What Is the Realistic Value of a Language?

Written by Dyami Millarson

The question of a language’s value is relevant to language preservation. Language has made humans more evolutionarily succesful than any other species on planet Earth. When I think about language deeply and observe what it does, I see it as a system that is mimicking observed reality. Language is a parallel reality of sorts. It took me many years of experience with language-learning to grasp this profound yet simple truth. Language is a simulation of reality, and therefore words are the building blocks of this simulated reality.

Humans gained an evolutionary advantaged by creating their own parallel reality based on the immediately observed reality, and that is also why I think humans gained the mysterious ability of abstraction and imagination. In my view, these are merely an extension of the nature of language: fiction is the product of human beings’ ability to mimick reality by using the tool of language, which is human-created parallel reality. Language is created using very simple human evolutionary tools: it relies primarily on sounds made with the mouth. Yet this is humanity’s most marvellous creation; we used very simple tools to create our own parallel reality, and this helped us to escape the animal world which is trapped in a reality of immediate experience.

How I see it is that animal experience seems to be much less abstract than human experience. Even (historical) human cultures that rely primarily on immediate experience or in other words value direct observation a lot more than imagination do make use of a lot more abstraction than animals would ever be capable of. Humans are the apex predator and hard to predict for animals because humans possess their own creation of language. Language is a cutting-edge tool or technology that allowed humans to outsmart all animals. In a way, one could view terrestrial evolution as a race for the first species to develop complex communication, and humans won that race, thus outcompeting all of Earth’s animals.

The fact that language means simulated reality and words are building blocks of human parallel reality means that each individual human language is its own unique simulation of reality, and hence we may say that each language is a unique worldview. Human culture is intimately tied with abstraction, and therefore with language. Human culture is so complex – I should say abstract – that it requires language for its proper transmission.

Although a lot of skills could be learned simply by watching and imitating as our primate evolutionary relatives also do, many skills do require some additional explanation and could be learned much faster with the help of language. Language-based transmission of skills is much more economical than purely observation-based transmission of skills and therefore humans that possessed language had an advantage in transmitting their culture over those who did not possess the tool of language, and therefore no human peoples who do not have language remain.

Practically all human tribes and clans developed their own language. These languages are complex puzzles that provide the pieces to create a picture of reality. Languages contain data that help us get an idea about what our ancestors experienced and it also helps us understand what we could potentially experience (hypothetically speaking) as well as how we could efficiently describe our current, past or future experiences. Therefore, all indigenous languages provide us with the pieces we need in order to know the range of experiences that the ancestors of a particular group of people regularly experienced. As we may assume that each language is a simulated reality that is an intentional copy of observed reality, we can safely assume that the language of a tribe or clan – whilst languages do usually not appear overnight but build on many generations of observed reality of immediate experience – is an accurate display of the puzzle of the historical reality that a certain people lived in. Said in a simpler way, a tribal language reflects the environment in which a tribe lived; or said in the simplest way, a language is a people’s memories of experiences a.k.a. history.

However, what makes languages a fascinating source of information is that it is not organised in a very strict fashion like a history book. Instead, the information can, to a large extent, be molded however one likes. A language is not like a chess board with a limited set of pieces, but a language is more like an unimaginably huge chess board with so many more possible moves and so many more chess pieces than a normal chess board. It could be said that language is a very, very, very complex game of chess. However, I am hesitant to claim its possibilities are truly infinite; its possibilities are many, but probably not infinite, because I can regularly see its limitations, and I use exactly those limitations to figure out more about the cultures associated with those languages.

Returning to the link between history and language, I find languages much more fascinating than history books, because although the arrangement of historical information in languages may be extremely chaotic, it tells me so much more than a history book could ever tell. Humans live in a chaotic world, and languages reflect this. I can make sense of the chaotic historical and cultural information found in languages, and I have grown to appreciate this much more than the orderly information found in history books. Languages offer you a kind of ‘uncensored’ or ‘unprocessed’ version of history that practically no history book would ever tell you; the way in which languages tell you about history is so much more chaotic, yet so much more informative on so many levels.

When I learn endangered minority languages, I am learning to master new historically based simulated realities that others of my age have never experienced. Languages are essentially the computer games or virtual realities of the past. Each endangered language that I learn is like a very addictive online multiplayer computer game that everyone has forgotten about. When you explore the world of such a computer game, you may find it is lonely and you may realise others are really missing out on what an amazing game it is; and you may also feel the nostalgia the game has about it, and so you feel compelled to ask others to join the game and start using it again so becomes really a multiplayer game again.

Endangered languages are truly like dying online multiplayer games. However, at any point in time those multiplayer games may be rediscovered and people might want to play it again and explore the virtual world with their online group of friends. Languages are amazing tools that require teamwork; they could be enjoyed by a single individual just as an online multiplayer game could technically be played and kept alive by a single individual, but it is so much more fun when others join in and can share and relate to the entire experience. Just as online games may be updated so they meet people’s current expectations, human languages may be updated; this is also what we intend to do by using endangered languages for blogging on WordPress.

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4 gedachtes over “What Is the Realistic Value of a Language?”

  1. As you say, language is built by our past experiences, but I believe it also limits our future achievements. English is the only language I truly know, I am not good with sounds because of a hearing problem. English is, for me, a language of technology, and religion. It is not a language of spirituality, as once was Sanskrit, and still are other Eastern languages. Discussing spirituality (not religion) in English is near impossible. Most of our best words are stolen from other languges. Religion was important, spirituality was not.
    Just looking at the word spirit and its many offshoots gives us an indication of the complexity of the word spirit (Look in any good dictionary!) It is used for so many things, including religion, that it is basically a meaningless word. It is overused and under-understood. We need words from other languages to really understand “what I see as the real meaning of spirit,” and therein lies the problem with so many English words. We each have our own understandings of certain words. We reuse them, and recycle them so often we end up with words like the word “run, which at last count had over 120 meanings.” Why cannot we have 120 different words so there is no confusion.
    Let us look at the Inuit language for clarity, they have something like a hundred words for the word “snow!” And not one of theose words means the same as another. Their experience taught them the need to describe snow in all its phases, appearances, uses, and dangers. Such a beautiful language, as languages go. English took the other tack, and made individual words mean more than one thing. That is how we came up with contradictory words, like cleave, and inflammable, which mean their own opposites. Cleave means hold to oneself, and yet cut in two. Inflammable means unburnable, and yet easily lit aflame. Verbal contradictions. How do we even cope in English? But we do!
    We also have a lot of homophones, words that sound exactly the same, but are differently spelled (but we cannot see the spelling when vocalized), and mean totally different things. Rain, rein, and reign was the first one I knowingly encounted in life, and which cònfused the hell out of me. Why would one want to “rain” a country, or “reign” a horse? English drives me crazy.
    But still my pet peeve is spirituality., because I can find no better word in the English language to explain what I mean, and I cannot trust myself to know what foreign words actually mean, and if they describe what I am trying to say. English is totally inadequate to my purpose, but as I said, it is the only language I have. A lose-lose situation all around.

    Liked by 1 persoon

    1. Thank you for your elaborate input!

      You mentioned homophones and words having multiple meanings. This reminds me of learning Latin where I had to learn many words that had different meanings depending on the context. Although English spelling does differentiate between rain, rein and reign, there is no such distinction in the spoken language where the meaning is purely based on context. Languages in the past might have even been more context-based than our modern languages (I suspect the first human languages on the planet were based on context to the highest degree imaginable) and we gradually developed more specific concepts whenever the need arose. Humans are creative beings and they can coin new words if they think new words are needed. I think small languages are very conducive to human creativity, because it is easier to spread new concepts, and that is why many highly specialised terms might arise in such small languages. For instance, there are about 70 words for ‘walking’ in Eilauners, the indigenous language of Schiermonnikoog (a picturesque Wadden island that has a very small population concentrated in a single village). As for the claim that “Eskimo has a lot words for snow”, that claim is debatable and it depends on what one means by Eskimo. Giving rise to the confusion, there are many peoples called Eskimo and scientifically speaking, there are multiple languages that are considered to belong to the Eskimo-Aleut family. If one means the proto-language of the Eskimo, then there are only 3 roots that mean snow. However, modern Eskimo-Aleut languages may possess fewer or more words for snow, depending on the language. But let us not digress and get lost in details, the number of words in Eilauners for walking and similar phenomena seen in other indigenous/local languages that developed in specific environments does exhibit a high degree of specialisation, and this taps into a general trend that I have noticed among languages: the fewer the speakers, the more complex languages languages tend to be in grammar as well as vocabulary, whilst at the same time, the more the speakers, the simpler the languages tend to be in grammar and vocabulary. Simpler languages such as English may possess a lot of words, likely a lot more than most languages, but these words tend to be more generic and are usually not tailored to a specific environment with highly specific needs. The speakers of Eilauners had to be highly efficient in order to survive in their specific ecosystem and that is why they had to maximise their knowledge of their environment and adapt to that environment by means of specialisation. Whilst the speakers of English are spread across vast swathes of the Earth, there is no (evolutionary) pressure for this kind of specialisation. English is evolving towards simplification in order to adapt to the huge amount of speakers and their diverse experiences across the planet, whereas Eilauners has historically evolved in the opposite direction: a high degree of linguistic conservatism, a need for ecological sustainability and a small environment with limited resources and natural phenomena and creatures to take into account produced the highly specialised Eilauners, which currently has only 30 speakers and was until 2018 on the brink of extinction but is now undergoing a gradual revival process as we are promoting the language both online and offline.

      I could add a lot more, but I want to leave it up to you to decide where to take the conversation from here!

      – Dyami Millarson

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