We have fallen far from the high point of human eloquence and language.
I have refined a ridiculous theory based on pure speculation, concerning the development of language.
I believe humans belong to that group of animals that we call “mimics”; the australian Lyre bird, the Parrot, the Mynah bird, Corvids (Jays, Crows, Ravens, Whiskey Jacks, Magpies), Octopi, Cuttlefish, Chameleons, Coyotes, all these animals specialize in a specific kind of intelligence that involves mimicry of sound, behavior, or of color and visual patterns.
These animals think about the world in a special way. They reflect the world back, with great delicacy. For some of them, they experiment with different strategies and lifeways even, borrowed from other animals.
I believe humans emerged as a primate specializing in this kind of mimicking intelligence, and when we first told stories, when we first really began to tell complex stories to each other, we did it with imitative sound and movement. We danced and sang what we heard and saw. Why did we do this? Because, as we began to experiment with team hunting, communicating to our team-mates both to stay in accord, and to bring back intelligence of animal movements, exponentially increased our success. Tracking made us mimics; Story made us mimics; collaboration made us mimics.
Our first words, then, sounded like what we described; either literally, as in whistling a birdsong, or more figuratively, as in using sound to imitate the pattern of movement, much like saying “boink! boink! boink!” when describing a stotting deer.
Over time these sounds became more symbolic, more abbreviated, so that we could layer even more complexity into our language. At this time I believe we moved to polysynthetic language; language composed of a one or more root ideas, bookended by prefixes and suffixes that qualify relationships and characteristics of that root idea.
A good example of a polysynthetic word, and just darn entertaining, comes from Mohawk. First a couple examples; in a polysynthetic language, specifically an intact indigenous one, a word like “teacher” will translate thus:
shakorihonnyennis: “he teaches them”
How about a policeman?
shakoyenahs: “he catches them”
This theme continues with places. For example, kitchen:
tsi yekhonnyatha: “the place where one cooks”
tsi yontaterihonnyennitha: “the place where one sells”
The best example of polysynthesis in Mohawk, comes in the lowly form of stove polish:
yontenonhsa’tariha’tahkwatsherahon’tsihstatsherahstara’the’tahkwa: “the stuff that makes shiney that one puts on the thing that is used to heat the house”
Okay, you get the picture. Polysynthesis allows you to have a self-sufficient language with an infinitely expandable vocabulary, something we have lost somewhat. English borrows heavily from other languages to create new words, languages with more capacity for polysynthesis (like Latin and Greek, with their plethora of prefixes and suffixes).
In polysynthesis, you build concepts piece by piece, syllable by syllable, and a word can run as long as a sentence, and give more information more compactly. I imagine this makes you more aware of the meaning of each part of your language too; how many everyday English-speaking folks can really explain what “dis-” means, or “trans-“, or “tele-“? A polysynthetic speaker has an intimate knowledge of how speakers put words together.
So I believe all languages, in an intact indigenous culture, really fully form and mature into a polysynthetic stage, and additionally, have no nouns. Because, if you think about it, up till this point we just “mimicked” the pattern and sound of the world, and then tightened things up a bit to support a more complex and layered language. But we didn’t need nouns yet (I should add that Mohawk does have two classes of nouns, one of which corresponds more to the idea of a “verb phrase”, and the other more in accord with how we think of nouns. They have relatively few of these “formal nouns”. I’ll address this later).
I believe as we began to experiment with sedentary Village lifestyles, that our language began to reflect this. I believe that the first long-term settlements partnered with the emergence of nouns. Nouns mean stability. Nouns mean firm foundation. Nouns justify themselves, by meaning themselves. Nothing connotes that, to me, like a Village. Nomadic hunter-gatherer life takes advantage of dynamic flux. In a Village, you put down stakes, start having more and more specific roles for Village members. Village life can actually offer much more work (I almost would say “toil”, but let’s wait for the emergence of cities and civilization to call it that) than a more flexible semi- or fully nomadic life, but for the members to continue it, they must see the life as its own justificaiton. And, honestly, Village cultures produce amazing aesthetic worlds that still inspire me. The life does have it’s temptations! Certainly I don’t consider Villages as better or worse than nomadic life. Just different.
Hopi, Mohawk, Chinuk Wawa, these kinds of Village-based native languages have an emerging class of nouns, some to a greater extent than others, and none as extremely as modern languages of civilization. The peoples speaking them had begun to heavily invest in the Village lifestyle. It makes sense that their language would reflect the rhythms of such a lifestyle; but this lifestyle still heavily accomdated the dynamic flux of the community of life to which they belonged. I want to accent this. A few nouns doesn’t mean they’ve taken up civilized modes. A language that worships nouny-ness, factuality, and the logic of linear cause-effect rests a long way from these cultures.
So, as the power structures of emerging civilized cultures need more efficiency from their social networks in the adventure of pyramid building and agriculture, they need a language that could encourage culture members to view themselves in ever more rigid roles and relationships.
This endeavor progressed until we have the extreme situation of today, where few modern people truly know how to talk, listen, converse, collaborate, or decide in accord with another human being. We have a poverty of social technology and thought when it comes to really nourishing relationships, and this impacts our work, family, land, and village.
So. My rampant unfounded speculation has ended. I see this theory of langauge in a similar way as comparable spherical-planetary model of an hydrogen atom. Atoms don’t really look like that, but thinking about them in that way produces useful things.
This speculative history points to the same thing; it gives us a direction in which to take language exploration that we didn’t have before.