What is it, really, that differentiates us from animals? Some would argue it’s our self-awareness, others would say it’s our capacity to think at a higher level, while others still would be adamant in their belief it’s the endless adaptiveness that humanity has that is our key advantage.
But I believe the answer is a lot simpler. What makes us special and successful as a species is our extraordinary ability to communicate with one another and share our experiences. Being able to pass on knowledge and learn from the experience of others ensures a steady progress; a continuous, ceaseless march towards advancement- fueled by a steady stream of gradually accumulating information, handed down from one generation to the next.
The impact on history cannot be overstated; all sciences, cultures, arts, history, music and even religions are made possible by the very existence of language. The fabric of society itself relies on our ability to communicate.
With the advent of the spoken word, hunter-gatherers no longer needed to taste a berry to test for its edibility, they could simply ask more experienced persons about its nature.
And, with this simple, often disregarded step, humanity was on it’s way to becoming the dominant species on this planet.
So how did it all begin? How did the spoken and written word decisively shape the course of history?
As for the first question, unfortunately enough, nobody is quite sure as to what the answer is. There are no known animals in a transitory stage from not speaking to speaking.
There is, however, a single, common theme that visibly stands out among all these theories: ‘The world’s languages evolved spontaneously. They were not designed’.
Either way, we don’t know for sure how it finally came to be.
What we do know is how language has impacted human history. A basic application could be a hunter in primeval times seeing a deer ripe for the killing, and subsequently letting out a grunt that informs his partner it’s time to start moving.
But, as human interactions grew more complex, the possibilities that language gave us increased exponentially.
The power of speech allowed great orators to bring together large groups of previously small, solitary tribes into consolidated units. People started to settle down and live with each other, and as this happened language once again propagated a culture of sharing, trading and collectiveness.
In such a manner, society was born.
However, the spoken word has limits. Information can only be disseminated to a fixed number of people at a time and there can never be a permanent record. Word-of-mouth accounts invariably end up getting distorted through the generations. Lastly, the rapid growth of cities demanded administrative measures that could simply not be carried out verbally.
And thereby came the written language. The oldest civilization in the world, the Mesopotamian, exhibits the earliest examples of written language coming to the fore.Through the Uruk period a script was developed and allowed city authorities to administer large groups of people. Intensive trade and contact between regions and maintenance of records were all enabled by language.
Sumerian Language Through Time
The above image shows the evolution of the sign for “head” in cuneiform script-the oldest known- over several millennia. It is apparent that written script developed organically, starting off clunky and gradually becoming streamlined and stylized due to scribes through the ages simplifying the symbols for their own purposes.
Language evolved just like a living being, growing and changing in accordance with the convenience of the times, driven forward not by a single individual but by a collective effort towards codification and the writing down of knowledge that seems to compel man.
Languages evolved from and through each other: English started off as a West Germanic language strongly influenced by Latin, which also heavily influenced modern Italian and in turn was born of the Etruscan alphabet.
With the invention of printing techniques in China and later with the invention of the mechanical printing press by Gutenberg suddenly meant that an individual could now spread all kinds of propaganda and ideas to people they\had never even met in person.
The Bible, the Communist Manifesto, the propaganda that fueled the French revolution; all events that changed the lives of billions and shaped the world as we know it; all the dissemination of knowledge between mankind that has even taken place, were all made possible by the distinctly human characteristic of voluntary communication.
And now, we stand at the doorstep of a new epoch.
Facebook’s AI recently came up with a completely new language, and two Facebook chat bots had the following conversation:
Bob: I can i i everything else
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me.
This raises questions about the direction in which language is headed. Insofar they have been governed by human need and initiative, now, it would seem, that it is set to be drawn forward by non-human interventions.
All of this, made possible by a single word millennia ago.
Indeed, the ability to type this article and yours to read it hinges entirely on an invisible library that you, me, and all humans, carry in their heads, one that lets them express their thoughts and feelings to each other and continue humanity’s’ ceaseless march towards tomorrow.