instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Strictly Speaking

Please Report to the Podium?


Podium means literally footing, or step up and corresponds to a slightly raised platform giving speakers, an advantage in being heard while projecting their voices over the heads of the crowd. It comes from the same root word as podiatrist, or foot doctor. Properly applied it does not mean counter, as those in airline lounges, where passengers are asked to report to the podium, and looking around, find no podium.

The counters passing themselves off as podiums (or podia) are not set on a slightly raised platform. Nor can a speaker on a stage be asked to take the podium, as he or she is already on the podium, left only the opportunity of advancing to the lectern, or speaker’s stand,. This is usually a rectilinear stand with a titled top for papers and a microphone for audio pick-up. Even modern speakers, afraid to seem overly educated, might prefer asking a speaker to come to the microphone, in that the microphone is actually still unconfusingly a microphone.

The problem with the expansion of meanings in words like podium is that they gradually eliminate previously common and more distinctive words from use. Pity, that. Only words that are narrowly distinctive facilitate clear understanding immediately. If, per the trend, the core vocabulary continues to shrink, the end point will be the time when one size fits all. So any noun will be called a “thing” and another object in the same space will be “the other thing,” even when there are many things to be confused. The sole benefit would be to improve consensus. All could agree on a thing that is unbounded by denotation.  Read More 
Be the first to comment



Innovation is an unambiguous and useful word on its own legs. It doesn’t need any crutches. In its simplest definition it means the act of introducing something. It derives from the Latin root word novus, or new. Contemporary double-speak has created the unnecessary redundancy of the “new innovation.” This should produce the same reaction as fingernails dragged across a blackboard.

An innovation can only, by definition, be new. An “old innovation” is an oxymoron, a phrase that contradicts itself. There cannot, logically, be an old newness. Or if so, it is only a as a confusing thought exercise in physics. If, as Stephen Hawking believes, only a completely degenerate, motionless cosmic egg existed prior to the Big Bang, then it was possible to construct it as an entity in space that lacked time. Time and motion are inextricably interconnected. No motion = no time.

This is why even at absolute zero degrees real systems have a zero point vibrational energy, an internal quantum mechanical clock that can tick no more slowly. But since humans are drawn by limited experience to an intuition that may be completely at odds with reality, as in relativity and quantum mechanics, there is a nagging desire to know what the universe was like “before” the Big Bang. Although Hawking has given us an out, for people who cannot stop the conviction that time in continuous and unending, then the Big Bang itself could be the oldest innovation we knew.

For people who don’t think physics, there was some unheard clock ticking away, like a time bomb, awaiting the moment when the universe exploded out of its degenerate seed. That seed was a dense pack of Higgs bosons, which have no spin. Ergo no motion and are, ergo, timeless. All particles subsequent to the Big Bang have the property of spin. They are little clocks set to a fundamental ticking that is inherent and neverending. Through supernovae and other insults, they take a licking and keep on ticking.

But the most objectionable problem with the expression “new innovation” is that it has become obligatory to tribal noise, a conjunction of sounds that, while unnecessarily redundant, nonetheless, has come to pass as transcendent insight. In fact, it is just verbosity inflating at a rate approaching that of the universe itself.

The consolation is that, in the end, dark energy will trump tribal noise, cosmic clocks and the rest. Read More 
Be the first to comment

Opposites Are Not Identical


Once upon a time there was an adjective named bad. In that time it existed to describe people or objects or contracts or social ideas or philosophies genuinely believed by the user of the word bad to be unacceptable, unfavorable, undesirable, unsuitable in use or even unfavorable in consumption. Gary Larsen once drew a cartoon titled “When potato salad goes bad.”

Being deemed bad is generally taken as being less helpful to social mainstream objectives than being good. Good was the opposite of bad as is light and dark, or black and white. Distinctions by contrast were often dramatically useful in asserting simple-minded differences, as in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It is not dramatically implicit even after several viewings whether Lee van Cleeve or Eli Wallach was the bad, or why the guy left over after the tie-breaker was ugly. Nor was it clear why the ugly one, whoever that was, lacked the moral polarity of goodness or badness that characterized the others. It was only clear that when all three men stood squinting like mad dogs in the noonday sun, that distinctions of moral virtue were going to be less important than besting Sammy Davis, Jr. in removing the peacekeeper from its holster and pulling the trigger, assuming you didn’t squeeze prematurely and shoot yourself in the foot Read More 
Be the first to comment

Tribal Noise: Misuse, Overuse, Predictability and Meaninglessness


Scientists define accuracy as the nearness to that elusive Eldorado of the mind, the truth. If one attempts to determine the rest mass of an electron, as a start it might do to start with Millikan’s famous, clever, crude and laboriously brilliant oil drop experiment. But that is just a start, and science pursues accuracy relentlessly. So you will need to and continue to measure this fundamental unit of our universe in different, independent experimental ways, using different experimental results that should – if the theories connecting them are correct – converge on one value good enough to plug in to experiments that are, in turn, used to measure other fundamental properties of units containing electrons, such as atoms, molecules, and ions.

Of course the results of careful experiments are expected to be reproducible, but reproducibility is communicated by an entirely different word, precision, which for the purposes of making this discussion long enough for a published book, is discussed again under – why not? – precision. It is done precisely because of Marine Corps dogma that if you repeat enough times to a recruit, however stupid, something that you want him to believe, he (or these days, she) will eventually accept and apply it.

In science, the purpose of reference books is to accumulate in tabular form from the professional literature such values as are, at that fleeting moment, the received wisdom. Sometimes, more often than one might hope, errors occur.

And why not? The books are compiled by humans based on other humans whose motives and methods are occasionally not as pure as their putative ideals.

Once during a famous multiparametric experiment into a matter so arcane and yet nonetheless vital that Richard Feynman felt driven to pursue it with his legendary indefatigable graduate students.

Feynman’s experiment was, in the parlance of physicists (who speak to each other and argue with God), infallibly structured. The expected answer could, as often in physics, be predicted in advance. Yet the measurement he got, time after time, continued to give an uncalculated answer.

Bringing us back, along the conversational Mobius strip, to accuracy, and the fact that when a value is given, it is never perfectly rendered. To the extent that either experimental device or fundamental prohibitions dictate, accuracy is always plus or minus something.

On a grocer’s scale you can measure the weight of an apple to plus or minus, say, one eighth or .125 of a pound. And so the weight that is given, even if digitally presented, can be greater than the value indicated by this much, or less by this much. Since its weight is uncertain by the span between the low and the high, the value shown is uncertain by twice this 0.125 pound, or 0.25 pound. This isn’t unfairness in commerce. It’s just the limit in the Hooke’s Law constant, k, in the spring under the pan.

Every scientist has to live with this, and to report it. But Feynman’s famous funny experiment was not just off by the cumulative errors of all the devices used in the experiment. It was off, and always off, by an amount that corresponded to the difference of a conventionally accepted physical constant that was used as given in the literature, as an assumption. And so this forced the brilliant Dr. Feynman, who was surely not joking, to ask, “As regards the value of this constant, how well do we know this ‘fact?’”

The answer to that question was not just a successful outcome for Feynman’s clever experiment, but a revision of the value of the formerly accepted constant to its correct, and, yes, accurate value. You will not find the person establishing the former value to introduce himself at parties as, “The guy who provided the wrong number that cost Dick Feynman a hundred hours of anguish.”

Nobody likes to be the guy who used to be right. Worse, of course, was the fact that Feynman, while Einsteinian in asking questions that were very simple and profound, was also handsome, charming, funny and entertaining. Mere people, the ones who write and rewrite history, will forgive a scientist like John Cavendish being a fulminating misogynist because he was, surpassing that fault, a brilliant physicist. Ad they might have forgiven Richard Feynman at least half of his ineffably delightful traits but for one: women loved him.

In matters of love, it cannot be said that a woman loves a man plus or minus anything, because so far no one has established a basic unit for love, or devised a scale upon which it can be measured. Mostly it’s more absolute that way, either everything or nothing. True love is chronically infatuating.

But in other human competitions, especially sports, there is usually a metric that establishes with some accuracy who wins and who doesn’t.

In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Michael Phelps is said to have won his record setting eighth gold medal in the finals of the one hundred meter butterfly by 0.01 second. His victory was measured on a timing system that was claimed to be accurate to plus or minute 0.005 seconds. No one ever verified this. In China, those who question authority end up submerging from view, with their organs popping up in paying recipients from Stockholm to Tierra del Fuego.

But assuming the Chinese timers were accurate to the precision mentioned, this means that Michael Phelps’ time could have been 0.005 seconds slower, and his rival, silver medalist Lásló Cseh of Hungary could have been 0.005 seconds faster, meaning a dead heat.

This happens, even officially. In the immediately preceding Games in Athens in 2004 the gold medal in 50 meter freestyle was shared by Gary Hall, Jr. and Anthony Edwards. A silver medal was unawarded, the next place being third, for bronze. Like it or not, them’s the rules. Read More 
Be the first to comment

The Gold Standard of Words, Part 2


The emergence of excellence in communication does not require ponderously long sentences. It is catalyzed by using words that are correct in detonation, informative in connotation, and sufficiently succinct as to disallow confusion in meaning. In a world where even the distinct consequences of shouting, “Fire!” may be either a group response to a conflagration or total thermonuclear war, it is important that intent and care inform word choice.

Now let’s see the way that the current usage of a number of familiar words indicates that many current speakers have lost the command of language in service of meaning. The importance of immediate acceptance, as indicated by the epidemic of friending on Facebook has shrunk and hidebound our core vocabulary at exactly the time when the complexity of future issues requires an extension of its reach.

What follows is a necessarily incomplete illustration of how this shrinkage is diminishing the ability to communicate precisely. And to the unanchored drift, we need to recall the Bard’s advice:

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the
action; with this special observance, that you
o’erstep not the modesty of nature.”
- Hamlet, Act III, scene 2

More to come. Read More 
Be the first to comment

The Gold Standard of Words, Part 1


In order to polarize my argument, I’ll provide you with a linguistic choice. It is not an arbitrary choice, or a choice of preference, or one that skews the field of reason toward a favored conclusion; it is a linguistically utilitarian choice. It favors choices that improve the density in meaning that result from making the best choice among many available options.

In its most extreme form, unshaded by the many nuances that language often brings, it is this: either words are unconfusing universally understood symbols of meaning that guide communication, discussion, argument, agreement, actions and commitments, or they tend toward familiar noises, issued without attention to a emotional connotation or deep meaning, but only for the purpose of creating the illusion of agreeability, and for signaling that you belong to a group, share their beliefs, outlooks, values and hopes, and are not one of the dreaded Other.

Uttering familiar tribal noise indicates that you belong, are a person every other tribesman would like to share a beer with. By narrowing vocabulary and avoiding substance in your speech, you assure other tribesmen that no serious disagreement will arise, because by limiting the range of words used, utterances can never be divisive. By resetting your default to tribal noise, or MacLanguage, conformist usage forces words to change meaning to buttress the social purpose of unification.

The result is that the scientific convention of deliberately and consciously choosing exactly defined words, words that are dense in unambiguous meaning, words that encourage skepticism and dispute, is consciously suppressed in favor of the repetition of familiar, even contradictory words, words or gestures nurtured by social conventions – such as nodding, shrugging, and “whatever.”

If we could find a gold standard for word choice, it would require a density of meaning, words created as distinct for specific and important purposes not subordinated to intellectual pretenses, words not conscripted to create the appearance of meaning whereas in fact their use betrays a lack of understanding. E. B. White recognized a fundamental elegance in the English language: if a speaker or writer is conversant enough with its vocabulary and presses hard enough, he or she can almost always find the word with exactly the intended meaning.

This kind of definitive specificity eliminates the confusion of vagueries arising from using unspecific words, as in “Why didn’t you show up at the place and get the thing and the other thing along with whatever and bring them you know where after?”

In spoken American English, this sort of expression occurs every day. A clear improvement would be, “Why weren’t you at Sutton Place at three to pick up the salad and wine?” This question rephrases the former one with specific referents, and at a level of language that is no more demanding of immediate comprehension than its earlier version.

The recurrent point of such considerations is that unless the objective of speech is the simultaneous destruction of individuality and communication, a departure from the current trend toward ever narrower core vocabularies is essential. Read More 
Be the first to comment

Junk Words, Part 2

No social advantage is conferred by learning words that few understand. In a completely modern sense, even in crowds involving an expanding demographic, the ability to belong, or to be invited or accepted into the tribe, depends upon avoiding the primatological stigma of seeming to be the Other.

Currently, the conversational range of familiar tribal noise is extremely narrow. As in nature, when the diversity of DNA within a species narrows, the possibility of mass extinction increases. Approaching this asymptote, the din of tribal noise rises. Any words beyond a familiar and narrow range become shibboleths. In ancient societies, the use of shibboleths could lead to stoning. Now they are more likely to result in stonewalling.

Never before in human history have so many serious problems needed such thoughtful consideration. The proper use of the right words is key to understanding. And understanding is bedrock to blazing a trail that leads out of the thicket of complexity into clear plans and thoughtful commitments. Meaning is not necessarily guaranteed by sticking to simple words or short sentences, however clearly a speaker may have intended them. Consider, for example:

Ship sails today.

Three simple, broadly understood words. One sentence. But not even the punctuation reveals the speaker’s intent. Is the sentence an imperative, and order commanding the commitment of a commodity, sails, to a process, shipment? Or is the sentence declarative, providing information on a dock, that a ship, like the Titanic, will weigh anchor and voyage to a destination? Often context rushes to the rescue, but if “Ship sails today” were the only message beamed to extraterrestrial intelligence, what would the receivers make of it, even if we provided them pictures of a ship and a sail?

The problem with junk words is both that their frequency creates confusion while diminishing the intended signal. Today one may speak at great length and never communicate anything close to deep meaning. Even on as august a source as NPR radio, a guest and her host used the word “incredible” an incredible nine times in two minutes. For want of the ability to tap the correct word in order to discuss and describe, the retreat to a much repeated hyperbole acquitted the discussion of the customary burden of serious communication.

A need is rapidly developing for the intervention of a crucial lexicographic remedial program, because, in incontrovertible truth – as the super storm Sandy of 2012 proved – there is not an app for everything. And to restrict one’s attention, time and even belief that your i-phone will rescue you from a flooding basement is dangerously delirious thinking. At such moments, it matters not at all that you have five thousand Friends across every nation on Earth (upper case E means the planet, lower case e means dirt). What you need at such moments is one real first responder who understands one simple word: “Help!”

In some essential respect, as tribal noise inundates modern conversation, this book is a desperate cry to rescue the language from an onrushing flood of meaninglessness. It seeks those readers who are able to understand the cry for help, trusting that without them, entropy will put meaning to rout. Read More 
Be the first to comment

Junk Words, Part 1

Our DNA is a molecular language that allows the successful results of evolutionary selection to provide for the creation of amino acids, proteins, and then, step-by-step, the differentiation of cells into tissues, organs and a bipedal stereoscopic creature that occupies the taxonomic slot Homo sapiens.

On close examination, our DNA is not the elegant, miraculously minimalist formulation one might expect of an intelligent designer, but contains inactive records or ancient infections that our primate ancestors battled and overcame, along with unmistakable evidence for occasional, if infrequent, dalliances with our Neanderthal cousins. A surprising swath of the doubly spiraling molecule composed of just four amino acids bound at the girth by nucleotide bases is what popular science writers and geneticists have coined “junk DNA.”

Junk DNA is an inextricable part of us, but benign, unthreatening, simply ineffectual. Like sentimental objects consigned to a dusty attic, junk DNA has somehow accumulated but never expresses itself. It is not dangerous, in the sense of representing a latent threat to as few as one in twenty million people. It is simply the residue of the struggle to advance from an earlier form into a new and more challenging niche. In this respect it is dissimilar to a carcinogenic mutation, a change in an individual’s DNA that may occur more frequently in one cultural group or region of population than in the population at large.

Many mutations are known and cataloged, some as clearly as a single gene that codes for Huntington’s Disease, a chronically progressive neurologically degenerative affliction that killed folk singing legend Woody Guthrie.

By contrast, junk DNA follows us like a chain of cans tied to the back of a car that chases newly weds to their future. The difference is that it follows us from generation to generation in a process that reaches back many millions of years. It is an artifact that, molecularly, no longer communicates useful design information. Quite literally in fact, it is silent, unexpressed. We do not see it manifest anywhere in our form. It is quintessentially insignificant. In Shakespeare’s memorable and carefully chosen words, it signifies nothing.

By analogy, usage is increasingly injecting words into conversation that are so often and inappropriately repeated that they, too, are to meaningful expression what junk DNA is to the human genome. But instead of being a legacy of abandoned and resurrected junk, junk words are hollow neologisms, their contributions nullified by obligatory repetition, their occurrence attributable to a modern tribal need: to remain included, to be accepted.

A formal precedent for the concatenation of junk words masquerading as serious discussion occurs in the United States Congress. It is called a filibuster. Once given the floor by the speaker, a Congressman may speak until his (or her) voice fails him (or her), as long as he (or she) speaks words. They can be proper nouns from a phone book. In fact, this is common source of material for filibustering.

The purpose of the filibuster is to obstruct discussion or delay a vote on an issue that is unfavored by a party or individual. Filibusters have delayed, sometimes for many days, the inevitable passage of landmark legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act. The purpose of sustaining the vocalization of words is not to advance discussion, but to paralyze attention on the speaker, without a commensurate obligation to the speaker to make sense, or introduce any matter relevant to communication or understanding.

The shrinkage of core vocabulary that has paralleled the decline in verbal SAT scores for four consecutive decades flourishes in the social gatherings of young adults whose range of spoken words on any given evening, excluding proper nouns such as names, may never exceed one hundred and fifty. Beyond this, many of the words used in informal conversation are used incorrectly or confusingly, the precedent often set from mistaken use by newscasters or contemporaries.

If the conversation from one million parties were parsed for linguistic breadth, it is unlikely that the range of words used would begin to indicate a language with a lexicon of nearly one million English words, and an extension of these words into applications in specific fields, like chemistry or physics, that easily exceeds eleven million and growing.

In order to participate meaningfully in discussion within a field of specialty, one must expand the facility with the language by mastering both concepts and related words. At some point, a choice is made between the lonely pursuit of excellence and the comfort that by constraining the use of words to familiarly repeated sounds, a social purpose is served.

By “dumbing down” speech, social access is broadened. Intellectually unthreatened people are more open to accepting strangers. And between belonging and exclusion, many chose the path of least resistance. Read More 
Be the first to comment

The Purpose of Human Language, Part 3

So, how did otherwise disagreeable individuals in an early human tribal community come to recognize necessarily distinct objects by the sounds that accurately represented them?

Nobody knows, or may ever know, but there are important clues from our biologically close relatives. In a sense that perhaps neither Charles Darwin nor Alfred Russell Wallace properly anticipated, fitness as a filter for natural selection may work both on an individual and collective level. It would be strange, given that modern monkeys emit characteristic screams warning for ‘eagle’ and ‘snake,’ if our prelingual ancestors did not create counterpart sounds. When danger presented itself to the group, a solitary upright bipedal animal would not benefit uniquely from silence any more than it would benefit from remaining motionless. Even now, when people are startled by unexpected gunfire or explosions, they scream and scatter. But a scream, while communicating an underlying primal fear, does not communicate any level of detail about the stimulus for that fear.

Benjamin Latimer has suggested that the progression of the primate laryngeal apparatus toward the configuration that is required to master a broad range of vocalization. There is a gene, FOXP2, associated with the capacity for human language, but spoken language, as opposed to signing, requires an instrument of variable sounds that is adept at creating them across a broad range.

This did not happen overnight. Not even in as simplified a tale of origins as the Bible are we told on what day God created language. But it seems unlikely that one day an entire pack of these creatures burst forth in fully articulated language. Even when the author Lewis Carroll invented what was clearly structured like a language, it appeared without an attached culture or history. For Carroll’s ersatz language no Rosetta Stone existed, at least beyond the mind of its creator. Its nature and details were sufficiently unfamiliar that even Greek would have been more comprehensible.

Pursuing the same tutored instinct, author and philologist J. R. R. Tolkien created an unfamiliar yet enchanting alphabet for his Hobbit trilogy. This was not an incredible leap of pure faith. Archeologists have exhumed the written records of many long dead civilizations. History begins in the transition between painting and written characters, but not to the exclusion of cultures without writing. More than eighty-five percent of cultures exist with only a spoken expression for communication. For nomadic peoples, where the roles and routines are fixed by the seasons and rigid social niches, a written literature may seem a pointless effort.

Written language does not immediately provide food or shelter or improve health. But the spell of storytelling seems to escape the hardship of nomadic life. Rich oral traditions, repeated and embroidered, reach back beyond their eventual written counterparts. Wherever tribal connections favor individual advancement, skillful schmoozing will become a facile means to an end, provided that meaning is embodied in an acoustical structure.

How did this happen?

Again, nobody knows, although ancient legends purport all kinds of human gifts to divine largesse. Or, as even a churchgoing, hard-praying Forrest Gump doubted, maybe not. Prelingual primates evolving toward a fully human range of expression must have developed at least a rudimentary suite of sounds for particularly useful objects: sticks and stones that not only break bones, but allowed primitive torches and hearth stones. In the hunt or for common defense, the mastery and portability would have provided another deterrent against creatures with instincts to flee fire. Fire, or any other essential element of a nomadic culture, would have forged for itself an early place in emerging tribal vocabularies.

Example must be not only real, but representative.

Here’s one: In the Academy Award winning film Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner communicates with his Amerindian hosts by using the sound they use for Buffalo: “Tonka.” Then he holds his fingers up like horns on each side of his head, depicting the sound’s meaning: buffalo. Finally he points toward where he has spotted them. So in “Tonka,” is another inescapably essential noun, the sine qua non of a culture of the plains Indian that depended entirely on the buffalo.

The absence of a familiar noun for buffalo would have reduced the process of communicating to a bizarre atavistic game of charades on the prairie. Whereas it is easy to imagine a developmental process of spoken sounds that expanded from a culturally essential element, it is more difficult to imagine a nomadic culture that converged on the essential via trivial pursuits. The harder a lifestyle is, the more economical and immediate its vocabulary must be. There is an inescapable congruity of form and substance that limited the size of vocabulary until agrarian settlements accumulated food stores and diversified technologies.

The requirement for the development of an increasing number of vocalized nouns likely started, to Descartes’ posthumous delight, directly from the need to name the sundry objects explored by the ancestral hand. Long before our predecessors evolved the biological flexibility to master a range of sounds, our brains had allocated a disproportional area of the cortex to the exquisite exploration, manipulation and projection of physical objects discovered in their environment. Vocalized language is not an essential prerequisite to the recognition of possibilities, alteration of naturally occurring objects into tools, or individual intellectual development.

Even without speech, humans are curious creatures. Deaf children have no less fascination in how tools and puzzles and gadgets work than do children with a full range of audible speech. And they, too, need ways to share their discoveries with others. Unsurprisingly, they do so by exhibiting, with those same hands that dominate more neurons than the speech center, a sign for each object. Their nouns, and other words, are shapes in space presented by the most flexibly chiral of all manipulators, the human hand.

All that the hand needs in order to effectively employ objects is a fully opposable thumb. Fortunately we have one, and this allows us to seize such objects in what is called a power grip. With the assistance of an equally capable eye, the hands can begin to alter naturally occurring materials. As in all species, some individuals will be more gifted in thinking, or recognizing possibilities, than others. But without language, the enlargement of manual skills from one generation to another is limited to the ability of observant apprentices to watch and emulate master craftsmen, or – more often in hardship cultures like the !Kung – craftswomen.

Unfortunately, what observation and emulation often does not communicate is a set of underlying “whys.” Why was a particular stone chosen as more suitable to forming a hand axe or spear tip? Why was a particular tree branch used as the starting material for a club or kindling to start a fire? Only when a master craftsman’s or agronomist’s reasoning can be codified into spoken form can it be transmitted not by observation, but by hearing. This brings us to another transformational aspect of speech as a medium of communication: unlike a deaf person, whose signing falls silent when hands are occupied with fabrication, a master artisan who speaks can both demonstrate his skills as well as elaborate on reasons, techniques, even alternatives – drawing into the realm of possibility objects that are not physically present, and actions that are not being employed at the moment of creation.

It is broadly proclaimed that mastery of fire was pivotally important to humans surviving the hardships of the last Ice Age. But far older remnants of hominid fires stretch south from Europe, reaching farther into Africa. Long before needed to stave off lethal cold, controlled fire banished the darkness to expose approaching predators and allowed firebrands to be used by sentries for self-defense. Fire extended the hours for socializing, sharing objects or inventions, and sharpening or replacing spear tips. Fire banished nocturnal darkness, allowed cooking of foods and experimentation with thermal properties of objects, from stones to clay. But if the neurological evidence is weighed, it gives manipulation primacy over pyrotechnology. If you unwittingly pick up a hot object from a stove, you will feel its shape before you feel its conducted heat. This is because the neural pathways for gripping and manipulating were wired in millions of years before the need of our primate ancestors to detect heat. Like all other animals except rhinoceri, humans are naturally afraid of fire, and should be. No doubt its mastery was achieved tentatively, by daring excursions to pick up dry sticks ignited by lightning or wildfire, or by poking long branches into flowing lava. Inventive and desperate, humans would eventually learn how to use fire to cauterize wounds, both extending individual lifespans and, thereby, protecting a critical size for social function in a species that, more than any other, needed to depend on one another in order for the collective to survive.

Yet even today we say, “Don’t play with fire.” But we don’t say, “Don’t play.” We are experimental creatures. We experiment, we discover, and we yearn to impress. In order to impress, we need something that allows us to express, to easily share our triumphs and discoveries. To do that, wee need more than hoots and barks and grunts. We need language.

In the trial and error of controlling fire and kicking hornet’s nests, there were doubtless more failures than successes. In order to endure, it is more important to survive at a familiar subsistence lifestyle than it is to follow a leader over a cliff who insists, “If birds fly, so can we.” In watching the peril of disinhibited humans today, it is not difficult to imagine a leader ever more conservative than any we see now. And it is easy to imagine humans as more emotional in a fearful environment than in a safer one. So as vocalization grew, it is easier to imagine a careful, emotional leader screaming, “Stop!” than, “Be careful as you approach the edge of the cliff.”

It is difficult to imagine a valid argument for the emergence of language that ignores what has become inextricably imbedded in it today: gestures and expressions. Especially gestures. Among our distant forefathers, there is one situation in which communication and coordination was at a premium, but so was silence: hunting. For these essential activities, whose outcomes meant prosperity or hardship, a series of commonly understood signs – such as pointing a direction and indicating a number of hunters to move in a certain direction by raising and pointing a corresponding number of fingers – would suffice without requiring even rudimentary speech.

As with deaf individuals, a sufficient range of utilitarian gestures may have measured out survival until spoken language. If a gesture were in place before the vocal apparatus and neural program essential to speech, it would likely be retained for familiarity while speech developed, and used as visible punctuation, adding emphasis or clarification. But when silence was an advantage, as in hunting, the commonly understood hand signs would continue as they had, perhaps for many hundreds of thousands of years. Time and experience would have taught that slow cooperative encirclement is more efficient, conserves more energy and creates fewer individual risks than pursuit of game by relay. When the hunters are few and the risks great, the economy of this method is no less valid today than it was a million years ago. Gestures comprise the communication of choice among elite forward forces, such as Rangers and SEALS.

Gestures are a form of visible emphasis. But they are also, like our appendix, vestigial reminders of a time when we did not speak, both because we could not speak and because any vocalization would give us away. From another perspective, sign language was the first form of code. It included all that was needed for the desired insiders to act, and gave away nothing to others who did not understand the gestures. By strange but inevitable coincidence, language is primal and tribal. Its unique form and sounds include embedded shibboleths that simultaneously include natives and exclude others. Sadly, language is both the great uniter and the great divider. To a multilingual speaker, the world is his or her proverbial oyster. To the monolingual tribesman, global limitations in communication exceed possibilities. Read More 
Be the first to comment

The Purpose of Human Language, Part 2

For the earliest hominids, the possibility of survival was in the thinking machine, the brain. But its transmission and implementation would require the invention of common action. Einstein did not come to us overnight, bu Read More 
Be the first to comment