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Strictly Speaking

The Purpose of Human Language, Part 1

Riding then-current fashion on the rising crest of the Age of Reason, French philosopher René Descarte declared, “I think therefore I am.”
This is a narrowly anthropocentric perspective of existence, suggesting that creatures that do not think are not. And while experiments on animal cognition reveal that this is demonstrably untrue, as far as it is currently known, individuals in no other species than Homo sapiens have yet been able to demand of their kin, “So what do you think about that?” Or if curiosity is communicated in other species by a cautious glance, the answer cannot be vocalized beyond a hoot, a bark, or a growl.
The mere formulation of questions requires the existence not only of a thinking mind, but the existence of an apparatus uniquely suitable to producing an unlimited range of sounds that form units of unambiguous meaning called words.
Humans are not the only vocalizing species that transmits sound. Species like whales, descended from formerly terrestrial canine creatures, are able to express a series of sounds unique enough to their identity not only to declare their individuality, but to project it into a medium, water, that efficiently carries the information for longer distances than does air. After traveling thousands of kilometers, these vocalizations can be received by others of its kind, and – as often in nature – by those who are hunting them.
Herein lies the seeds of a common tragedy in the human march toward becoming the planet’s dominant species. Since little long-term thought was given by early industrial whalers to the consequences of their hunting, if Descartes was right, then whalers do not exist. But notwithstanding the difference between analytical thought and rationalization, even maniac whalers like Melville’s Captain Ahab required the unique flexibility and range of human language if they hoped for success in their ventures.
Human language, expressed and understood, created a means for amplifying an exchange of ideas or thoughts into a basis for collective action (hunting) by directing a process of maritime invention (boats, oars, harpoons) common to cultures as otherwise different as the traditional Intuit and modern Norwegian. If building it did not bring them to you, it could take you to them.
In the ascent of man, expressed language, even more than legs, often carried them from what is thought (by anthropological population estimates) to a bottleneck of diversity of no more than one hundred thousand individuals to become a species whose current and future actions will determine whether or not the planet will continue to sustain life. But however much credit we assign Descartes, thinking and being together are not enough. Something beyond thinking and being must be observed, and that something must be commonly deemed useful enough to merit discussion beyond the confinement of a single, isolated mind. But it is here, within the mind, that the process begins. Read More 
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