⨳ 18 June 2021
Language is as intrinsic to the human experience as many of our biological functions, and yet it is our own creation. That is strange.
Text is a marvel.
That we speak and write words to communicate is so fundamental to who we are that we can easily take for granted how possible some other way could have been. Depending upon your worldview, writing could look like a biologically determined evolutionary step — the inexorable leveling-up of a sufficiently complex organism — or a miracle.
But it’s not evident that it is either.
After all, it is possible that we could have evolved to communicate and store knowledge in other ways. We, like many species, could have stored generational knowledge genetically — situationally amending our biological code in real time — and evolved to have a more voluntary control over retrieval of that information. Or, like trees, we could have developed a symbiotic relationship with fungi to establish a network through which we communicate and feel — literally — the experience of one another. We could chat with one another using sonic languages, or solely the movement of our bodies, or depend upon group interactions to create and disseminate meaning. Alternatives are plentiful among the animal kingdom. And though our evolution is considered to be superior to our planet-mates, that also is not obvious nor an objective fact. We don’t know how the dolphins see things.
Words seem to be a choice. Or, perhaps more specifically, the outworking of a pattern common to the human brain — one where expediency and iteration define one-way paths for us. If that sounds like a technological narrative, it is because that’s exactly what it is. It may not sound especially challenging to say that text is a technology, but the more accurate statement is to say that words themselves — languages, even — are a technology.
Our first systematic communications were done with imagery. We used simple symbols to represent big ideas, and then began to combine them to narrow in on smaller, more specific ones. A circle could represent the sun, and a circle over a semicircle could represent a sunrise, or morning. But this happened in parallel, we think, with speech. So the word that a person said — the sound they made with their mouth — to describe the sun might have nothing to do with the symbol itself. This is generally how logographic writing systems worked. Eventually, we merged the two ways of communicating — the ideas represented by symbols and the sounds made by our mouths — into phonographic languages, where the symbols represent sounds, not ideas. This was a fascinating step in complexity. And, in a way, it is very similar to how programming languages have evolved. Base layers, where objects are defined and machines are given parameters to represent those objects, can be their own languages, while operative layers, in which programs use their own internal languages to communicate between one another to move and process information, can be their own languages, too. The same meta-pattern preceded programming in the
progression of written language. Written words describe a meta-layer underneath which is a series of other symbolic layers. For an English speaker, the word “home” — both its spoken sound as well as its string of four text characters — is as basic to the understanding of the idea of where one lives as is a simple symbol for a dwelling, like a ⌂. The same is true for someone who says or writes casa, manzil, ie, wū, rumah, loger, indlu, and so on. That is why the word “home” can be the answer to a question as open-ended as “What do you want?” as well as it can itself be a question — “What is home?” — that produces a string of words that help to define it. The idea/language relationship is infinitely recursive. Language is a loop.
This, of course, is an overly simplified recounting of the story of language. But where it has taken us is the truly astounding part. Language is so entangled with our being that we can expect an infant, while still physically developing basic muscular support, balance, and movement after birth, to pick up speech patterns that are clear and common to our entire species. A few years later, when we can begin to get glimpses of their understanding of reality, it is by way of the words they use. Words become as much a part of psychology as they are biology. We can legitimately ask which came first, words or consciousness?
Words are, generally, as predictable as other acquired biological functions and yet there was a time when that was not true for humans who were indistinguishable from us at the genetic level. Words are not a gain of function, nor are they a miracle; words are a technology. We made them. Embedded as they are, they comprise a technology with which we naturally exist and unconsciously depend. We have been cyborgs since the very first pictogram was drawn. A cyborg, after all, is not just someone who wears a watch. A cyborg is someone who is crippled without it.
Text is a marvel, indeed. But for me, the key to feeling that — to experiencing the marvel rather than just intellectually acknowledging it — is its beauty. Text has aesthetic value that can enhance its function while also being completely independent of it. Ask any calligrapher. Ask a typographer. Ask an engineer who grades her code on elegance. Ask a mathematician who sees no difference between beauty, balance, and truth. They all agree on the inherent beauty of language. But accessing what they know about that is not a privilege. It’s there for us all. We only have to look. I defy you to look at any individual letter, number, or symbol in any language and not find something to admire it its elegance, balance, or the sounds, colors, and emotions that emit from its form. Stare at it long enough for its function and meaning to dissolve. Let it just be a shape. When that moment comes, you will see that it could not be any other way.
For some of us, our brains go further. A “Y” can shed its orthographic function and stand as a unique and balanced form, but also carry other sensory attributes. A synesthete might see yellow in a Y; they could hear an alto tone; or they might taste a light, floral, sweetness. A person simply in the right frame of mind might shiver or tremble at the utterance of a single word. However accustomed to it we may be, when language provokes flesh it is truly as eerie and strange as when a scientist provokes an unintended grin by prodding an exposed brain. These are all hints that there is something deeper going on between mind, body, and the symbols of our expression.
We feel our words. That is a clue, perhaps, that our nature is technological. That our brains are uniquely inclined toward creating external meaning that simultaneously creates internal being. We make things that make us. Our cyborg reality is a dizzying one.