Humans have an amazing capacity to communicate. By uttering sounds we are able to convey meaning to those around us.
How do we get from noise to meaning?
Well, however we do it, the result is a sort of a miracle. I say, “Aristotle had a mole on his back.” I manage to refer to Aristotle, whom I never met, to put it mildly, --- he lived very long ago and very far away. And I manage to get everyone else to think about Aristotle. Damn amazing.
Not only do I refer to Aristotle, I say something about him. My utterance – basically the noise I make ---has a property --- either being true or being false --- that is determined by the state of Aristotle’s back 2500 years ago or so. Miraculous.
And yet, if we look at it from another angle, it seems like a very natural phenomenon. Animals use noises and dances and other behaviors to share information. An animal sees a threat --- perhaps a deer sees a coyote. It reacts. The trait of reacting in the same way, even if one doesn’t see the coyote, clearly would have survival value. Couln’t this primitive communication be the beginning of language --- the roots of human language?
I don’t see where else it could have come from, at least if we are looking for a naturalistic explanation. Maybe in the end we’ll have to conclude that it came as a gift from God exclusively for humans. But that would take a lot of convincing, in my case.
But there is quite a gap between a deer seeing a coyote, and you saying something about a philosopher who has been dead for a couple of thousand years. Apart from the remoteness of the subject matter --- long dead Aristotle compared to a coyote lurking behind a tree ---- there is the whole matter of syntax. In human language, we can put together a finite stock of words to together in different ways, to get at an infinity of sentences, and an infinity of thoughts to, that come to mind even if we have never heard the sentence before. Not just “Aristotle had a mole on his back, “ but “Aristotle had a mother-in-law whose second husband had daughter who didn’t have a mole on her back, although she worried about it incessantly.” I’ll wager you’ve never seen that sentence before, but you grasp immediately what things would have had to be like 2500 years ago for it to be true.
If there is a route from that primitive behavior, or even the dances of bees and other more complicated sorts of animal behavior, to what humans do, it’s long an involved. But, look on the bright side. IF language weren’t pretty complicated, we couldn’t have the philosophy of language. And Ken and I would be lucky to be sweeping floors at Stanford, instead of being the illustrious professors we try to be. Not to mention linguists! Many of them are perfectly charming human beings, like our producer Devon!