CH1 L20: on the advent of language

  1. In order to study concepts [1], we took a detour to study meanings whose hierarchy depends on their amplitude and frequency [2]. To construct a road, either you’d pave it once or let many people walk on the path many times so the road would be distinguished.
  2. The primitive roads happened to be created. The early humankind couldn’t possibly foresee that walking along a path would leave a trail. They just literally followed a leader whose footsteps assured the rest that this path was safe. So, when other people also saw the trail, it was an index of a humankind path [3].
  3. Ants developed their trails in the same way. They left their nest in search for food and to find the way back they marked their path with pheromone. When an ant came back to the colony with a small amount of food, it’s an index of a bonanza somewhere. Then some other ants followed the trail leaving pheromone to reinforce the scent for the rest of the squad so they would have a functional road [4].
  4. The network of trails is amazingly optimized by the number of ants marching through them. For example, if an ant finds a better path and it has some followers, then the scent on that path will be stronger which is an index of a better trail and gradually more ants will use it. In a long run, the network grows so efficient that it’s considered to be more optimized than Tokyo’s subway system [5,6].
  1. Communication is the key to survival by creating communities. Each group of living things is more powerful than any of its members; therefore, there’s a greater chance to fight problems. Natural selection [7] evolved communication through living things without our awareness from simple stimulus-response to very complex human languages. It also let species develop tools for that means. A peacock has to carry his heavy evolutionary resume (the feathers) everywhere to attract peahens [8].
  2. As you noticed, the first languages were indexical [9]. All the chemical or physical signs are indexes of something else. If you faced a lion, it would roar at you. Your presence would shoot up its stress hormones; thus the lion would respond with a roar whose intensity is an index of its power [10].
  3. The roar, like the previous examples, nicely fits in the definition of language. A sign which conveys meaning from a sender to a receiver. However, using the same signifier for different signifieds [11] confuses the receiver and that’s why the species needed to modify their signifiers.
  4. To protect your community, you’d need to alert the rest when a predator is around. Then as a monkey, you’d screech which is an index of danger. But, this message doesn’t contain vital information. What kind of danger? Because if it’s a lion, you’d have to climb a tree whereas if it’s an eagle, you should jump off the tree.
  5. Green monkeys have developed different sounds for each situation. When zoologists played each message to a group of green monkeys, they noticed that the monkeys showed different reactions. They looked upward when they heard the warning about an eagle, whereas they quickly climbed a tree after hearing the warning about a lion [12].
  6. Here we see the transition from the indexical to symbolic language. If someone starts shouting, you’d infer that something is wrong. At this level, the language is indexical. However, if you needed to know what went wrong, the sign must feed you with more information that you both had a common understanding of. As we discussed earlier, this kind of sign and consequently language is symbolic.
  7. In “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind”, professor Yuval Noah Harari [13] brilliantly argues why language enabled Homo Sapiens to dominate the world. When two alpha-male chimpanzees compete, they need to have supporters among males and females. To create the trust, they hug, touch, kiss, groom and do mutual favors to each other. So, they form an emotional bond. The size of such groups is small (a rule of thumb: fewer than 150 members) because each member must create the same bond with the rest of the group to be able to work with them. However, if they all believe in some sort of myth, then a huge number of strangers can cooperate or even sacrifice themselves. To create these myths requires a language which has the capacity to deal with abstract ideas, thus, a symbolic language.
  8. Besides, I’d like to add my own theory about another and in my opinion more fundamental advantage of language. If the sender and receiver of a message is the same person, the process is called thinking. In other words, language has enabled us to think. We’re gonna discuss this claim in the next post.

Exercise 20:

  1. Think about the role of intention or awareness in creating or using a language. Are they necessary?


[1] Link to the post about concepts

[2] Link to the post on amplitude and frequency of meanings

[3] The roads brought more safety which have accelerated our transports. Besides, if you’re lost; finding a path is an index of humankind. So, you’d be probably safe.

[4] Link to a webpage about ant trails.

[5] Professor Sapolsky made this claim that ant trails outperform Tokyo’s subway system in one of his lectures. Link.

[6] That’s also the foundation of artificial neural network and how an AI optimizes its behavior through feedback loops. Link

[7] Link to Natural selection.

[8] Link to an article about the peacock’s tail feathers.

[9] We discussed the types of signs, iconic, indexical, and symbolic in the previous post. Link

[10] That’s what we can detect in an emotional argument. People raise their voice to intimidate each other rather than to reason.

[11] Again you can refer to the previous post. Link

[12] For more information, you can read the highly-recommended book “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind” Link

[13] Link


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