December 19, 2018

Which Came First? Language or Culture?

“In conversation at the Hay Festival in Wales this May, the English poet Simon Armitage made an arresting observation. Discussing the nature of language and why it is so good at capturing the experience of being alive, he said: ‘My feeling is that a lot of the language that we use, and the best language for poetry, comes directly out of the land.’ Armitage was placing himself within the Romantic tradition’s understanding of the origins of language, which argues that words and grammar are not the arbitrary inventions of human brains and minds, but are rather suggested to human beings by nature and the cosmos itself. Language is an excellent way to understand the Universe, because language springs from the things it describes.

The English philosopher Owen Barfield, a member of the Oxford Inklings in the 1930s and ’40s, whose work as a philologist convinced him that the Romantic tradition was broadly right, put it succinctly. Words have soul, he said. They possess a vitality that mirrors the inner life of the world, and this connection is the source of their power. All forms of language implicitly deploy it. Poets are arguably more alert to it because they consciously seek it out.

It’s an insight with radical implications for theories about the origins of language, primarily because the dominant hypotheses in modern science regard words very differently, as soulless signs that act as labels for objects and symbols that facilitate cognitive agility. The English evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar summarises the main two approaches: ‘Historically, the consensus has been that language evolved to allow humans to exchange factual information about the physical world, but an alternative view is that language evolved, in modern humans at least, to facilitate social bonding.’ In short, language as we know it emerged because of what it could do for Homo sapiens, because of its utility. It increased our ancestors’ chances of survival by enabling them to hunt more successfully or to cooperate more extensively. Language meant that things could be explained and that plans and past experiences could be shared efficiently.”

Read more

JJ Best Of The Web

"Donald Trump is the only President of the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union who has been unable to “reset” the U.S. relationship with Russia."

"This past weekend Melania Trump’s spokeswoman penned an op-ed for CNN in which she criticized the media’s unrelenting criticism of the first lady... Is it true that the media have a fixation on the first lady’s fashion sense?"

"Ultra-Orthodox Jews are smarter consumers, have interest-free loan funds, and are satisfied even if they are poor, the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs has found."

"In Anti-Fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age, out January 8, Melissa Click delivers a collection of 15 essays by scholars exploring the many ways there are to hate, and why we love to do it."

"For more than a decade, ultrarich people from the former Soviet Union, China and the Middle East have turned to London mansions, New York high-rises, and chic properties in Vancouver, Miami and Paris to store their cash."

"Virtual worlds give back what has been scooped out of modern life . . . it gives us back community, a feeling of competence, and a sense of being an important person whom people depend on."

"It’s the end of 2019 and America’s bountiful harvest is in. But President Donald Trump is facing a crisis few contemplated the year before: a food shortage almost everywhere else in the world."

"Christopher Hitchens died seven years ago this Saturday, a decade after breaking ranks with onetime friend Gore Vidal and beginning a feud that symbolized major changes in left-wing politics."

"I could try to find out where my ancestors may have come from, but that is never going to show me what I’ve actually inherited."

"Have you eaten a Cheez-It sometime in the past eight years? If so, as they say on TV, call now because you may be entitled to compensation."

"An intelligent fish has stirred up a debate about how to measure self-awareness among animals—and what self-awareness even is in the first place."

"...either our youth walk out on Judaism or maintain a lukewarm relationship with Jewish observance; or, they become so obsessed by its finest points that they are incapable of seeing the forest from the trees."