The greatest gift that we have is the gift of communication, of language. There probably is no greater milestone for Homo sapiens, and we take it for granted. Think about the world that we live in and ask yourself what would be possible without a complex language system. Imagine that no one knows what a letter is. Without speaking, explain how syllables lead to words, words to sentences, sentences to ideas, ideas to plans, plans to actions. Would it be possible to create the water company that feeds water into your house or the network of events that happen to put bread in your grocery stores without using complex language?
Aside from creating vast networks of events, language starts small and interpersonal. When I was in my early 20s, I worked with a man that was deaf and mute. I think people feel awkward to be around someone that they can’t communicate with. It is awkward for both sides, like being alone in a room with someone that only speaks a language that you do not know. On the first day, I wrote everything down that I needed to say. It didn’t take long to realize that writing every word wouldn’t be sustainable for everyday communication.
From that day on, I got up early to get on the internet and learn 150 words in sign language each morning, writing them down in a list to go over and over. Calculate that out. I learned the alphabet in the first day. Over the next 10 days, I had learned to sign 1500 words. Learning to read sign language was harder than learning to do it. I could practice the words by myself all day, but he was the only practice I had for interpreting hand signals as the English language.
During my hours at work, I would have him check that I was doing it right and teach me extra words. He appreciated the effort because most people never tried to communicate with him. You never know how important language is, until you can’t communicate with the only person that is close to you.
Now imagine that situation for every human being on the planet. Human brains have evolved to pick up and understand the nuances of a complex language. Most of the greatest apes to ever learn sign language only knew about 150-400 words (still a great feat, no doubt). Apart from sign language, humans are the only species capable of making the sounds needed for spoken language. There is more that goes into making the sounds than you think, which make it another part of language that we take for granted.
When a human sings or speaks, they push air out of the lungs through the larynx, also known as the voice box. The air vibrates our vocal cords and make a sound. The frequency of the buzzing vocal cords are what cause sounds to be higher or lower pitched. The shape of our throat, mouth, tongue, and lips all control the variations of the sounds that we produce. The earlier versions of humans that have been found by archaeologists do not have the same length of neck or shape of larynx but instead have similar anatomy to chimps and apes, making the variations of spoken language impossible at this stage of development. Unlike primates, we can control our lungs and breath. This gives us the ability to make complex sounds that have, step by step, moved from grunts into systems of language.
Our ancestors have, over the last 100 millenniums, assembled elaborate structures that hold syntax together. This structure of communication is what holds civilization together. Language, whether written, verbal, or signed, has given us the ability to talk to one another. It is a key in making community and interpersonal relationship work. We have evolved into beings that can work together and work things out. We can express ideas and counter ideas with one another.
Without an elaborate form of communication, almost everything that you do in your daily life would be impossible. Language is a kind of miracle in itself. It is amazing that beings would have the appropriate ingredients, both mentally and physically, to construct elaborate sounds and signals that can express ideas about the natural word.
We live in a weird dichotomy around language. We have a bad tendency to look at people who can’t talk or that speak other languages as being less intelligent or worth less. We unconsciously see language as a status of value without fully valuing the concept of language ourselves. We are losing the importance set on sentence and word structure. We are losing our ability to civilly talk to one another. Only by conversing can you get to know one another. Only by sharing ideas can we grow into a better civilization.
This is how we can learn to understand one another. Spoken language is a dance of talking and listening involving air, lungs, tissue, cartridge, mouths, ears, vibration, history of ancestors, and evolution of bodies and mind. It’s a balance of anatomy and phonics that express our interpretation of the way the world is.
Next time that you have a conversation with someone, take a moment and realize the delicate miracle that is happening. Next time that you find yourself in a language barrier, take steps to cross over it and expand your lingual community. They will appreciate it, and you will gain a friend.
Eric Overby lives in Russell County. You can find his poetry on Amazon and more of his writings on Instagram @mindful_stoic_poet.