Monday, April 25, 2016

Language Speculation

This post requires a small bit of backstory. Over the weekend, I was engaged in a fun e-mail exchange with several co-bloggers covering a couple of different topics. One of the guys in the conversation was Patrick Chan. There was a bit of discussion about how languages seem to easier for kids to pick up. Then Patrick (who has given permission for me to quote him) gave this anecdote:
[O]nce on a trip back to Italy as an adult I could somehow speak Italian again, which was weird, as I got into an impromptu debate over religion in Italian, and my French-Italian godmother (who was in the same room and listening in just a few feet away) was flabbergasted that we had been going back and forth in Italian and exclaimed as much near the end of the debate. But I don't remember Italian anymore.
This sparked a thought in my own memory of a conversation that members of my own family had had with another family that was friends of ours. This would have been in the 90s or possibly early 2000s (but I think closer to mid-90s).

In any case, the family we were talking to was a husband and wife missionary team named Gene and Pat. Gene relayed the story to us of a time when they were in Ecuador. He told us of how at one point he was with his team and they were stopped somewhere in Ecuador when a native Indian came out of the jungle. This Indian came up to the group and asked in Spanish for directions to a nearby town. Gene replied and gave him the directions and the Indian went on his way.

When Gene looked back at his team, they were looking at him in astonishment. “When did you learn to speak that dialect?” they asked. Gene said, “What do you mean? We were just speaking Spanish.” The team members shook their head and said, “No, he spoke to you in his native tongue and you responded with that same language.”

Now here’s the thing. Gene had never been taught whatever language the Indian had used. It is possible he heard some of it being used by other natives in the area, but he had no conscious knowledge of the language. And not only that, but he believed he was speaking Spanish anyway. Had there not been witnesses to this event who informed him that he had been speaking the native tongue, he would have had no idea that he had done so.

This brings to mind a couple of points. First of all, people who have read me for a while will already know that I have a fondness for Rupert Sheldrake’s view of morphic resonance. This could very well be more anecdotal evidence for that. In short, if there is a morphic field for languages then the fact that Gene was in an area where the dialect was spoken could be evidence for that. In short, when the Indian asked for directions, Gene’s brain could have recognized that it was an unfamiliar pattern to him (i.e., not the English Gene was used to) and thereby made him think he was speaking in Spanish, since he was learning that language, all while using the morphic field for the native Indian language instead. Of course, there’s a lot of “could have”s and “might be”s in that, so it hardly constitutes any proof.

But it leads me to my second point. I do not believe that language can be bootstrapped from the ground up. That is, to me, it does not seem to follow that simple animal grunting or other vocalizations can eventually morph into what we actually have as language. In fact, that seems counter to the way most of our languages have come about. For instance, Spanish, Italian, French, and all other “Romance Languages” all derived from Latin; they did not come about from the ground up as independent languages. More specifically, all the Indo-European languages are theorized to originate from the same Proto-Indo-European language. (Indo-European languages include Albanian, Armenian, Celtic, Germanic, Greek (Hellenic), Iranian, Italic (Romance languages), and Slavic languages.) The Proto-Indo-European language is believed to be a single language as recently as 3500 BC. This language was theorized based on similarities discovered between Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Latin.

Likewise, Semitic languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Tigrinya all seem to have come about from a precursor language. In fact, all the Afroasiatic languages (primarily Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian, Omotic, and Semetic) are classed as part of the same language family, and they all are believed to be originated from Proto-Afoasiatic, which was believed to be a single language around 8,000 BC.

The point is that for the vast majority of languages—at least in Europe and the Middle East—evidence indicates not that groups of various individuals had developed their own local languages and then merged together to form their different national languages, but rather that all the people spoke a proto-language that has morphed into the various languages that exist throughout Europe and the Middle East today. We can even see this happening with various English dialects, as differences between British English, American English, Australian English, and Canadian English start becoming more pronounced over time.

Even more important than word use is grammatical structure. For example, Latin has a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) structure, whereas English has a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order. To give an example of what I mean, let’s render the following (using English words) in SVO and SOV order: “Roger” is the subject; “hit” the verb; and “the ball” is the object.

SVO: Roger hit the ball.
SOV: Roger the ball hit.

So this makes it seem that language is not bootstrapped. The precursor language had to be there from the beginning, otherwise you would see radically different languages without the common ancestral language. After all, one tribe of people pointing at a particular animal may decide to call it “dog”, but the next tribe over might decide to call it “perro”, and furthermore the first tribe might decide on SVO while the second uses SOV. There’s absolutely no reason to expect that from such a random conglomeration you’d end up with anything like language families.

Now all of the above is fairly standard information, although not everyone will agree with my conclusions on it. But now I want to jump straight into the deep pool of speculation. So get your scuba gear ready.

If it is the case that languages cannot be bootstrapped then the initial humans must have had the same language, and even more specifically that that language was given by God Himself as part of the creation of man. This fits with what we know from Genesis. We also know from Genesis that at one point, man sought to build a tower so they could reach the heavens, and at that point God confused their languages and spread them over the Earth. Now what happened in that process?

It helps for us to examine what the function of language is. Language is designed to communicate information from one person to another. It does this by mapping sounds (and in written language, symbols which are typically mapped to sounds) to concepts. These mappings are agreed to by the various people speaking that language. Thus, when one person refers to a “dog” another person has to have in mind the same idea of what a “dog” is.

So language is the vehicle by which concepts are transmitted. If I write about a “dog” then I have a concept of “dog” in my mind and I want that concept to get to your mind. Since we agree that “dog” refers to the same object, then when I use the label “dog” to define the concept, you unpack that label and receive the concept.

So what happens when we disagree on the labels? At that point, the concepts cannot get through. So if I use the label “dog” with someone who does not understand English, they will never get the same concept—even if they know what the concept is.

Of course, that alludes to the second way in which language might fail. It could be that you’ve never seen a dog. At that point, my use of the label “dog” does not convey information to you, even if you understand every other word I’m using.

This brings up an interesting comparison in my mind. Who among us is the most likely to have no experience with the concepts language refers to? Infants and young children. It’s almost too obvious to mention, but a newborn has never seen a dog. It takes time for them to acclimate to the objects around them.

Now who have studies consistently shown have the best aptitude at picking up languages? Those very same infants and young children. So there is a correlation (not necessarily causation, of course!) between those who have the least amount of experience with the objects language references and the ease at picking up multiple languages.

All of this brings me to my speculation. What if the human brain’s default mode is actually to understand all languages? What if the reason we do not understand all languages has nothing to do with learning or knowledge, but rather it has to do with the fact that God put some kind of inhibitor in our minds at the Tower of Babel, rendering our minds incapable of grasping foreign languages with ease once we had a single objective component to it?

That is, I speculate that part of the curse at Babel was that God altered our minds so that as soon as we had one linguistic concept in mind (e.g., we give the label “dog” to a specific animal) then our mind locks out alternative labels, and only with great difficulty can we learn these alternate labels.

But even that doesn’t fully describe the phenomenon. When you boil it down, there ought to be no reason that it would be more difficult to add the label “perro” to your list of labels referring to a specific animal just because you already called it “dog”. Especially when you realize that we already have tons of synonyms for “dogs” in our language already: mutt, mongrel, pooch, flea bag, hound. We can add these synonyms with ease, and yet have difficulty adding in “perro” because it’s Spanish.

Why? It makes no sense. Unless something’s going on behind the scenes to restrict our understanding of foreign languages.

Which leads me back, in a roundabout way, to the story I told about Gene at the very beginning of this post. Could it be that we already know every language that’s out there—whether because we’d have access to its morphic field or just because it’s inbuilt in humans to know concepts regardless of labels—but God has put a limiter on our minds because of the evil we would commit if we were able to share ideas freely? Could the reason Gene was able to speak in a foreign tongue without even knowing it be because, for just that moment, God lifted the restriction on his mind so that the Indian would be able to make it to the village he was looking for?

Again, it is speculation. I make no dogmatic (pun definitely intended) claim regarding dog synonyms and translations. But it’s fun to speculate sometimes.

1 comment:

  1. Noam Chomsky is a nativist on the nature/nurture debate regarding language acquisition. He thinks the linguistic samples kids are exposed to are far too meager to account for how kids master grammar.