Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Dual Root of Human Language

Human language has shot forth from two distinct roots, from two different sources of fundamental influence.

The first source has been the temporal, spatial and logistical pattern that constitutes the order of the surrounding, non-biological world. This influence is seen most clearly in language’s underlying structure: object and concept, noun and verb, temporal tenses, spatial adjectives, and all manner of nuanced prepositional form. This particular aspect of language did not arise from humanity’s biological and evolutionary past, but instead came from out of the struggles of an unusual interloper; it came from the autistic perceptions and cognitions that have gained foothold within the human population. Autistic individuals, who by definition are not cognitively grounded by the usual species-aware perceptions, have created a cognitive grounding instead out of the patterns and symmetries to be found in the surrounding environment. But as biological creatures themselves, and needing to convey this unique form of perception both to themselves and to others, autistics have uncovered also the only biologically immediate means by which a non-biologically immediate perception can be represented—they have uncovered the essential accompaniment called language.

However, as has happened on many other occasions of autistic discovery and introduction, language was quickly adopted, transformed and widely spread by the more plentiful non-autistic members of the human population, and thus human language soon acquired a significant second root. This influence appears most noticeably in the core vocabularies of the world’s languages, which are dominated by words, phrases and metaphors derived out of humanity’s evolutionary and animal past, revealing that as the majority of humans were introduced to the possibilities of language, they quickly adapted its content (autistics might say they corrupted its content) to reflect those features of existence more natural and essential to them—the businesses of eating, excreting, tribalizing and procreating. Furthermore, the core content of human language is also that aspect most often accompanied by non-verbal cues and subtext, suggesting that not that long ago mankind conducted its survival and procreative business without the aid of abstract language, conducted it entirely through the medium of immediate gesture and inter-social behavior (much as the other animals do). Abstract language was the latecomer, and upon its introduction it was layered on top of an already extant form of biological communication, and both layers now play a crucial role in the immediate conversations of today. (And of course it is worth noting that it is the non-verbal, instinctively perceived aspect of human communication that autistic individuals have the most difficulty learning and mastering.)

In the early twenty-first century, human language remains a blend of its two sources of influence, and appears to resist most pulls towards becoming an homogenized mixture. The evolutionary, biological source of influence continues to hold prominence as the most frequently employed aspect of human language—from small talk to international diplomacy—and thus continues to serve its purpose of being the linguistic glue that helps hold the species together. But an examination of language’s accelerating number of changes and additions, especially those introduced over the last several hundred years, reveals how the autistic root of language has become increasingly more influential over time, threatening to regain once more what might be described as its birthright. The periodic table, representational painting, box scores, blueprints—one does not have to look far to recognize how the non-biological, non-evolutionary aspect of human language has been rapidly transforming the behavior of the species and reorganizing the manner in which it communicates. And consider the education of children—the majority of whom can pick up the core, biological aspects of language by the time they are five—but who require with each new generation more and more time, and a much greater variety of instructional technique, to absorb just a fraction of the new language and new communicative structure that has been added in recent years.

There is much that can be learned about the current status of our own humanity by teasing out the various structures and contents of the expanding forms of our human language, an analysis that becomes fruitful only after recognizing that human language did not spring from a single source alone.

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