Once, a long, long, time ago, a man in some little mud-kingdom had to keep track of more grain transactions than he could remember.
As I mentioned, over on My Name is Connor, where I don’t have to pretend to take myself seriously, I’ve been learning a bit of Spanish, and it’s gotten me thinking about language, and just how extraordinary it really is.
A couple of girls in a line next to me yesterday were speaking Korean. I can’t understand a word of the language, but I can recognize it. They laughed, conversed, spat words back and forth, and it all might as well have been random noise to me –except it wasn’t! — and wow did that get me thinking. How could my brain recognize these particular sounds as conveying clear meaning, and even the language being spoken? Sure, by comparing it to memories of people speaking Korean, but again, I don’t know a single word of the language.
Language is extraordinary. It really is. Assigning meaning to specific sounds, building and building on it, until it can encompass, functionally, any idea. I wonder sometimes how much of our intelligence is a direct result not of pure brain power so much as the organization language provides. Without language, we would only be able think in terms of concepts, which is something we can do anyway, but it lacks structure. How often do we write stuff down in an attempt at organizing our thoughts to arrive at better conclusions and plans? What is that, but us taking those concepts and giving them names.
But that’s just sound, and as amazing as it is, it’s doesn’t hold a candle to what came after.
That man in his mud-kingdom, he had a problem–one that, surprisingly, couldn’t be handled with a sharp stick or a heavy rock. He had some concept of counting, some concept of patterns on fired clay (although I imagine that he started with a lump of charred wood on a wall or something), and he thought, Why don’t I just make little markings when people pay the king the grain or goods they owe? This didn’t happen just once, or in just one place, because it’s not so long after you have words that you find you have more to say than you might remember, or a need to say things to those who are not in the room at just that moment. But someone did it first. One moment we lived in a world with no real written language, and the next, suddenly, we didn’t.
And from one man’s leaky memory and creative mind, came this seed. This living thing that migrates, changes, mates with others of its kind, and grows, and grows, and grows. This supercharged kudzu we call written language. Our own tree, Indo-European, sprouted somewhere along the Indus valley, crept through Iran and the Fertile Crescent, into what would someday be Europe, and westward, until it reached the shores of the Atlantic, where it stayed for a time until it leapt across that barrier and blanketed the entire Western Hemisphere. It’s a tree so large that we didn’t even realize the branches were connected, until missionaries who spoke Latin and Ancient Greek found themselves in India and Iran, and noted the connections. So language carries its own memory, a DNA of a sort, that can show which bits are related, even when we forget. Words have memories of their own.
I lose myself, sometimes, in these sorts of thoughts. I swing from one extreme to another, from it seeming so inevitable to unimaginable: How humans took a brain meant to remember where food was at various times on a wide savanna, then turned it towards sharpening stones. Then took a brain designed to make better, sharper, stones, and used it to create farming. Then they took a brain that could handle farming, turned it into wheels, gears, domestication, warfare, politics, law, poetry, medicine, and space travel.
My musings might not be earth-shaking (though I hope some people do enjoy them), but here I am, taking concepts, translating them into words, translating those words into a symbolic representation of those words, which are then broken down into another language consisting entirely of lines and circles representing numbers, and you are reversing the process. You, and anyone else who reads them, anywhere. With the click of a button, a rough translation of this could be rendered into almost any other language, because ideas are more universal than the sounds we chose to represent them.
More than that, this brain allows, in nearly flawless fashion, the consideration of abstract concepts, that symbolic conversion, which is, simultaneously, converted to the precision motion of the fingers to create the symbols which, taken together, create the words for the concepts being considered. I’m even listening to music as I do it. The sheer power of it is breathtaking, and almost everyone can do it. Such complexity from something designed for such simple tasks.
We took a simple memory aid, and used it to put men on the moon. We used it to build this thing I’m typing on, that thing you’re reading it on, and the web which connects them. One thing always leads to the next, every point shows clearly where it came from and where it’s going, and, still, it all came from nothing, or seems to have, as it fades from view and memory in the distance.
Words are almost scary sometimes, the power they represent, but there’s a joy in them. One I forget sometimes, when I am caught up in doing it for a paycheck instead of the simple pleasure. But the joy is there. This is creation, this is the imprint of a consciousness. In many different ways, it’s the invention of a consciousness, because the words I create in some small way create me, and I write so, so, many words. Thoughts to motion to words on a page, flying one after another into place, as if it were a simple process. Without this we would be flashes of light in an empty darkness, moments of brilliant, here then gone. Instead we’re part of a chain, a window to what created us and a blurred reflection of what will follow.
This is a new and particularly brilliant age though. Here, now, how much you shape the future is all about how strongly your ideas are communicated. If they’re good enough, the whole world will share them, take them, make them their own. Language is extraordinary, and it’s a privilege to take part in it. Anyone can do it. That’s what I’m doing right now, and it is nothing special. How cool is that?
All these shining cities we’ve dreamed up, designed, and built, thanks to a man in some mud kingdom.