Logogenesis: The Coming Into Being of Language
First Presbyterian Church
February 9, 2014
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Lloyd Geering, From the Big Bang to God, pp. 73-4
Human language originated as a medium of communication, enabling people to improve their skills and pass their knowledge on to the next generation. It enabled the already gregarious human species to develop into more closely-knit communities. This in turn improved their chances of survival, but soon began to do a great deal more. Whereas language originated to make communication possible, it became the medium through which a new kind of creativity began to take place. This unforeseen an unintended breakthrough came with the telling of stories, what the Greeks called myths; their word mythos literally means ‘something told by word of mouth’.
Modern people tend to view themselves as sophisticated and hence dismiss the myths of ancient peoples and isolated tribal communities as primitive or foolish. What they fail to appreciate is that these creations represent a very important stage in the way humans came to understand and respond to the world. Stories were invented to explain natural phenomena. They were a primitive form of knowledge or ‘science’. Stories led to the emergence of abstract or pure thought, and this is the chief reason why the advent of language must be judged a critical transition point in the long story of cosmic evolution. The advent of language has led to the creation of a whole new kind of world—the world of human thought, whether imaginative, rational, or irrational. And this world, through non-physical, is just as real as the physical world whose story we have been tracing so far.”
We began 13.7 billion years ago with a singularity.
Everything that exists was in a single point. As it flares forth, time and space are created. The earliest forces emerge within the first fraction of a second. Soon the earliest particles, then Hydogen, Helium, Lithium and the first stars. From the birth and death of these stars more elements of the periodic table.
After nine billion years our sun was born and in turn gave birth to our home, Earth. Nothing special, on one hand, a planet formed like the hundreds of billions of others in our galaxy and who can know how many in our universe.
Yet this planet is special in that so many fortuitous events have taken place in just the right time and in just the right way, such as the formation of the moon that because of its dance with Earth, we have a stable rotation that allows for the changes of seasons.
The chemical reactions for hundreds of millions of years finally led to a collection of molecules that could reproduce themselves. Life emerged. What could you call it but a miracle? Yet it is a natural miracle, the product of natural law and time.
It isn’t until the universe is 13.2 billion years old and Earth is four billion years old, that Life produces another miracle, and over the course of a half billion years Life explodes into jaw-dropping complexity and variety. No one was here to tell its story. 99% of this wild and beautiful life, 99% of life’s species have gone extinct. The only stories we have of this Life is in the stories of rocks as scientists investigate and ponder these hidden mysteries.
Could you predict a chimpanzee, a sunflower, or a stinkbug from the Big Bang? No. What would be the odds? Physicist Lawrence Krauss suggests it would be like throwing a pair of dice each with thousands of sides and trying to get two sixes. But if you had millions of pairs of dice the odds then would be in your favor. Our huge universe provides just that.
The universe as it matures, provides the opportunity for complexity. Life is more complex than stinkbugs, sunflowers, and even chimpanzees. About two million years ago, Life took another miraculous leap. The physical evidence is the length of the larynx and an area of the human brain known as Broca’s area. This anatomical change over the course of hundreds of thousands of years made way for the possibility of language.
We can’t pinpoint the origin of language. While the great apes were able to communicate through gestures and sounds 15 million years ago, the possibility of vocal language probably emerged less than 100,000 years ago. The invention of human language is an evolutionary development of significance parallel to the emergence of life itself.
Because of the tool of language that co-evolved with Homo sapiens, not only did it allow our species to have an edge in terms of survival, it opened the way for the universe itself to be self-reflective. The universe through the invention of language is able to think about itself. Language didn’t create thought. Other animals are able to think in some form. It depends what we mean by thought, but anyone who owns a pet knows their dogs or cats are thinking in some way. Allowing for our human propensity to project human characteristics on animals, nonetheless, animals seem to be able to do some remedial scheming.
Symbolic language changes the game completely. Language gives us the ability to create thought-worlds. Language gives us the ability to distinguish past, present, and future. Your pets live in the present. They don’t regret their sins or live with anxiety about their future. It requires language to do that. To get out of the regret and anxiety, we need to trick our brains through meditation or other activities to move beyond or beneath words and thoughts and to be present in the present. Our language works too well. A by-product of language is that we have difficulty living in the moment.
With language that co-evolved with our species, the universe is able to tell its story. It is possible, perhaps with the laws of probability, probable, that elsewhere in the universe, language and the resulting thought-worlds have developed. It is also probable that those of us sitting here will never know that. That said, I do check in on occasion with SETI which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. They are looking for signs of communication, language, from other solar systems. How cool would that be?! My religion? If I have to admit it, I am kind of a Trekkie.
Whether or not life and language have happened elsewhere, this development has happened here. When it was presented to me in this way, that is that language enabled the universe to be conscious of itself, it blew me away. We have a role. We are the bards of the cosmos. We are the minstrels of meaning.
Again in regards to self-confession, I have a tendency if I am not careful to be somewhat misanthropic. Look at all the suffering human beings cause. We kill and torture each other. We have pushed other animals out of their habitats and made entire species go extinct. We have polluted sea and sky and trashed our own home. God gave us the Garden of Eden and what did we do? We blacktopped it and turned it into the Mall of America. Earth would be better off without us.
Yet we evolved from Earth. We are Earth. The universe found a purpose, if I can say that, in us. Perhaps not a designed, planned, or intended purpose. As the late theologian Gordon Kaufman put it, a serendipitous purpose nonetheless. I have faith that human beings are serendipitous, a pleasant surprise, despite ourselves.
We did make music.
I love this quote from Gary Snyder:
If we are here for any good purpose at all, I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. A gang of sexy primate clowns. All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.
We did create (or did we discover?) mathematics. I find it hard to tell the difference between creativity and discovery. We did tell tales, didn’t we? And good ones. We created Bibles. We imagined the stories of the gods! We did speak of romance and adventure. We did calculate the beginning of the Big Bang. We created a clever periodic table. We mapped our DNA. It is really pretty amazing.
We aren’t finished. Not yet.
This is all because of language. Our ancestors knew the power of language. Long before the discipline of linguistics, the mythmakers of old knew about the power of language. Even the author of the first chapter of Genesis imagines the world, existence itself, coming from the spoken word. The word in Hebrew is Dabar. In the Greek, the word is Logos and it is assigned in John’s gospel to the cosmic Christ who exists with God at the beginning. The message is clear: with words, worlds are created.
We love beginnings. The power of language gave us the ability to think about beginnings and to tell stories about beginnings. Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we this way? These early myths, or as Rudyard Kipling called them, these “just so” stories delight, inform, and guide.
One of the “just so” stories in Genesis is about why we have so many languages. This author knows about the power of language. Language is so powerful and potentially dangerous that the Lord is afraid of what humans will do with the power of language.
‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”
The Lord confuses their language and makes them speak different languages. Just so, human beings speak many languages today. We now know that is not likely how it happened that we have so many languages, but the story does highlight the power of language, the power to create and to destroy, to make a name for ourselves.
As we were watching the opening ceremonies for the winter Olympics, Bev made the observation that it is easy to see that Russian is not a Romance language. I couldn’t figure out the alphabet. You had countries entering out of order from our perspective. It is amazing that we can do anything together. Languages, like species, have different ancestries and like species, they survive, reproduce, and go extinct. It is the diversity itself that allows for adaptation and survival.
This variety of language allows us to say different things, to create different thought worlds, to imagine our meaning in many ways. All of this variety, I would say, is the serendipitous creativity, the pleasant surprise of evolution. That diversity is what makes life happen. The lesson for human beings from the evolution of language is that diversity is not only the spice of life, but the substance of life.
We are storytellers. Whether through song or through science, whether religion or rap, through art and athletics, we are communicating what it means to be alive, to be human, to be related to all of Earth, and to be an expression of the universe itself.
In its 13 billion 750 million year existence, it is only in the last 100,000 years, the .0001 of that incomprehensibly large number of years, that the universe has been able to reflect upon itself, at least in this corner of the galaxy. Only in this last brief instant of time has the universe been able to be self-conscious of its own existence, to know itself, to say, “I am.”
It is you and I, sexy primate clowns with a beat, who are singing its song. Yes, you have a purpose, my beloveds. Your purpose is to say what you see, to sing what you feel, and to tell your tale. You are not just doing it for yourself. You are participating in the great symphony, the magnificent opera, the glorious theatre of life itself. You are enabling the universe to come of age, to know itself, to love itself, to be alive.