps and dreams engage in a mutual handshake, feeding the energy back and forth in an accelerating spiral. Our eagerness to map our experiences is equaled only by our openness to new thoughts and new experiences that rip our maps apart and force us to start over. And this push and pull has driven human culture since the very start, and can only become more intense over the foreseeable future.

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