Friday, February 13, 2009

The Mystery of Language

I have always fancied that somehow language developed somewhere in some prehistoric caves as our first human ancestors began to grunt at each other as they embraced in animal passion.  From there I imagine that human emotions began to emerge and with them sounds to indicate those basic feelings like happiness, sadness, regret, disgust, joy, fun, and a plethora of others.  Gradually as human civilization emerged after the development of farming between the great rivers Euphrates and the Tigris (Sumerian/Babylonian), along the banks of the Nile (Egyptian) and indeed the great Chinese civilization also around the banks of the great rivers there.  Once human beings began to live in communities, needless to say cultures developed and with them the more sophisticated development of languages to meet the ever-growing needs of community or society living.  However, I always fancy that these layers were laid down on the more primitive foundations of the language of basic emotions.  Again this is my imagination working here, and, indeed, I may be wrong in my presuppositions and suppositions, but no matter.  It is language in its very mystery that I am exploring here.  Again let me explain.

I am a lover of languages.  Most Monday evenings I attend a scambio linguistico at our central library in Dublin where I converse in Italian with native speakers.  They speak some Italian with me and I speak some English with them in return.  I learn really natural expressions and sayings and phrases one might not get in a more formal setting.  By day I teach a little Gaeilge, French and Italian at school.  Again the quality may not be brilliant, yet it is the very love of these languages that matters.  This morning I was teaching two boys with Asperger Syndrome some French.  We are progressing slowly with the help of CDs spoken by native speakers and, needless to say, a very good textbook.  We managed also to talk about similarities between French and Italian as we discussed various words and indeed various grammatical structures. But essentially, it was and is the sounds that rooted me and my students.  Again, I fancy that all languages are essentially about sounds and making sounds.  To want to speak a language is about learning to love sounds. That’s very basic indeed, but the most important reason to learn a language.

Let’s listen to a few words from the great contemporary philosopher, A.C. Grayling with respect to language:

Mystery and controversy are directly proportional: the less we know about something, the more we argue over it.  Language is a prime example.  It is the supreme characteristic of human beings … Yet the origins of language are shrouded in obscurity, and so is its nature.  Philosophers still struggle to explain how meaning attaches to the signs we use in communicating with each other, and psychophysiologists still labour to understand the basis of linguistic capacity in the brain..  Much has been learned about these matters in recent times, but that much is a speck compared with the mountains of ignorance that remain.  (The Form of Things, 43)

This is a wonderfully succinct and beautiful passage to my mind.  I love Grayling for his conciseness of thought and for his marvellous insights into the nature of things.  However, I love his writing all the more because he is a brilliant stylist who is crystal clear.  One gets a clarity in Grayling that one often does not find in other philosophers. 

However, I will return to my class of this morning.  There were only two students and I sharing our love for words and essentially for sounds.  Sometimes grammar can be a block to that, if the teacher puts too much of an emphasis on it and forgets that the really essential thing in a language is communication and that real communication is often something beautiful and issues in wonderful sounds made by wonderful human beings.


To be continued.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of some grafitti on the light above the lighthouse at Howth, Dublin. This illustrates one of the uses of language!

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