13.8 billion years ago, the expansion of a staggeringly hot entity - infinitesimal in size and infinite in density - resulted in a grand cosmic evolution. This Big Bang expansion weaved the very fabric of space and time, leading to the genesis of a phenomenon indispensable to the creation of our macrocosm: the rise of complexity.
Under the reign of complexity in an unstable universe, one of the biggest cosmological events occurred 3.8 billion years ago, that is, the emergence of life on planet earth. Battling increasingly hostile environments, evolution’s alliance with complexity forged ecological niches for the sustenance of Earth’s various life systems. Years of intense obliterations, generations, and transmutations led to the birth of the quintessence of complexity: the human race.
The English Naturalist, Charles Darwin, believed that what set humans apart from other animals was a matter of degree, not kind. While the instinctive tendency of communication was not unique to man, the acquisition of higher mental powers through evolution helped the human race transcend primitive perception, thus developing a greater ability to associate sounds with ideas.
This association became the foundation for the inception of language, causing a cognitive and cultural evolution.
1. How Language Initiated a Cultural Evolution
“Language serves not only to express thought but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.” - Bertrand Russell
According to the ideas presented by evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, the evolved trait of social learning in humans enabled us to acquire knowledge from our ancestors. Information, which could earlier only be genetically inherited, now flowed efficiently through language. It facilitated a coherent exchange of ideas and experiences among members of a community, initiating social cooperation and developing a collective consciousness.
Our ability to acquire evolutionarily beneficial behaviors by observing and imitating others further accelerated our species on a trajectory of what anthropologists call a cumulative cultural evolution. Humans organized themselves into communities, built networks of trade, and altered the once rigid natural environments. Primitive societies were refined and metamorphosed into the modern world, and the cornerstone of this development was the interchange of thoughts and ideas.
Dialogue has significantly contributed to our understanding of the self and physical world. Throughout our existence, we have questioned using language; questioned about language. Language has been the medium of thought propagation, but a question has often been asked on the nature of the language-thought relationship: Could language help shape the way we think?
2. Linguistic Relativism
Early on in the movie, Arrival (2016), a science-fiction film that elegantly uses an alien invasion and a linguistic theory to define what it is to be human, we hear a recitation of the first lines from the protagonist’s book, Introduction to Linguistics: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds the people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
The movie, based on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, proposes that the structure of a language determines (linguistic determinism), or at least influences (linguistic relativism), a person’s world-view. The theory of linguistic relativism has had a ubiquitous influence in the philosophy of language, literature, and in fields of cognitive sciences.
The idea that various languages may influence thinking in different ways has been present in many cultures and has given rise to many philosophical treatises.
In literature, authors such as Ayn Rand and George Orwell have further explored how linguistic relativity might be exploited to initiate thought control. In Rand’s Anthem, a fictive communist society removed the possibility of individualism by eliminating the word “I” from the language. In Orwell’s 1984, the authoritarian state created the language “Newspeak” to make it impossible for people to think critically about the government. Its premise was that fewer words would lead to a limited cognizance, thus consciously abolishing all thoughts against the interests of the government.
Conversely, the theme of cultural dogmas influencing language has been the premise of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius. Borges, in his short story, wrote of a world based on the 18th-century philosophy of subjective idealism that considered the doctrine of materialism to be a heresy. The language of Tlön was thus devoid of nouns, being centered instead on verbs or combinations of monosyllabic adjectives.
In cognitive studies, certain experiments have led to the emergence of evidence for linguistic relativism by noticing different perceptions of time, orientation, and colours among communities speaking different languages.
In light of such thought-experiments in literature and evidence suggested by studies in favour of linguistic relativism, could it be possible to subtly alter one’s language to impact the present world positively?
3. The Role Of Language In The Future Of The Human Race
“I want to quarrel with your opposition of culture and nature. Culture is always cultivated nature- nature being tended and being taken care of by one of nature’s products called man. If nature is dead, culture will die too, together with all the artifacts of our civilization.” - Hannah Arendt
The modern world, a manifestation of the incessant human impact on earth’s geology and ecosystems, is now being considered to form a new geological epoch that scientists refer to as the Anthropocene.
In such chaotic complexity, changes in the structure of a language might help reclaim human interconnectedness in a globalized yet divided world. Sensitisation towards nature and life will only develop with the realization that nature and human culture are inseparable, and that there is a need to understand and feel understood to facilitate a genuine, unprejudiced exchange of thoughts.
Fields such as Eco-linguistics and Eco-criticism aim to bring about this paradigm shift by rejecting an anthropocentric view of nature, and investigating the role of language in the development and possible solution of ecological and environmental problems. On the magic of human conversation, author Ursula K. Le Guin commented, “Words are events; they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”
In all the chaos, we have forgotten to stay attuned to the environment with the cacophony emanating from materialism’s loudspeaker. We have forgotten to stand at ease amidst this banal marching of progress. In this increasingly complex world, our ideas have profoundly impacted the environment and us, and the once inexhaustible resources have begun to reach their limit. There is a need, now more than ever, to understand how we as individuals, and collectively as cultures, are associated with nature.
Our society and language are inextricably connected; one reflects the other. Restructuring the language can help in the realisation that conflict is not the only human response. The resultant renewed consciousness can open the doors to new behaviour, producing a dynamic rhythm of progress with mutual trust and fresh creativity.