The following is my first précis. In it, I look at the very roots of language. It shows critical thinking in the ability to take in and synthesize opposing ideas on the history of language.
The Say of the Land – Precis
In “The Say of the Land,” published in Aeon magazine in September of 2018, Mark Vernon brings a case for a Romantic reading of the history of language. Vernon, a writer and psychotherapist, also holds a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy and degrees in theology and physics. In this article, he quotes extensively from Simon Armitage and Owen Barfield, people as in love with language as he is himself,, and weighs this against the dominant hypotheses in Modern Science. In Science’s corner, Vernon brings brilliants like writer Yuval Noah Harari and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar.
Poet Simon Armitage believes that language comes directly from the cosmos. “My feeling,” he says, “ is that a lot of the language that we use, and the best language for poetry, comes directly out of the land.” He harks to the Romantic tradition that suggests that language, words, and grammar are not wholesale human inventions, but suggested to the human mind by the very Universe it describes. Owen Barfield, philosopher, philologist, and last of the Oxford Inklings, said that “Words have soul.” All forms of language possess a vitality that comes from “the inner life of the world.” Poets, he believed, are more in tune with this connection because we seek it out.
Needless to say, Science would have it a very different way. Dominant hypotheses in modern linguistic sciences are purely utilitarian. They see words as “soulless signs” that serve as nothing more than labels or symbols. Psychologist Robin Dunbar explains two main theories: language evolved to allow humans to express factual information, or language evolved for social bonding purposes. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2001), Yuval Noah Harari adds that “the truly unique feature of our language is… the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.” The unique ability to speak of things that are purely fictive is, in his view, a creation of the human brain.
“The Grunt Theory” of language, as espoused by Dunbar and Hariri, is a fairly disjointed theoretical process that takes language from the simple grunt meant to signify an object through a huge communal cognitive leap that suddenly allowed such complex acquisitions as speech and grammar. This evolutionarily instant rewiring of the brain was, theoretically, followed by “the metaphor phase,” which allowed the human brain to begin the creation of intangible and spiritual concepts. During this phase, it is assumed, early humans made all manner of mistakes about “the nature of reality.” They mistook winds for gods or spirits and bonded together through common delusion. (This is presumably the birthplace of religion.) Finally, all of this fancy culminates in literature, at which point words were used to express the inner vision and pure creativity of the human subject.
The Romantic theory of language is a graceful alternative to the Grunt Theory. Though its proponents are in the minority, it argues that the Grunt Theory simply doesn’t add up. If one accepts the proposition that language evolved as a means to express fictions, how are we to know truth? What becomes of science if language is an “elaborate falsehood?” Vernon says that, by casting language and its evolution in this way, “the grunt theory saws off the branch it sits on.”
Barfield, in his work as a philologist, found that words have always had both physical and spiritual meaning. He reminds us that early humans were not theoretical creatures. They participated in their environments with all of their faculties, giving language both material and immaterial meaning. Vernon illustrates this point with the words pneuma and cardium. The meanings of the former, ‘wind’ and ‘spirit,’ seem to have coevolved. This history of the latter, however, is a little more complex. For eons it meant a feeling and the home of that feeling, until the early 1700s, when William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood and called the pump that facilitates it the ‘cardium’ or heart. As he continued to think of it as the seat of the emotions, this would have the metaphor preceding the concrete meaning of the word.
Other arguments in favor of the Romantic theory arise from the very nature of metaphor. Vernon shows that, if you have a metaphor that is unique to yourself, it is useless in conveying your meaning. If metaphors were initially creations of specific brains with nothing linking them, they would never have caught on as a means of communication. What is communicated if nothing is understood? From this, Vernon assumes that metaphor works because it combines an innate poetry and an understanding of the world. He uses Shakespeare’s metaphor of the morning as a, “russet mantle… that walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.” This linguistic conjurer’s trick only works if you know what a morning is, what a russet mantle is, and can connect the two instinctively. This can only be done if material and immaterial meanings were “born together.”
Vernon speaks of words as replete with inner and outer meaning from the start, referring to them as “tokens of a prehistoric communion” and saying that the poles of meaning did not diverge until very recently. It was when our ancestors stopped experiencing the natural world and began to explore it in a more scientific way that the modern dualism was imposed. Vernon’s last supporting theory comes from American sociologist Robert Bellah (Religion in Human Evolution, 2001) and his “offline theory.” In this theory, Bellah surmises that early humans spent a great deal of time “online” in subsistence activities, but that they had a great deal of “offline” time as well. In this unprogrammed time, they would have played and created rituals and music. Language, says Bellah, evolved then, when “human beings engaged with life” in a meaningful way.
Vernon extrapolates that language evolved not from grunts and signs but from displays of music and ritual similar to that of birds, fish, and even whales. Viewed as a means of sexual selection, this would be an ‘online’ activity, but even Darwin found that this required a significant ‘aesthetic sensibility,’ which would make it a distinctly ‘offline’ pursuit. From this ritual and music, Vernon believes that words and language sprang, a merging of the inner life and the outer world.
How, then, did we move away from this? Story and myth led, he says, to thought, at which point the original connection between words and nature began to fail. We proceeded from there through literalness and into “spiritual isolation.” It is this isolation, this final severance from the natural world, this concrete dualism, that allows science to cast the birth of language as meaningless, prosaic signs instead of living symbols.
To disbelieve the prevailing scientific view is radical and suggests that language descriptive of an inner life can only have evolved if there were a world of spirit at all. It suggests that early humans were not simply observers, but participants in a cosmos of meaning. Barfield speaks of a closer connection between thought and perception and to the union of humanity and nature. Humbolt, a key figure in Romantic science, says, “Nature everywhere speaks to a man in a voice familiar to his soul.” It is familiar to his soul because it is that soul. Science, says Vernon in conclusion, can only be done because we are an inextricable part of nature. We cannot stand outside of nature and understand it. Similarly, any understanding of language is incomplete outside of an understanding of the land from which it came.
Vernon, Mark. “The Say of the Land.” aeon. ed. Marina Benjamin.September 25th, 2018, aeon.co/essays/words-have-soul-on-the-romantic-theory-of-language-origin, accessed Nov 18th, 2018.