The Gift of Tongues

(by Alim Hosein)

In this series so far, I have focused on creole languages and on language prejudice. There are many more interesting details and many more interesting and crucial issues about creole languages, which I intend to go into later in this series. These are things I believe it necessary for us to be aware of, understand, and think about as steps towards understanding our culture and ourselves through the perspective of language.

Language is our principal means of communication. We use it and know it basically in the forms of speech and writing. Speech is the primary of the two: it is natural, and found in all human beings; we can exist without writing but would find life difficult without speech. But language is not just speech, and speech is not all there is to language. Speech and writing are expressions of language. Writing in fact was invented only about three thousand years ago – over the millennia of our existence on earth, we had only been using speech to communicate. But, even though speech is the most natural form of language, persons who are dumb or deaf are still able to articulate language through signs. Language is not the words or sounds or signs, but it is like an engine or software that makes speech, writing, sign language or any other form of human communication, possible.

No one really knows where language comes from but it is truly one of the most amazing marvels of being human. Like our ability to walk upright on two legs, and to see in different colours and in multiple focus, it is a characteristic design feature of being human: that is, it is something that makes us human. But, it also seems to be a special quality of being human, like being able to cry, create tools, wage war, explore beyond our selves and our world, create art, think beyond our immediate needs, to be deliberate in our responses to stimuli, or our ability to think and plan. We are creatures who are specially designed to use language.

Evolutionists believe that language evolved with human beings, while creationists believe, of course, that language is a gift from God from the dawn of creation. Adam, after all, was given the privilege of naming the things in the Garden of Eden, therefore, he must have had some language by which to do so. But we also read in the Bible that the “word” existed long before Adam, and in fact was there from the very beginning, with God. In Islam, the diversity of language is one of the signs of the glory of Allah, like the creation of the earth, and the spectrum of colours. And when Allah gave language to Adam, He gave him knowledge beyond that possessed even by the angels. For the Hindus, language is associated with the Goddess Saraswatie, who gives us speech, wisdom and learning. She represents cosmic knowledge, creativity, consciousness. What is important here is not whether the creationists are correct, but to note the great significance that different religions give to language.

The evolutionists and others have come up with some interesting ideas – some thoughtful, some speculative – about how language came to be. Some claim that language arose out of human group activity such as hunting and group work. As humans organised themselves in these ways, they must have needed some way of communicating so as to give directions, for example. Supposedly, such sounds that they made evolved into language. Others theorise that humans imitated the sounds of nature, while others propose that nonsense sounds, or sounds made when yawning, coughing, grunting, and so on all lead us to develop language. One proposal even says that the sounds made during sex contributed to the development of language among humans!

Once again, the point is not about which theory is correct – there are greater and lesser plausibility among these theories, as any reasonably intelligent person can see – but about what these theories are pointing us to. First of all, it is reasonable to assume that humans made sounds in their mouths and heard the sounds of nature. But for these to become language is not a simple matter of imitation or producing a greater number or range of sounds. There has to be a need to make sounds, an intelligent perception of the sounds in the environment, an understanding that these sounds are related to different things, and an analysis of how the sounds are made.

However, language is not just sound, but sounds that are organised and that convey messages. Language does not only reflect concrete actions and things, but abstract ideas, thoughts, desires and so on. So, there must be a way of linking sounds to messages. Even more than that, there must be a recognition of your own thoughts, ideas and messages that you want to send: that is, a self-perception and awareness of the environment and of others. But we do not talk to ourselves, so there must also be a social agreement about the connection between sound and message (e.g., that the sound “cat” indicates a particular small furry animal). All of this indicate that language is a hugely complex and involved matter with many dimensions.

Humans have an internal capacity that allows us to deal with all of these things, and this is our language capacity. This capacity is perceptive, logical, analytical, social, non-instinctive, and creative. Yet a child, whether s/he is a royal or a pauper, a young genius or a nascent thug, masters it effortlessly, without any teaching. Think about it.

Psychological studies have shown that all human beings begin to acquire language from around the same age, follow the same steps or sequence, and acquire it at the same rate. Children who receive special teaching or care, or whose parents are richer, more highly qualified or more intellectually-gifted, or who have more advantages in life, do not do better at acquiring language than children who do not enjoy these benefits. Also, our mental development in early childhood parallels our development of language. As our ability to recognise and deal with the world around us unfolds, so do the stages of language development.

Our language capacity is reflected in our biology. Biologists have shown that humans are biologically designed for language: our mouths have more open space inside (our palates are higher and rounder), our tongues are more flexible, our larynx (voice box or Adam’s Apple) is placed lower in our throats, our jaws contain a special channel or groove that allows a special nerve – the hypoglossal nerve – to pass in from our brain and connect our tongue, and so on.

Our brains are also specially-prepared to ensure that we have and keep language. Particular areas of the brain are responsible for particular aspects of language – remarkably, the language centres are not in one place, so that if the brain is damaged, only one aspect of language might be lost. We see them in some persons who have suffered from a stroke – they may not lose their language, but only some aspect of it. Our brains are also lateralised, with different functions located in different hemispheres. The logical aspect of language is located in the left side of the brain, while the emotional and impressionistic aspects are located in the right side. But once again, if there is damage to one hemisphere, the other hemisphere can take over the functions of the damaged hemisphere, if the person is young enough (usually not later than teen-aged).

Where does all this take us in our discussion on language, culture and humanity? – hopefully, to the understanding that language is a natural, common human possession. It is a great gift and a supreme ability, whatever form it takes. What I have said above holds for all languages, including Guyanese, Patamona, Swahili, English and all others. There is no distinction among human beings when it comes to native language ability. Instead, it is an ability that unites us all.

Alim A. Hosein is the Dean of Education and Humanities at The University of Guyana and also a Lecturer in Linguistics in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies



Leave a Reply