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Coffee & Wisdom 02.87: The Problem with Language Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about the problem with language.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is coffee and wisdom in our summer form when we are live on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. Central Time. This week, I’m going to be looking at the problem with language. So one thing we have to think about is when writing began. And you may or may not remember the first author ever, the first person to name herself, was Enheduanna in the 23rd century BCE. She was a Sumerian in the city of Ur and a priestess of Inanna, one of the gods of the Sumerians. She wrote, “I the high priestess,I,Enheduanna! I carried the ritual basket, I intoned the acclaim.” And she wrote. We have about 12 to 15 poems that she wrote that were put in cuneiform on clay tablets. And so she is the first named author in human history. And then, you know, after that we’ve had several of them. But we do need also to think about something a little bit before writing. We do know that writing appeared apparently more or less simultaneously in Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates area, China and in Mesoamerica. But where did language come from? While this is still very controversial, but it probably began somewhere around 2 million years ago, which would put it before the Neanderthals, before Homo sapiens, back to Homo erectus.

So most estimates right now are between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, and definitely in a different human type. Now, how do we know that? Well, it’s a little bit complicated, but for one thing, Homo erectus was able to sail miles and miles to islands on boats that they made that didn’t sink. And it takes about 20 people to start a new colony, if you’re going to go out and people something. And so probably they were the ones who did it, and probably they were able to talk because they would have had to cooperate building the boat. They would have had to figure out where to go and how, and they would have had to keep rowing or sailing, or something. So they probably were able to communicate. Also, we do have Venus of Berekhat Ram, which is something between 500,000 and probably 225,000 years old. It is the oldest religious, we think – a religious symbol that humanity has created. And it also would be dating back to Homo erectus, well before Homo sapiens came along. Well, this is still controversial, as I say. A recent book, “How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention,” by Daniel Everett, began to work on this idea of Homo erectus and how they probably developed language.

And then that language usage then goes into other human types. He says communication is the transfer of information, and language is the transfer of information by symbol. Now symbols then become writing, as we know, which is something probably around 50,000 years old, but maybe newer. It’s according to how you you cut the deck on that particular thing. But he thinks how language began was communication, transferred information, and then language was an information transfer of symbols into how we began to communicate with each other. Now what he says is that symbols have three properties. Now we’re talking about symbolic language, not writing at this point. One is arbitrariness. Wait, how does that work, right? Then intentionality, and then kind of a made up word, but “conventionalisation.” All right. What are those? Well, first off, with language is arbitrariness. These sounds that we make to do certain kinds of communication have no real connection to anything except themselves. So dentro is the word for tree in Greek. In English, its tree. Now those are completely arbitrary, in that they are not related to each other. They both say the same thing. So they are arbitrary in how they developed, or somehow, we don’t know that. But they’re not arbitrary in what they denote. So you get the idea here that there are going to be lots of different human languages.

Then there is intentionality. That would be – we have to have at least two people who know what that word means. We have to intentionally develop sounds that have some relation to reality. So these two guys have to say “tree?” And yeah, I know about the tree, and we can go cut it down, etc. So they have to have an intentionality in their ability to communicate. And then we have “conventionalisation.” And that would be more than two people being able to talk about this one particular thing, tree. So, a whole tribe suddenly learns how to say “tree’ or here they go, “deer” or “cook,” etc. “Skin,” “build a fire,” and these kinds of things. So suddenly a whole tribe has a conventionality to it. Now, that works very well in small groups, doesn’t it? And sometimes even in small languages. But what happens when we suddenly have 7 billion people and 6,500 languages in the world – and suddenly “hello” can be said 6,500 different ways. How then do we have those three things that are required for communication? That, then, becomes the problem with language. And then we have an extra problem with language, which is that we can lie, can’t we? Now most people have forgotten the philosopher Epimenides, but he was from Crete and he said, “All Cretans are liars.”

Famously then, is he lying by saying that because he is a from Crete (he is a Cretan), and he is saying that he is lying. Well, wait a minute. How do we do that? Because suddenly we have fallen into secularity. So we have a word like “tree” or a word like “liar.” And we have a conventional understanding of these. But suddenly we have this other dimension in which we can have not only a lie – we can say that’s not a tree when it is – but we can also say “this is a tree” when we don’t really know whether it’s a tree or not. That’s what I will be talking about on Thursday. For example, the famous example is “this is not a pipe.” Well, is it a pipe or is it not? And it gets even more complex when we have different kinds of symbolic languages. So, God exists. That’s a simple thing to say, just two words. But what does “God” mean, and what does “exists” mean? Well, that’s a horse of a different color, isn’t it? So suddenly we have, yep, we have this this intentionality. We are talking about God, and we have a conventionalisation of that. But what if the people next door have a different word for it? That’s one thing. Or what if the neighbor next door has a different definition? And suddenly all three of those begin to break down. We have this arbitrary word that – well, are we talking about the same thing or not? And that is the problem with language – is how do we know what we know that we’re talking about? And that’s what I want to talk about this week, and go into a little bit deeper – is how do we even think about these things like “God” and “exists”? A noun, proper noun, we guess.

Got a big G on that. And then this verb exists. “God is.” “God is love.” How do we say those various things? This month at First Unitarian Society we are talking about “story” and how we go about telling stories. Well, we first have to have language, and then we develop this thing we’re going to call “writing,” making symbols. And then we begin to tell stories that have some kind of meaning within various groups. But are they really true? Or are they more true, as some writers will argue, than actual fact? Good question. And I’ll go into that a little bit more on Thursday when we talk about “this is not a pipe” and some of the ideas of language games from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Thanks a lot. And I’ll see you on Thursday at 9:00 a.m. Central Time.

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