The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

BOOK: The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
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The search for the origins of language




Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi–110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Mairangi Bay, Auckland 1311, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa


Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England


First published in 2007 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


Copyright © Christine Kenneally, 2007


All rights reserved


Kenneally, Christine.
The first word / by Christine Kenneally.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN: 1-4295-4125-3
1. Language and languages. 2. Evolution. I. Title.
P107.K465 2007
400—dc22 2007003182


Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


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For Agnes (Nessie) Kenneally


magine all of your knowledge about language whirling above your head instead of inside it, each word a star. At least sixty thousand glittering specks of light—“brick,” “axel,” “pawn,” “shoe,” “Victorian,” and “apple”—hang in the air over your skull.

Look more closely at each star and you’ll see that each is not a single point of light but an intense cluster of all the things you know about that word. The “rose” star includes bits of knowledge such as how the word sounds when you say it and how it looks when you write it. Perhaps a small image of a rose floats there, or maybe ten or twenty rose prototypes, all of which help you connect “rose,” the word, to the bloom of any Rosaceae shrub you come across.

You know that roses, like most flowers, are perfumed, delicate, and short-lived. This constitutes physical knowledge. When you raise one to your nose, your body has expectations about what’s going to happen next. If the flower smells rotten, you feel shock as well as distaste. You also have linguistic knowledge. “Rose” has a special relationship with words like “scent” and “fragrance”; they go together in a way that “concrete” and “fragrance,” for example, do not.

In the word constellation now twisting above your head, picture the connection between “rose” and “scent” as a filament running between the two stars. Other lines would run between “rose” and “red,” and “rose” and “flower,” and “rose” and “nose.” In fact, lines would connect “rose” and all sorts of words—words with similar meanings, words that make similar sounds, words that are the same part of speech.

If all the different things you know about “rose” and its connections with other words were embodied in your language universe, lines would rapidly proliferate.

Try mapping out connections for other English words, including everything from the lousiest pun to the densest nugget of grammar, all the associations and the conjugations, the synonyms, homonyms, and homophones—make them manifest.

Now everywhere you look, fibers wind around words, tugging them together, pulling the entire assemblage tight. Some links might have especially significant relationships. The stronger the connection between words, the thicker the thread will be. (Consider “mow” and “lawn,” for example.) There are so many lines you can hardly see the words for the relationships between them. What began with a few threads is now a tangled language web.

It may seem as if the complicated mass above you maps the world. After all, the connections between words are like the connections between physical objects. People eat apples, for example, and not coincidentally there is a word for people, a word for eating, and a word for apple. Actors act on objects in language as they do in life, and when we put words together, it seems as if the point of language is simply and accurately to describe the real thing. But language is not a replication of the physical world. If you look closely, you’ll see there are holes in the web you have built, places where the world of words does not correspond to the physical world. Words align according to their own rules. Moreover, there is so much that happens in our daily lives for which there is no language. There is no verb for the way an airplane’s shadow ripples across the landscape, no specific adjective to describe that single unruly hair poking out of your eyebrow.

Because language does not mimic the world, you can do things with it that are impossible under the laws of physics. You are a god in language. You can create. Destroy. Rearrange. Shove words around however you like. You can make up stories about things that never happened to people who never existed. You can push a camel through the eye of a needle. It’s easy if “camel” and “needle” are words.

In language, mortality does not tick relentlessly. You can conceive of yourself as alive forever. Or you can imagine yourself dead. And then alive again. You can live, die, live, die, live, die, live.

Now imagine what it’s like for the person nearest you. Look over and visualize everything he knows about language bristling above his head. No individual’s language is ever exactly the same as another’s, but assuming he also speaks English, the basic size and shape of his word constellation are similar to yours. Perhaps he has stars that you don’t, like “Rexism,” an early-twentieth-century religious movement. Maybe the connections that run from his “who” and his “whom” are different from yours. Because dialects and idioms differ, some words and grammatical rules aren’t identical, even if you both speak English.

But there is much that is the same between your language and his. Your “rose” star maps closely onto his, as do “car” and “grill” and “Bombay” and tens of thousands of other words. If threads ran from the words in your language network to the matching words in his, your heads would be simultaneously joined and dwarfed by the vast, complicated lattice you share.

If you add a third and fourth person, it’s going to start to look as if your heads are plugged into a huge, shining network consisting of billions of lines. Add some more speakers, and the number of connections becomes uncountable.

After you’ve included everyone who speaks English, imagine the 410 million people in the world who speak Spanish. Draw a different network for each of them individually, and then join it up. Bring in Kurdish and Arabic. Add Basque, Urdu, and American Sign Language.

Now add all the speakers of all the languages of the world. Step back. You can see that the whirling word universe above your own head is merely an atom in the linguistic matrix surrounding your entire species. Everyone who has language is connected, and anyone who is connected lives in two worlds—the physical realm, where one’s feet touch the earth, one’s ears capture sound waves, and one’s eyes sieve light, and the realm of language, where one ceaselessly arranges symbols in particular patterns so as to connect with other beings who also move the same symbols in the same patterns.

For all the complexity of each world, one has a certain primacy: the physical plane is the indispensable platform of the symbolic world. You articulate the abstract with the same throat, tongue, and lips that you use to eat, breathe, and taste. The buzz of your vocal cords resonates through all the bones of your body.

Because the two worlds overlap so much, people get to interact with other beings on both planes—with their bodies in the physical world, and within the language matrix. As I write these words—here at the Tea Lounge on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn—you, the reader, may be anywhere—Manhattan, London, Melbourne—and I could be dead. It doesn’t matter. In language, you and I are connected.

When you access the vast global network of computers we call the Internet, you can travel the world, find information, and interact with people in a way that was never before possible. The creation of the net was an awesome leap in technological evolution. Yet for all that it offers, it is the merest shadow of something much larger and much older. Language is the real information highway, the first virtual world. Language is the worldwide web, and everyone is logged on.

BOOK: The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
5.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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