The human language is by far the most powerful tool that humanity has. After all, what distinguishes us from animals is this sweet little thing we call ‘language’. By just manipulating the air that comes out of our mouths, we can start a relationship, a marriage, or even a war.
The things we can do with language and their gravity are tremendous. The communicative potential of the human language is open-ended and breath-taking.
We can talk about literally anything, even about hypothetical things that have no existence outside our heads, like math, philosophy, or unicorns. It’s like what Pinker wittingly said: “we can shape events in each other’s heads with exquisite precision”.
In this article, I want to draw your attention to the incredible role that language played in the advancement of human life. Let me just tell you that we are where we are because of language. “How come?” you would say. Well, read on.
- Cultural progress:
One of the most powerful things that language brought about is that it played the function of the ‘save’ button in human’s cultural progress. Advancements in human culture and innovation are possible only with language.
With writing and recording our history and how we got stuff done, we pass on knowledge to other generations, so they don’t have to start from scratch. With language, humanity had been able to conserve information, pass it on to others, and preserve it for many generations to come.
Progress in other species is limited, but language broke this barrier for humans. Since the advent of language, information has been rolling in a kind of a snowball effect, accumulating at a fast and unprecedented rate.
Basically, the pinnacle of progress we reached today, from space invasion to smart phones, advanced educational systems, curing diseases, you name it… was only possible because we had and still have language.
This is where the video game metaphor comes to mind; language allows us to ‘save’ our progress, which would be lost forever if we didn’t have it.
- Creating new worlds:
Another equally important aspect of human language is the ability to talk about things and events that are not observable in the immediate environment. I presume you already know this, but have you thought about its implications?
We humans, unlike any other species, can talk about what happened two centuries ago, or what will happen in two years from now. Not only that, we can talk about things that do not or will never exist. That is why we invent stories, novels, theatre, movies, and even lies to entertain or to deceive each other.
Things like these let you marvel at the potential of the human language. We can talk about very complex and abstract notions, like the reality and the purpose of our existence, the notion of time, the nature of consciousness, love, God and whether or not there is one, what happens when we die, etc.
Using language, we invent, religions, myths, and cults, which reshape the human existence. These things are only possible given a system as sophisticated as language.
- Building relationships:
When we talk to one another, we don’t just exchange information or simply engage in conversation. We do a whole lot more than that. We engage in probably the most defining moment for humans, because when we talk, we exercise the only thing that makes us human.
It is kind of a miracle that two evolved mammals can look at each other in the eye and have a focused talk about their concerns, what makes them feel good or bad, or how they feel about each other. Not only that, when we talk, we regulate and build relationships with other speakers at will, using nothing but puffs of air.
While you are seated where you are, probably thousands of miles away from me, by reading this article written in one of humans’ languages, you are actually reading exactly what is in my mind (who said mind reading is impossible?).
By just talking to you, I can choose whether to keep you as a friend, as a lover, as an acquaintance, or kick you out of my life indefinitely. Powerful stuff, huh! By just talking to you, I could make intelligent guesses about who you are, what part of the country you’re from, whether you have a respectable income or not, whether you are friendly, lovable, ridiculous, or obnoxious, without you saying a word about it.
When we talk, we cannot help but drop hints about our identity and who we are. Language helped humanity build smart societies in which interpersonal relationships are painstakingly crafted. With language, we could raise better children, build more effective organizations, and reach a better understanding of who we are and how we should relate to one another.
If we start to number the things that we can do with languages, and how languages has helped humanity, I guess a lifetime would not be enough. Suffices it to say that without language, we’d still be living in the animal kingdom, struggling to eat and mate.
Article written by Yacine Ahtaitay, language teacher and enthusiast, PhD student in generative syntax, MA in Applied Linguistics.