Friday, July 10, 2015

Language and Thought: As You Think, So You Speak

The primary purpose of language is thought. Communication is secondary. It is true that language evolved out of animal calls. Ravens have 30 calls in three dialects. Our grunts, coos, and growls are necessarily more complex. The origins of modern language are unclear and the purpose of language is largely misunderstood.

One way to think about this is by analogy to geometry. Practical geometry goes back 3000 years, perhaps. We know of clay tablets with cuneiform tables of Pythagorean triples.  But formal geometry began only about 300 BCE.  So, too, did language originate with animal calls, but now serves a more abstract and sophisticated purpose.

We largely trace our modern speech back to about 10,000 years to 8000 BCE. Nostritic is a  construct that unites all Afro-Asian languages, but is highly putative. Nonetheless, it is suggestive. Proto-Indo-European is on firmer grounds but is only 6000 years old.

In the 18th century, European intellectuals stumbled on the fact that the languages of India share deep roots with the languages of Europe. Words such as mother, father, and brother, the first ten numbers, and other basic vocabulary suggested a common origin. Words for “beech” and other clues indicated the ancestral home of the “Caucasians.”
These languages all evolved from a common ancestral tongue called Proto-Indo-European (PIE), spoken ca. 6,000 years ago by a people living (by "traditional" hypothesis) somewhere in the general vicinity of the Pontic Steppe north of the Black Sea and east to the Caspian -- an area that, perhaps not accidentally, seems to coincide with the land of the ancient Scythians, from the Ukraine across far southwestern Russia to western Kazakhstan – “Indo-European Languages Evolution and Locale Maps,” by Jonathan Slocum here. 
 It is easy to see that modern languages from Greek and Latin to German and English grew by differentiation.  We know the prefixes hyper and hypo, sub and super. They indicate some motion or distance away from you, or by extension some other reference, above or below.  Beer and wine were originally the same thing: fermented liquids, but we differentiated them, by their origins, grain or fruit.

At the same time, long statements commonly understood were compressed by slang.  The word “nest” is a contraction for “nether sitten” because a nest sits down upon the branches. Today, we ask, "Wussup?"

Philologists could not ignore baby talk: we imitate our children, from “moo" for cow to “choo-choo" for train.

We all play with words. British slang calls a girl a “bird” but that is a transposition from “bride” just as the “butterfly” was originally the “flutter by.” 

No woman likes being called a whore. The rules of philology show that “whore” is the Germanic (die Hure) form of the Romance “cara” (dear).  In Italian, you can say “Cara mia” and get a kiss, but “meine Hure” does not work so well in German.  They are the same word at root.  The K in Latin becomes an H in German.  (centum = hundred; cortus = heart) That led some philologists to look for mountain ranges on the theory that those ancient ancestors aspirated their Ks while climbing uphill. The assertion did not stand up, but it does point to the kinds of ways that languages do change.

In our time, it is ROTFL and LOL, and the full range of emoticons from the simple smiley face to the inventory on your smart phone. 

The bottom line is that how you speak (or write) derives from how you think; and, conversely, how you think manifests itself in your speech (or writing). The two are different. I am often embarrassed, if not horrified, by my own vernacular speech. I take more care with my writing. OTOH YMMV.

The fact remains: what is in your head determines who and what you are. Language is the medium and means and mechanism of thought. Alone on an island, you would have no one to speak to, but the content of your mind would determine your outcome.


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