(First delivered at the UU of Franklin, June 19, 2016)
Talk in everlasting words
And dedicate them all to me
And I will give you all my life
I’m here if you should call to me
You think that I don’t even mean
A single word I say
It’s only words, and words are all I have
To take your heart away
I sometimes talk to my cats. Okay, I’ll admit it, I often talk to my cats. And even though one of them is named Chomsky, none of them are linguists. I know they don’t understand a word I say, but I talk to them. I even talk to my dog, a Chihuahua named Bernie, who is deaf as a box of rocks.
I’d guess you talk to your pets if you have pets. My guess is based on the fact that we all talk, all the time. Mostly we talk to ourselves, of course. But we talk.
If two strangers meet at a bus stop, pretty soon they talk. Usually they’d start with the weather. Perhaps the bus schedule if theirs is running late. Then on to more impersonal trivia. But the need to connect is very real. Most of us want to be accepted and and to be accepting socially, most of the time.
Psychologists have found that one of the most difficult tasks they can give to volunteers is to put two people in a room and tell them not to talk to each other. It rarely takes very long for a conversation to begin.
Naturally enough most people when asked would offer the opinion that the whole point of language is for communication with others. We chat, we bare our souls, we argue, we opinionate, we instruct or give orders, we cajole and we flatter. We say all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons and listen and read and reach agreement or find inspiration or end up thinking that the other person is hopelessly stupid. And sometimes we do all of these things on FaceBook.
But modern language theory suggests that communication, which of course means communication with others, is a minor and secondary function. The deepest thinkers about thinking now tend to believe that language is first and foremost an internal matter. In this view our language ability is principally a benefit to thought. Furthermore, it is argued that most language never emerges from our brains.
If you think about it for a few moments – by which I mean, if you talk to yourself about it – that immediately becomes obvious. We incessantly carry on conversations with ourselves – at least until we take up Buddhist meditation and try to make our monkey brains stop talking. Although my experience with meditation some decades ago suggests to me that no matter how successful we might be in stopping the internal dialogue, it comes back with a vengeance when we quit saying “Ohm!”
We talk to ourselves. We argue with ourselves. We lapse into sing-song when an ear-worm infects us with a favorite song. We think about what we should have said or what we ought to say. We remember past conversations and imagine future ones.
But it goes much deeper than that. It seems that our innate ability for language, the so-called “language gene” has equipped us with a language that is deeper than the sum of all the words we know. There exists an interior “knowing” that is expressed in our thoughts but which very often fails when we attempt public expression.
Have you ever seen the movie version of a book you have previously read and loved? My own experience, and an experience I have often heard repeated by others, is that the movie version fell short in some way. That falling short, despite the best efforts of screen writers, directors and actors, is, I think, because we have created an interior version, triggered by the author’s words, that is deeper and richer and more nuanced than the attempted transcription. Our interior version is expressed in ideas we can’t easily articulate, because the language of exterior communication is so much more limited than our personal internal vocabulary. The pictures in our heads are better than the pictures on the screen.
Imagine for a moment what it might have been like to be the first human being with a language gene with an innate ability to put thoughts together in a row. Of course, when I say “imagine for a moment” I mean talk to yourself for a moment. Our closest living primate relatives, the chimpanzees, have been tested extensively and show not the slightest evidence that they possess the faculty of linguistic thought. They can learn some sign language, for example, but are completely unable to distinguish between specifying an apple, the place where an apple might be stored, the knife that cuts the apple, the person providing the apple, and often the difference between an apple and some other treat.
So at some point after our line of hominids veered off from the chimps one person suddenly had some sort of ability to use what we call language. Evolutionary change never happens in groups because genetic variations are individual. It takes a single individual change to begin the process of wider adaptation.
So at some point one person began to formulate ideas in sequences that we would have to call words. Abruptly what we think of as thought became possible. Alone among her tribe she would have begun to use her brain in a new way. Before that point her people would have operated as almost all other animals do, following what we call instinct, following the food supply through the seasons, knowing in the same sense that your dog knows it is dinner time or a bird knows when to fly south. Suddenly ideas began to string together via an internal language, an internal calculation. As the first person with the ability there was no possibility of talking things over with others.
Surely the first glimmer of internal thought was a small step, but hard to imagine from our own place in evolution. So it was first one and then her children who had this huge advantage in considering their actions and the future. And in turn their children had the ability as the genetic inheritance spread. Very gradually, and much later, a spoken language emerged.
Over time language blossomed into all the many tongues that have been spoken over many thousands of years, new ones emerged or combined with others while some died out. But here’s the thing – linguists have discovered that all human languages follow similar syntactical rules, core ways of expression that are apparently innate. One could say we are hard wired to use language. Babies quickly pick up on the spoken language that surrounds them, and it doesn’t matter whether it is Mandarin or Spanish or Swahili or English.
It’s often observed that youngsters seem to learn new languages more easily than adults. Perhaps that’s because they haven’t formed preconceptions about communication and are simply open to fitting new words into that preexisting framework. Once we are older and set in our ways we might think that Italian is going to be way different from English or Japanese and focus on trying to learn words instead of just accepting that it can all be natural and normal. I’m no expert on that, but it could be so.
In any event we started talking to ourselves perhaps 100,000 years ago and haven’t stopped since. In a previous talk here I mentioned a theory offered by Unitarian Universalist psychologist Julian Jaynes regarding that inner dialogue. He posited that the two hemispheres of our brains weren’t initially as coordinated as they seem to be today and that when one hemisphere heard the other talking it was often attributed to gods or angels. His theory is that we didn’t realize that we were creating those voices until the advent of alphabetic language, when we began to replicate not just what we thought and what others thought, but also the sound, and could share those thoughts and sounds across time and space. Jaynes believes that what we regard as consciousness began at that point.
So it’s interesting to consider the origin of written language. Our earliest writing took the form of pictures that gradually became stylized in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics and then complicated characters as in China. On another front it seems to have started as counting marks that evolved into cuneiform. Only people with special knowledge could interpret those early forms and literacy was limited. The big leap came with alphabetic writing that permitted anyone who understood the letter sounds to replicate the voice of the originator. In a sense, alphabetic writing was the first form of sound recording. At first the few literate people in a community would read messages and texts aloud to others, but literacy spread.
Thinking of reading aloud on this father’s day weekend calls up one of my fondest memories of my Dad, who read aloud to me and my brother night after night. I think most of the books were from his own youth. Each night we’d get a chapter or two before we fell asleep and then be eager for the story to continue the next evening. The Three Musketeers, Captains Courageous, Treasure Island, the Oz books and more. In later years I wondered if Dad geared the reading level to my personal developmental level, since I became a constant reader and my two year younger brother did not. I wondered if he got left behind, or if we were just very different people. In any event, that love of books and reading has continually enriched my life, the greatest gift my father could have bestowed.
When I recall that memory I tell myself a story about it, and an interesting sidelight is that we change our memories when we remember them – in a sense playing that childhood game of telephone with ourselves, passing along the tale from past to future but changing it a little each time. Today I’d tell you that my Dad read to us nightly for years, but it couldn’t have been more than a few, because I was soon reading on my own – with a flashlight under the covers because I was supposed to be asleep. And it may have only been in the winter months when early darkness curtailed after dinner outdoor activity. We now know that the more often we remember something the less accurate it gets.
One of my favorite characters was Dr. Doolittle in a series of books written by Hugh Lofting. Doolittle’s ability to communicate with animals utterly fascinated me, together with his strange adventures in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh or in Africa. The possibility of really communicating with animals has tantalized me ever since.
As I came to know over the years, we can’t actually communicate in a human sense with any other animals. Of course some animals can learn commands and some seem to know their names. Some certainly know our voices and can tell us apart, and we can read their behaviors and sounds. I know when my cats are hungry or when my dog wants to go out. And to an extent they have learned behaviors that elicit responses they want from me, pretty much limited to food and petting.
But we’ve pretty much hit a brick wall in terms of syntactical communication – stringing together ideas with verbs and nouns and modifiers, discussing future and past and so forth. Some gorillas and chimps have famously learned some sign language, but as I mentioned earlier the meanings are blurry and a lot depends on the interpretation of the trainer.
The most intriguing exceptions in the animal kingdom are cetaceans: the dolphins and whales. Their brains are as big or bigger than ours and more complex at the neurological level. They very clearly communicate with each other and the more we study them, the more complex their communication seems to be.
Rather oddly, in my view, Noam Chomsky, deemed the greatest linguist of the modern era by many, and one of the deepest thinkers about thought who has ever lived, flatly denies that the cetaceans have the sort of capacity for language that we do.
I know I don’t have the academic credentials or standing to challenge him, but I can’t help but think he shows a singular lack of imagination. The fact that we can’t understand dolphins doesn’t mean they aren’t discussing all manner of things, both inside their heads – talking to themselves like we do – and in the wide ocean. Due to physiology they can’t display facial expressions or talk with their hands and have no need or ability for writing – but we do know they can carry on conversations with each other on two frequencies at once. That would be like me delivering two talks on different subjects simultaneously and you understanding both. We do know they have names for each other and researchers other than Chomsky believe they have discovered syntax in killer whale language, phrases that seem to ask questions and answer them. Though again, we don’t know what they are saying.
I stumbled on that discovery of syntax while I was researching my book Whale Falls, and thinking about why some people regard dolphins and whales as our peers and others think of them as sushi. That led to the theme of my subsequent novel, She Walks on Water, in which I imagined how actual communication with dolphins might play out.
The ability to communicate emotion in some form and how we react to it, how intelligent we deem a creature to be, has a good bit to do with our willingness to eat them. The taboo against cannibalism is nearly universal, and even those few cannibalistic tribes like the Anazazi in the American southwest, or some New Guineans, generally only ate their enemies, and those enemies almost certainly spoke a different language. Most of us in this room are probably very unlikely to eat dogs and cats, or gorillas and chimps, but they are dietary items in other parts of the world as are dolphins and whales.
As an aside, it’s interesting how sensibilities change. The Dr. Doolittle books reflected the sensibilities of 1920s, and included some stereotyping of African people that is considered offensive today. In a reissue of the books in 1988, Lofting’s son expurgated the stories, after long deliberation about whether his father would approve. I understand the choice but it left out some lovely and pointed humor. In the original when Prince Bumpo was sent by his father the African king to England to attend Oxford, he was afraid he’d be eaten by white cannibals. That’s missing in the new version, and what the modern reader misses then is a wry commentary on cultural assumptions. Bumpo also expressed a desire to become a white man at one pont, which offered another potent bit of cultural commentary, and that’s missing in the rewrite.
So we form judgements about other people and other animals based on external communication whether it is language or signals. And those judgements are processed via our internal language in thinking patterns that never fully emerge from our mouths or pens or keypads. Yet we do learn to read into what people say, to read between the lines as the saying goes.
Very specifically we can read a great deal in other people’s eyes, and looking another person in the eye has powerful connotations. To begin with, we don’t ever look acquaintances in the eye for very long – it is too intimate, or too threatening. Generally speaking, long gazes are reserved for those we love. A long stare is considered rude at best and often aggressive. Eyes and facial expressions often reveal when a person is lying, and we talk about con men who can lie with a straight face. Or card players who maintain a poker face. Because we are all talking to ourselves all the time we know that everyone else is as well. We know they aren’t saying everything they are thinking, and pretty certainly CAN’T say everything, because much of it can’t be put into words. Even if you never really consciously thought about it before I mentioned it at the start of this talk, you know you’ve known that your whole life.
Probably you’ve had the experience being silent for a spell and of having someone, usually someone dear to you, ask: “What are you thinking?”
The answer, at least in my experience, is approximately impossible. Only the most immediate thought is available, and answering leads to a lot more about that immediate thing than I was actually thinking when asked, and completely ignores a dozen or a thousand other things that I had been thinking before I was interrupted. And all of that doesn’t touch the filtering that might go on if I was thinking something I didn’t think I wanted to share.
And ultimately these thoughts about language and thought arrive at a very deep question. People seem drawn to the idea of body and soul, but if I say “my body and my soul” there is a piece missing. Who’s body and soul am I referencing? If there is an “I” who possesses that body and soul, it is something different from either of those identifications. So now there is a third player. This must be the thinking part, the part possessing language, the part able to think about bodies and souls. And is that thinking part a function of the physical brain, or something beyond? What would beyond mean in that question? Then one step further when we understand that everything we experience as physical is actually space, since there is more space than electrons, protons and neutrons in every object we normally identify as solid. And then, is our thinking part a function of all those subatomic particles whirling around in our bodies, or is it located somewhere else in some realm we have not yet defined?
Now, all these thinky thoughts about thinking suggest to me that much of what we enjoy doing we enjoy because of the internal discussion the activity stirs up. To take the most obvious, crossword puzzles and Scrabble are quite popular. Searching our mental storehouse for words we don’t use all the time triggers cascades of internal dialogue. Song lyrics and poetry do the same, as do longer form written works. But that’s only the beginning. Whether we are sitting in a boat with a fishing pole, or sitting in a stadium full of action, or baking cookies, or mowing the grass, or attending an opera or looking at paintings in the Louvre, or shouting out loud at a football game or watching a Sunday morning talk show or spending Sunday morning at the UU in Franklin, we are constantly telling ourselves a story about our lives. We make it up as we go along.
I hope your story is a good one.