Language is man’s primal invention. Without the ability to express thoughts, emotions, ideas and vital bits of survival-related information in symbolic form, human civilization wouldn’t have started at all. However, unlike the steam machine or the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) language does not have a single inventor. Therefore, the creation of language must have been a collective effort.
To function as such, language requires a sufficiently large number of participants in its network of meaning. In its early stages, language must have faced an adoption problem — much like the blockchains of today which only make sense after meeting a certain threshold of acceptance among its target group of users.
Mainstream views on the origin of language argue that human language is an ultra-advanced iteration of what began as the wild gesturing and angry teeth-showing of ape-like proto-humans. Words, according to this theory, are essentially patterned sounds produced by the anatomic speech apparatus of homo sapiens. They are devoid of any intrinsic significance and attain their meaning purely through social conventions.
“What would have begun as an arbitrary collection of sounds, ultimately became canonized over generations as a code word with a definite message.”
For example, the word “danger” has come to mean what it means because, at some point in the past, that specific string of consonants and vowels was accepted as the signal for a potentially life-threatening situation by a majority of speakers. Whenever someone screamed “Danger!”, the heads of our ancestors quickly turned around and everybody knew there was a saber-tooth tiger hiding in the bushes. So, what would have begun as an arbitrary collection of sounds, ultimately became canonized over generations as a code word with a definite message.
Theories positing that linguistic structures came about by the arbitrary assignation of verbal expressions to environmental phenomena are supported by new insights from evolutionary linguistics. These findings suggest that, much like genes, individual words are sometimes subject to random change. According to evolutionary science, natural selection usually only allows genes that carry beneficial traits to survive into the next generation. However, occasionally some genes propagate by mere chance — an occurrence known as genetic drift.
By employing statistical methods from biology, linguists investigated why out of two rivalling past tense forms (e.g. sneaked vs. snuck or dived vs. dove) one became more frequently used over time. They sought to answer whether the proliferation of one form over the other was because it possessed some beneficial property, such as brevity, or whether it was just sheer randomness. The results of the study showed that just likes some genes, the past tense forms seem to randomly drift.
If a word’s survival is a matter of pure chance, then it is hard to argue that words harbor an innate hard-wired meaning to begin with. Instead, they are more like versatile carriers for transitory meanings — just like species evolve, so do languages.
“Language, beyond being molded to a degree, by randomness and natural selection, might originate from another foundational principle altogether: technology.”
The authors of this study certainly did not consider the possibility that language, beyond being molded to a degree by randomness and natural selection, might originate from another foundational principle altogether: technology.
It is difficult to imagine the cave-dwelling early humans sitting around a bonfire while slowly but surely conceiving and organizing intricate grammar for whatever ancestral language they supposedly spoke, in order to create a fully evolved language.
Interestingly, older languages, such as Sanskrit, Avestan and Church Slavonic, are more complex and harder to learn than modern ones. Using this occurence to extrapolate about past, would posit that the mother of all languages was the pinnacle of linguistic achievement. But how can the perfected precede, according to this deduction, the primitive?
The Anonymous Creator of Language
What if language had its own Satoshi Nakamoto — an anonymous benefactor who gifted an unsuspecting society instructions to a higher plane of knowledge. Toying around with what was revealed to them, the tinkers, not unlike today’s crypto community, unlocked a portal to another world or consciousness.
What if natural languages, just like programming languages, had an original creator? The syntax of a given programming language is the result of deliberate design decisions and the setting of various conventions of meaning for basic commands. Programming languages do evolve, but not without the guidance of an intelligent being to carefully select, rearrange and integrate elements from previous languages.
“Here, we study the large-scale historical development of programming languages which have deeply marked social and technological advances in the last half-century”, the authors of a recent paper write. “We analyse their historical connections using network theory and reconstructed phylogenetic networks.”
“Using both data analysis and network modelling, it is shown that their evolution is highly uneven, marked by innovation events where new languages are created out of improved combinations of different structural components belonging to previous languages. These radiation events occur in a bursty pattern and are tied to novel technological and social niches. The method can be extrapolated to other systems and consistently captures the major classes of languages and the widespread horizontal design exchanges, revealing a punctuated evolutionary path.”
“Programming languages improve when coding polyglots splice together bits and pieces from various existing languages, resulting in the introduction of previously unknown functionalities.”
To sum up, programming languages improve when coding polyglots splice together bits and pieces from various existing languages, resulting in the introduction of previously unknown functionalities. Progress is not slow and gradual, but punctual and explosive. Most importantly, the evolution of programming languages requires the intervention of thinking minds who are fluent in different programming languages. Through lateral thinking, these architects are able to identify structural components in a variety of disparate languages that are to be extracted, recombined and embedded in a new synthetic syntax.
Investigations into the origin of language seem to raise more questions than they answer. Who was the architect that engineered the Proto-Language from which all other natural languages derive? Was it a human mind? Was it God who brought forth the λόγος (“logos”), as argued by classical theology? Or does language come from some other intangible place? Is language the umbilical cord to the divine realm? Or could language be a technology invented by a nonhuman agent — by a virus perhaps?
Learning from Anime: Language as a Virus
This, admittedly, rather outlandish claim is inspired by an anime series called “Ergo Proxy” created by Shukō Murase and Dai Satō. The apocalyptic series is set in the domed city of Romdeau — humanity’s last shelter under skies darkened by a previous environmental crisis. In this future, a totalitarian regime rules over the society made up of tank-bred humans and their android companions called AutoReivs. The story begins when intelligence officer, Re-L Mayer, is assigned to investigate an unprecedented series of mysterious murders committed by amok AutoReivs infected by the Cogito Virus, which endows the robots with a soul.
It is the conception of the Cogito Virus that is particularly fascinating about the series and most relevant here. When considering the origin of language, it is difficult not to regard it as a kind of hack that had befallen human biology. In fact, new neurolinguistics research reveals that language acquisition in children goes hand in hand with deep neurological rearrangements. In other words, learning a language has the same effect as undergoing brain surgery.
Language has traditionally been interpreted as the defining feature of being human. However, as this research demonstrates, linguistic capabilities are not innate. Rather, our brains seem to be fundamentally altered by becoming language-receptive.
So, is language a Cogito Virus that has injected our pristine minds with a sort of payload that enables us to decipher letters and communicate verbally with each other? Moreover, could our compulsion to use language, and its overriding necessity, be the result of an intrusion from a technology of unknown origin — much like Satoshi’s whitepaper?
Language, Viruses and the Definition of Life?
This debate also gives rise to the equally unconventional question: could the writings that we produce be the host for a life form that inhabits texts?
While at first glance the idea that speech could be the habitat for a life form may appear rather fanciful, as early as in the mid-90s, acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking pointed out that, by the biological definition of life, a computer virus can be said to be alive.
In order to further explore this idea of living language, the next part of this essay will take a closer look at the evolution of viral agents, their co-evolution with human beings, and the amazing collective intelligence of microorganisms.
Illustration by Ksusha Itwazcool
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]