What Is the Special Significance of Language?
Language accelerates learning; it speeds up innovation by permitting communication and coordination. A new idea can be spread quickly if someone can explain it and communicate it to others before they have to discover it themselves.
Taking the new technology one step further, language gave Sapiens and us autogeneration, which is the ability of the mind to question itself. It is a mirror that reveals to the mind what the mind is thinking, allowing self-awareness and self-reference, and language explains the innovations and ideas that have formed in the mind. Without language, we could not access the bank of thoughts and ideas. We could not tell stories, interpret case studies, or compare things; we could not consciously create.
We use language, verbal and nonverbal, to make sense of our world. We use it to interact, confirm, beg, act, command, inquire, network, court, teach, coach, and entertain. A few verbal and nonverbal messages can influence us, can change our minds, can cause us to do something different, or can change our position or vote. Words affect who we are. Without words, we would be isolated. Language and its nuances are uniquely human.
Language is something we learn completely by audio cues—by listening. We do this because human brains are hardwired—genetically prewired to learn language by listening as an infant. It is interesting that we are not even consciously aware we are cognitively learning. Before we had the ability to speak words, others could understand us. Our species survived and advanced, making other members understand with nonverbal cues. For millions of years, children communicated to their mothers that they were hungry. Men communicated to women and women to men that they were interested in them as partners. Hunters collaborated on big animal kills long before a word was spoken; man even showed another how to start and keep a fire going long before there were words for such things. Anthropologists believe the spoken word appeared on the scene around 50,000 BC—a long time to use grunts and pointing and body language.
The special significance of language as a great idea lies in the fact that it is related to all other great ideas insofar as ideas and thoughts are expressed to other persons, for the most part, in words, in speech, in language.
In Plato’s dialogues, he used Socrates as a character and he spoke of people continually, calling attention to the slippery nature of words and how sometimes words conceal thoughts as well as express them. In more modern times, philosophers like Hobbes and Locke wrote about the abuse of words and how language should be used.
Today, we sort of view language as an enemy, a barrier to communication, a tyranny of words. There is even a debate over whether communications and speech are the same thing.