With Dictionaries announcing the publication of new words and sending out a public appeal for the origins of phrases, I looked at the question of language. What is Language and What makes our languages human?
Language has been a topic of discussion for as long as anyone has been able to write it down. From images on cave walls thought to be the medium of communication for ancient groups of people, separated by vast swathes of land, joined by a common love for stories and knowledge. Or the well-known hieroglyphics found in rich Egyptian tombs depicting a complex history of power and destruction. Right up to the staggering use of mathematics in Arabian countries to trade and understand the world around them.
To truly understand what language is we have to look at the birth of a new language. In the 1970s Nicaragua, Africa the treatment of those with learning difficulties or disabilities was poor. In general, deaf children would stay at home with their family doing manual work and communicating with crude sign language, without hope of education. This changed as the country became more stable and the money was released to create a school for deaf people, adults and children alike. At first they were taught Spanish, verbally, with very little success. So little, in fact, that there were talks about the project having failed, until a world-renowned linguist visited the school. He discovered that, although they hadn’t been able to communicate with their teachers, the students had formed a pidgin sign language taking bits from their home sign languages to create one language used throughout the school. As younger children arrived at the school the language evolved, gaining a greater complexity by giving a tenses and talking about theoretical things, for example. ISN or Nicaraguan sign Language is now a fully fledged language used throughout Nicaragua.
Some still argue that as it cannot be written down or used in any other medium but sign, it cannot be a real language, which raises the question, what makes all these diverse methods of communication spoken all over the world, all categorically human languages. If we compare them to the methods of communication of non-humans, dancing bumble bees or the colour change in leaves we can see it what it enables us to do. Human language allows us to express an infinite number of concepts with a finite set of elements. There are only a set number of words in each language, (granted, they can change or evolve but they aren’t endless), yet we can say anything with them. Perhaps most humanly of all, we can talk about abstract concepts, things we haven’t seen for ourselves and might not ever happen, but we can imagine. “What language would a human child brought up in utter silence speak?”, for example.
The point has been made that if, using language, we could say absolutely anything to absolutely anybody in the world, why don’t we? Myths talk about fluency in all languages being the ultimate gift of knowledge and in some disciplines like Maths and Science, their symbols are universal so there is every chance one could have a complex discussion about an incredibly difficult formula but not be able to ask for a cup tea. The idea of a universal language isn’t new. Lingua Franca, comes from a language used in the Renaissance era that combined many languages in the Mediterranean and was used in trading and diplomacy. It is a phrase used to describe a language that goes beyond the boundaries of its original community and is used for communication between communities. There was talk of creating a new European language, that everyone in Europe would take on as their second language so the European Union would become more, well, unified but it is a massive undertaking to create a new language and there was very little public interest.
The idea of cross-culture communication has always been seen as a positive, with some linking multilingual countries to political stability. It also seems like a far more secure way of protecting our culture. Every year the world loses 25 mother tongues. But the loss of a language is more than losing some difficult sounds created by a small community in a faraway place; it is generations worth history, gone. That’s what makes it all the more astounding. That thousands of years on, we can look at the figures painted on the wall or etched in the rock by ancient civilisation and learn their stories.