What Would We Think Without Language?

photo: CC0, from pixabay

This morning I listened to Dave Snowden and Nora Bateson discussing the nature of change and what does and does not influence it. Most models of change are idealistic, naive and simplistic, and simply don’t anywhere near describe how change actually occurs. Change is, of course, a complex, emergent and evolving phenomenon, and as such it can’t be fully understood or predicted.

Many models of change are predicated on the false belief that people can be motivated to change their beliefs and behaviours if they are provided with better, objective, evidence-based information. There is abundant evidence that that is simply not how people change their beliefs. We believe what we want to believe is true, what our friends and trusted associates believe, and our beliefs are affected far more by emotion and by compelling stories than by arguments and data.

Better models suggest that, while we cannot sustainably coerce or cajole change, we can, as both Daniel Schmachtenberger and Dave Snowden have suggested, catalyze it by improving the quality of people’s interactions with others. Their argument is that it is empathetic interaction, and appreciation of context and feelings underlying the beliefs and actions of others we don’t understand and/or don’t agree with, that is far more likely to shift people’s beliefs and understanding.

A major challenge with that is that when we speak with others, we use different words and assign different meanings to words. Some of us use words and ideas that are essential to the understanding and appreciation of our thoughts, that are simply not in the vocabulary of most others.

In short, our language — the words we use, the meanings we ascribe to them, their emotional content, and the words we don’t have at our disposal or which our language has no words for — largely determines what, and how, we think. This has been heavily debated by linguists for decades, without consensus, and mostly in the absence of compelling evidence for any of their arguments. We’re long overdue for the linguistics equivalent to a David Graeber to come along and undermine all their dogmatic and largely unsupported theories, and advance something completely new that better fits the historical evidence.

Art has been around about three times longer than abstract human languages. So for a million years, before either evolved, we managed, likely much the way most creatures do, to self-organize and thrive without either. Art likely evolved in tandem with human cultures — defined as shared identity, beliefs, aspirations and behaviours among human groups — since art is, in essence, how we express our culture. Later, languages emerged that attempted to express and strengthen our culture more precisely. I’ll leave it up to you whether they actually do so.

So how, and what, would we actually think and believe (and perhaps therefore do), if we did not have language, if we were limited to the use of art to express ourselves?

What intrigues and annoys me about the studies of so-called “prehistoric” languages is the absence of any serious study of non-human languages, as if the entire idea that we learned and evolved language in parallel with other species were preposterous. This is the same anthropocentric arrogance that bedevils much theory of early human evolution in other areas of study. There is also limited study of the likelihood that abstract sign languages may well have predated abstract oral languages. And there’s very little on when the evolution of the human brain (specifically hemispheric entanglement and the breakdown of the bicameral brain) reached the point at which abstract language even became possible.

Much has been made of the fact that all human languages seem very similar, and ascribing that to the fact they mirror the physical structures and processes of the human brain. Much less has been said about the brain’s co-evolution with its development of language; perhaps the humans that developed utterly different languages (like the language of the Pirahã) co-evolved different neural structures, and most of them, for any number of evolutionary reasons, including genocide, have not survived. Perhaps linguistics, like history, is written by the winners of the battles, without reference to the much broader truth.

And for some indigenous languages, metaphor is not at all what it is in Indo-European languages — it is more allusion than analogy or allegory. These languages are kinaesthetic, based on what is happening rather than the subject or object “thingness” of what is happening. As Dan Alford explains: “Indigenous peoples value the dancing over the dancers, believe that processes and interrelationships are more real than the ‘things’ that grow out of them — that the physical is an epiphenomenon of the non-physical, and that cyclical timing is more real than linear time.”

Or as Glenn Aparicio Parry explains: “In the Blackfoot language, there are not nouns or verbs at all as we normally describe them in relation to each other. Instead, linguistic meaning is something similar to events emerging out of a fluid, constantly moving interconnected flux, rather than discrete interactions between subject and object.” This sounds quite close to the radical non-duality message that asserts that there are no separate ‘things’, just “what seems to be happening”.

So back to the speculative question of what (and how) we might think in the absence of abstract language. My hypothesis would be: not much. There is not much need to think, especially about abstractions, in a natural, uncrowded environment. It was only when we began to live in crowded “civilized” conditions characterized by constant scarcity and precarity, that there would have been a need for formal language, for instruction, for hierarchy, for codified laws (and law enforcement), and for ‘organized’ wars, for a human-made “order” of things.

When I watch the crows outside my window each day, it is absolutely clear that they have a sophisticated language, but it is a perceptual one, not a conceptual one. It doesn’t require, most of the time, much thought at all. It entails social greetings, exchange of information about dangers and about food. Despite their raucous chattiness, much of their information-sharing and communication appears to be kinaesthetic rather than verbal: Playful and mate-attracting activities, allopreening, staging and roosting together, and food-sharing. Yet they are capable of remarkable problem-solving, either when they have to be, or when it seems like fun. They can make tools, but they rarely do, because there’s no need to.

So my theory about the languages of human cultures in times and places of low-stress and abundance would be:

  1. They wouldn’t need abstract languages, so they wouldn’t evolve them.
  2. They wouldn’t think much, because they wouldn’t need to.
  3. Their mental lives would be perceptually rich rather than conceptually rich. That would probably use up just as much brain power, but their brains would evolve very differently, around perceiving and paying attention and appreciating and artistic expression, rather than thinking and conceiving and judging.
  4. Their emotional lives would be as rich and varied as ours, but they wouldn’t cling to their emotional reactions as fiercely as we do. They wouldn’t take things personally because their culture would be, as most wild creatures’ cultures apparently are, collective. They might not even conceive themselves to be individuals, since that conception seemingly requires training and reinforcement.
  5. They would probably fare poorly if invaded by a highly-stressed human culture that had evolved more the way our modern culture has. Kind of like our cousins the bonobos, perhaps, which are now facing extinction.

In summary, I wonder if modern human thought, highly abstract, highly individualistic, mostly conceptual rather than perceptual, where everything is taken personally, and where fear, especially of one’s death, is omnipresent, is an aberration of an unhealthy, stressed species, a very unnatural way of being. Not an evolutionary pinnacle, but a self-defeating evolutionary dead end.

I wonder if the enormous similarities in our modern human languages and behaviours are due not to anything inherent in the human brain, but to the fact that we have eradicated all humans who did not share modern humans’ terrifying sense of scarcity and fear of death, which we have, since the dawn of abstract language, acted out through relentless, brutal competitiveness and violence against the rest of the natural world.

Robert Sapolsky would probably have something to say about that.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What Would We Think Without Language?

  1. realist says:

    An interesting topic for once :-)
    A spoken or sign language entails a discretization (words or signs) a linearization (words in sequence) and unidimensionality (a single flow of speech) whereas the world at large is multidimensional, has parallel flows of events and is likely continuous.
    No wonder we encounter some “problems” in communicating…

  2. Joe Clarkson says:

    A look at how our closest primate relatives communicate is interesting.


  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Joe. What is remarkable about human studies of animal communication is that they are almost always about stressful communications of animals under stress. Not surprising that if you were be in a room that was on fire, you wouldn’t hear much language that communicated subtle meanings or nuanced information. When I watch and listen to the crows on my rooftop, or riding the updrafts between the towers, it is abundantly clear that their non-stop chatter is incredibly varied and is conveying a lot of information. It is not just noise, even when there is no urgency in their situation or behaviour. They’re smart enough that there’s no reason they wouldn’t be conveying admiration, or mocking, or invitations, or appreciation, or agreement, or simple joy, or any of the other more subtle things human languages convey, and which are so essential to social bonding. We just can’t hear them because of our anthropocentric arrogance and our belief that we must know what they are and are not communicating.

  4. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    An interesting post and set of proposals Dave. You probably need to dip into the now quite broad academic field of biosemiotics to get a grip on a developed account of meaning-making at multiple biological levels (from the animal through the vegetative down to the cellular).

    The suggestion that abstract human thought is ‘an aberration of an unhealthy, stressed species, a very unnatural way of being’ is a provocative one, and I’ve often reflected on the dis-value and stress of overly abstract thought myself (and I write this as someone who is employed to teach philosophy), but I’d probably relate it more directly as the product of an excess availability or perhaps expenditure of energy/resources. That is, art, science, literature, philosophy, these are all, as the philosopher Steven Shaviro notes, ‘costly luxuries’ – but they are valuable nonetheless.

    That said, much of what passes for human cultural content, communication and consciousness can also be argued to be analogous to spam (and largely dysfunctional, an evolutionary dead-end or spandrel), so you might like this article, also by Shaviro (who has a very accessible book-length work on this topic, called Discognition), for an accessible and fun dip into this idea: http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1233

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Paul. I’ve studied spandrels, and have often wondered if the human mental model of the universe (the self in relation to everything else) is itself a spandrel — an accident of the emergence of brains with a lot of unused capacity and therefore fertile for trying things out. Like the appendix, it was a promising development, but in retrospect a useless one. The idea of human communication being perceived by aliens as spam is a fascinating one. And taken a step further, the idea of human abstract languages as being a type of virus, one that we unwittingly and with the best of intentions infect every young child with, creating massive and unnecessary suffering, would be worthy of a sci-fi novel. It might also be worthy of scientific investigation, but I’m not holding my breath.

  6. My take is that humans are undergoing a transition to become a more coherent collective organism. Abstract language carries information mostly in one direction from the top down (a trend which has grown as societies grew larger), similar to how circulating hormones from specialised endocrine organs synchronise the activity of the majority of the body. The original internal mechanisms that allowed cells to survive as individuals need to be overwhelmed before they can be replaced, in order to subsume the instincts of the individual in preference for the needs of the whole. The development of chemical signals to coordinate the behavior of an ant nest probably went through a similar process where tension between the instincts of the individual clashed with the function of the whole.

Comments are closed.