This is more of a comment on Marc Ettlinger‘s very good and thought provoking answer (I have reblogged it here and here). In particular I am interested in why pre-verbal expressions do not diverge in the same way as verbal language. I’m not sure that something like a smile, for instance, is literally universal to every human society, but it seems nearly so, and even extends to other animal species, or so it appears.
What’s interesting to me is that you have this small set of gestures which are even more intimate and personal than verbal signals – more inseparable from identity, which then gets expressed in this interpersonal linguistic way which is at once lower entropy and higher entropy. What I mean is that language has the potential both to carry a more highly articulated, complex meaning, but also to carry more ambiguity than a common gesture.
When a foreigner tries to communicate with a native without having common language, they resort to pre-verbal gestures. Rather than developing that into a universal language, we, as you say, opt for a more proprietary expression of ourselves, our culture, etc… except that in close contact, the gestures would actually be just as personally expressive if not more. There’s all kinds of nuance loaded into that communication, of individual personality as well as social and cultural (and species) identity.
So why do we opt for the polyglot approach for verbal symbols but not for raw emotive gestures? I think that the key is in the nature of boundary between public and private experiences. I think there are two levels of information entropy at work. Something like a grunt or a yell is a very low entropy broadcast on an intro-personal level and a high entropy broadcast on an extra-personal level. If something makes a loud noise at you, whether it’s a person or a bear, the message is clear – “I am not happy with you, go away.”. These primal emotions need not be simple either. Grief, pride, jealousy, betrayal, etc might be quite elusive to define in non-emotional terms, full of complexity and counter-intuitive paradox. If we want to communicate something which is about something other than private states of the interacting parties, however, the grunt or scowl is a very highly entropic vehicle. What’s he yelling about? Enter the linguistic medium.
The human voice is perhaps the most fantastically articulated instrument which Homo sapiens has developed, second only to the cortex itself. The hand is arguably more important perhaps, in the early hominid era, but without the voice, the development of civilization would have undoubtedly stalled. It’s like the paleolithic internet. Mobile, personal yet social, customizable, creative. It’s a spectacular thing to have whether you’re hunting and gathering or settling in for nice long hierarchical management of surplus agricultural production.
The human voice is the bridge between the private identity in a world based on very local and intimate concerns, and a public world of identity multiplicities. To repurpose the lo-fi private yawps and howls with more high fidelity vocalizations requires a trade off between directness and immediacy for a more problematic but intelligent code. One of the key features is that once a word is spoken, it cannot be taken back as easily. A growl can be retracted with a smile, but a word has a ‘point’ to make. It is thermodynamically irreversible. One it has been uttered in public, it cannot be taken back. A decision has been made. A thought has become a thing.
Inscribing language in a written form takes this even one step clearer, and there is a virtuous cycle between thought, speech, actions, and writing which was like the Cambrian explosion for the human psyche. Unlike private gestures which only recur in time, public artifacts, spoken or written, are persistent across space. They become an archeological record of the mind – the library is born. Why can’t the world have a universal language? Because we can’t get rid of the ones that we’ve got already, or at least not until recently. Public artifacts persist spatially. Even immaterial artifacts like words and phrases are spread by human vectors as the settle, migrate, concentrate and disperse.
Because language originates out of public discourse which is local to specific places, events, and people, the aesthetics of the language actually embody the qualities of those events. This is a strange topic, as yet virtually untouched by science, but it is a level of anthropology which has profound implications for the physics of privacy itself – of consciousness. Language is not only identity and communication, I would say that it is also a view of the entire human world. Within language, the history of human culture as a whole rides right along side the feelings and thoughts of individuals, their lives, and their relation with nature as it seemed to them. The power of language to describe, to simulate, and to evoke fiction makes each new word or phrase a kind of celebration. The impact of technology seems to be accelerating both the extension of language and its homogenization. At the same time, as instant translation becomes more a part of our world, the homogenization may suddenly drop off as people are allowed to receive everything in their own language.
It seems like an odd question. Sort of like asking ‘Are screenplays like entertainment and entertainment like screenplays?’. In a broad sense, everything is like memories. The whole content of the universe could be thought of as the persistence of coherent phenomena through time…discoverable patterns struck within patterns. To narrow it down to human memory gets into different overlapping neurological categories; short term, long term, declarative, implicit, autobiographical, sensory caching, etc. Those are more about our particular phenomenology of pattern recognition and recollection, which seems to be tightly associated with words, but also images, sounds, smells, etc.
I can think of words as like dehydrated experiences, or crystallized pointers to evoke a narrative flow. Memory implies traces of factual experiences in the past, whereas words more often weave a fictional perspective on the past, present, and future. Words are semiotic devices which focus and reflect semantic content through syntactic forms – two different senses of informing which both rely on memory. Perhaps this is where their power to recapitulate sense-making comes from. By presenting a linguistic-symbolic expression which is relatively impersonal coupled with => a proprietary personal motive, a reflection of sensory wholeness is achieved, using the products of sense themselves (optical icons, vocalized sounds) as a body. ‘See what => I’m saying?’ ‘Know what => I mean?’
A word then can be used to encapsulate fragments from any of my personal memories, stories, ideas, texts, knowledge, thoughts etc and through that encapsulation provide the keys to be reconstructed in someone else. The meaning figuratively rides on our shared associations, language, and common sense, so that it is not literally transmitted through space as ‘information’ but rather elides space entirely by a process of local sensory reification. Words can be seen ‘there’ but can only be understood ‘here’.
Memory is also a local understanding but does not require the external-facing symbolic packaging. It doesn’t need to be reified in someone else’s head, only recalled subjectively. Of course we can remember words too, and all words are by definition memories (we have to remember what words the language we intend to speak contains), but memories extend beyond words. The effectiveness of words can obscure our understanding of memory. We are used to seeing the world so much through this logical symbolic process that we tend to see all of consciousness in this light. Memory does not have to be experienced consciously but words do. In fact memory may not have to be experienced at all to be influential. Reading these words for instance is predicated on some implicit memory of how to read English, but to assume that literally implies a database of kindergarten memories being accessed in real time read/writes does not tell the story of our experience. That may be true in one sense, but my hunch is that it works differently also. I think that the memory itself may become an iconic part of who we are, more like looking through colored glass gives us different ways which we can see the world.