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Original Essays

A Path to Language

by Christine Kenneally
 
  1. The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[A]n elegant parcel that makes the abstract concrete — and, like an imperative, it is eminently worthy of attention." Psychology Today
At a cheap pine table in a dingy dining room, we drank cask wine and showed off. H. was smart-flighty. It was a bit late in the day to be that into Kate Bush, but she was pretty enough to pull it off. R. was a medical student who gave rather surprising shoulder rubs. It was one of our first nights in a Melbourne University student house and we were getting to know each other with enormous animation.

R. dazzled us with his newly acquired catalog of human illness. Then he started talking about aphasia, and a grey hand opened inside me. "What do you mean you 'don't have language'? You mean, you can't talk?" I asked. "No," he said. "It's not that you can't talk, you don't have language at all. It's gone." They continued to chat and flirt as if nothing had happened, and I sat back in my pine chair, shocked and depressed.

Are you still you if you don't have language? Are you even human? Having spent most of my life inside a book, I doubted it. The same year I met R., I took Linguistics 101. The department was newly helmed by two brilliant field linguists, and though I dragged myself through most university courses, linguistics assignments were adventures I looked forward to. Every student felt the same way. Each week, we were presented with a fragment of language — it was an alien transmission or a mysterious document with foreign words and clauses, and sometimes translations. We had to crack the meaning, characterize the structure, and guess at missing pieces.

Linguistics taught me that language is a lens into the human mind and into human history, that language lives inside your mind, but also that it inhabits your body. I learned how to read spectrograms, which for a non-science student was an indescribable thrill. I watched vowels create bursts of energy at different bands of pitch, and I saw how consonants are always utterly silent. For my final thesis, I took an hour-long train journey from Melbourne and met with two very proud, devout, and generous Christians. They invited me into their home and prayed in front of me (and for me). When they spoke in tongues, I taped it.

Glossolalia sounds like singing, but it behaves like jazz. Groups of syllables recur again and again, and as they do, they're riffed on. A single sound or a syllable is swapped or dropped; elements from different phrases contain and mirror one another; rhyme, assonance, and alliteration are threaded throughout. It's not as complicated as language, and its nature is to be highly organized. It made me realize that the point of having language is not just to tell stories but to create pure structure, in this case by compulsively shaping and reshaping air with the tongue and mouth. Where does this all come from? I asked a lecturer how language began. "No one knows," she said. "And no one asks the question because there's no way to answer it."

The study of language evolution was formally banned by the Linguistics Society of Paris over a hundred years earlier. The ban was never lifted, and over time it mutated into an uncomfortable taboo. Yet not long after I asked about it, a growing group of men and women began to defy the informal edict against language evolution and wrestle with its many mysteries. The young field of evolutionary linguistics was pretty confused, and a few years back, having begun to write a book about it, I was, too. The biggest problem, naturally, was language.

The writing process went this like this: I read books and journal articles. I attended conferences. I traveled to Oxford, Rome, Leipzig, Boston, Atlanta, Canberra, and I spoke to researchers. Then I'd write it up. For months, sometimes years, I would sail along using an important expression or phrase, building chapters and sections around a key word, until one day, it would deliver to me one of its lesser but inevitable meanings. Suddenly, my thesis was corrupted by a casual implication or a logical connection that should never have been there. I'd have to rip tracks from the book and start all over again.

It only occurred to me towards the end that using language to investigate and explain how language began was like, well, it wasn't like anything. It was a unique and recursive nightmare. I often had the sensation, while merely thinking about this, that my brain was physically straining.

Some of the smartest people around are trying to reconstruct the trajectory of language through time, and the field abounds with wondrous and confronting ideas. A handful of researchers think language is like a virus that infects the minds of humans. It's not a parasite, it's a symbiote — and this makes a deep, personal sense to me. Your brain shapes itself around language, and language also changes to suit you.

So how did it evolve? Language grew unsteadily, but it was strung upon a smooth, unbroken line.

The platforms of language were built over thousands of millennia and we share many of these with very different animals. What we would today recognize as language gathered itself for many tens of thousands of years. Its progress was not continuous — a miniscule step would be taken, then nothing would happen, then another step, maybe a lurch, then nothing again.

As meaning and mental structure clotted together, it did so in the morphing minds of species evolving from one into another. Along our lineage, cold-blooded creatures begat warm-blooded animals, mammals generated primates, and primates tossed us up. Yet all of this tumult and stasis and creeping change has raged around an oblivious line of mothers and their babies.

Piece by piece, through a process of genetic mutation and cultural legacy, they talked and gestured language into existence. No genetic change has ever been too great to break the chain, so when the babies became mothers themselves and had babies of their own, their babies also grew up and passed the legacy on. Eventually one of those mothers had me. Not long ago, I had a baby, too.

As I wrote this book, I watched as my toddler son learned English as a foreign language, or rather, learned language as a foreign language. I knew what language evolution was supposed to look like from the outside, but what does it feel like? At least in this case, as my two-year-old said when I asked what he was doing with a stray toy in a café, "I am making pleasure."

÷ ÷ ÷

Christine Kenneally is Australian and received her Ph.D. in linguistics at Cambridge. She has written about language, science, and culture for publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, Scientific American, Discover, and Slate. Her website is www.christinekenneally.com. spacer
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