THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF LANGUAGE DOUG COCKS (Talk to Independent Scholars Association June 2012) [No geolinguistics, no comparative linguistics, no neurolinguistics, no FoxP2 etc.] What is language? • A family of technologies used by a group of people (a) for exchanging information (thought messages) between people, and (b) for helping people think (e.g. premises> conclusions; perceptions > narratives;) • Mutually understood signals = indicative signs & arbitrary symbols= a shared model of reality Scope of talk • The evolution of language • The role of language in contemporary society • Language’s prospects under three scenarios for global society Stages in the evolution of language • Averbal language • Talking and listening • Reading and writing • Conscious (critical) thinking • Use of electro-mechanical technologies Averbal language • Gestures, postures, movements • 1.8 mya to 100 kya • ‘Voluntary pausing’ around 500 kya? • Transmitted by imitation of observed behaviour • Selection for brain size and complexity Talking and listening (1) • 5 mya --- down from the trees bringing • (a) fine motor skills • (b) group living skills (esp. info exchange) • (c) mimetic skills • BIPEDALISM became platform for • ‘pulse’ breathing • dropped voice box (vowels) • expressive hands • brain growth, driven by limb differentiation • accessible memory, driven by lifestyle Talking and listening (2) • 1.Selection to tag things with vocal signals (Why? Out-of-sight and night time communication) • 2. Selection to use fast vocal signals alone • 3. Breakthrough to syntax = separate ‘words,’ for components of a compound event, e.g. near lion • (How did vocabulary expand?) Reading and writing • 1st = pictographic (3500 BCE) • 2nd = alphabetic (1200-800 BCE)---one sign per sound • Last millennium BCE ---time of authoritative sacred texts and texts of foundation myths ---time of the Greek awakening Conscious (critical) thinking • Classical Greeks pioneered use of language for self-conscious choice-based thinking (What’s happening? What to do?) • Truth is something to be discovered • Had vocabulary and cognitive skills to debate nature, society & mental life • What was conscious thinking replacing? • One contentious answer = bicameral mind (hallucinations, belief = knowledge, external agency) Self-conscious choice • Self-consciousness = ascribing thoughts being experienced to oneself • Choice-making is dialectical = generate tailored verbalised solutions till one is judged plausible (true enough) and emotionally OK (? Quality control?) • Since Greeks, changes in (a) content but not cognitive skills (b) message construction and transfer technologies Use of electro-mechanical technologies • Technologies which remove/ loosen constraints on construction and transfer of messages • Starts with printing • Telegraphy, telephony, radio and television • Massively enhanced by computers What has become possible? • Shifting message delivery in time and space • Translating between media • Mass media = mass exposure • Electronically stored material (= humanity’s virtual memory) • Rapid text construction The role of language in contemporary society • Private language use (inc. self-deception) • Public language use ---The struggle to shape public opinion ---Global trends ---Interest groups ---Culpable bullshit • Other problems with contemporary language specialisation and democracy loss of truth and God post-modernism, relativism censorship, free speech failure to cope with complexity and conflict fragility of the species virtual memory Future of language under three scenarios • Economic Growth • Cultural Transformation • New Dark Age (Note co-evolution between language & social organisation) Economic Growth • Economic growth via competitive markets = primary path to the public good • Many new technologies and products • Loss of vocabulary & freedom of speech in authoritarian societies • Vocational education displaces language of the humanities & arts • Caveat emptor; Mistrust = norm • Information gap follows income gap Cultural transformation • Shift in attitude towards scope of markets • ‘Marketism’ replaced by ‘ecologism’ as society’s ‘root metaphor’ • Extensive investment in --education (e.g. art of dialogue), --research (e.g. extending short-term memory) and --public policy (e.g. improve accountability New Dark Age • Under the combined effects of natural disasters, famine, war, mass migration, poverty, disease, resource exhaustion, debt and economic disruption, the world’s population will start falling well before current estimates of a peak in 2070. Many indicators of quality of life, including life expectancy, will slump. • In all countries, especially failed and war-torn states, it will become much harder for most people to meet their everyday needs. Women and children, the old and the sick will be most affected. Jobs will be few. Supply chains for basic commodities (eg food, fuel, medicines) will break. Barter will become normal. Prices will escalate. Health, education, transport and police services will degrade. Power and water supplies will become unreliable or worse. Roads and other infrastructure will be poorly maintained. Crime and group violence will escalate. Violent protest and looting will be commonplace. Ordinary people will live in fear. Mental illness will be endemic. People will turn to authoritarian regimes for respite. • In brief, cities everywhere will struggle to avoid becoming giant lawless slums. Rural populations will be vulnerable to marauders and incursions from displaced persons. Life will be an exhausting wretched struggle. Language in a New Dark Age • Specialist languages lost as society simplifies • Mainstream language and attitudes fragment with isolation • Impoverishment of vocabularies • Loss of electronic ‘libraries’ • Disappearance of cheap messaging Quo vadis Homo sapiens • Swimming in a sea of bullshit will not kill us off, just make us poorer---culturally, psychologically and economically • Language biteback---Dark Age scenario envisages the catastrophic destructuring of a global society which we could never have built if we had not learned to talk Some discussion questions • Why isn’t bullshitting recognised as a v. serious problem? What price the ‘elephant-in-the-room shit’ of self-deception? • Does bullshit have a higher evolutionary function which I am not seeing? • Should we be trying to develop a theory of bullshit as a social force? • Apart from science, can we identify any recent major linguistic triumphs---parts of the culture where language has become a lot more useful ? • If, as Mike Austin says, language is the DNA of culture (in the sense that it ‘codes’ the symbolic recipes for technologies, culture’s building blocks) could we build a ‘Darwinian’ model (selective retention of variation) of the evolution of language?
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