According to my mother (RIP), my first verbal expression was not Mama or liebfraumilch, like a lot of kids, but Jell-o -- J-E-L-L-O -- but, then, she also confided, later in life, that I came from Cherokee stock, and that my Dad broke broncos in rodeos. (It even inspired an early poem.) So, you had to gently consider the source on these matters, keep your visits short, nodding a lot as she played out Mother Mitty, and seek out reality-based thinking back home on the business end of a bong.
Somewhere along the line, probably while the smoke was still bubbling, I gave some thought to the origins of language (as you do, sitting there like a stoned Rodin) -- not my language, with its pudding proof of a neglected childhood spent placed before a TV set, introjecting jingles and their subliminal messages, remembered six decades later against your will -- but human language, the big soup, how we climbed out, and went from twitching primordial gefilterfish to quantum orgasmatrons of higher thinking we can't help telling each other about on Facebook, and Liking, almost against our wills.
Well, something happened, a brownout maybe, and when I came to, in late middle age, I recalled I had degrees in philosophy and language. So, I must have spent years thinking about all kinds of cogitos and summa cums. But, speaking as an old fart frankly, breaking wind, as it were, at both ends of the candid, I came to recall that in the great navel-gazing debate over consciousness nobody knows to this day whether it's an innie or an outie. The same is true of language. Is it the chicken or the egg of consciousness? I used to know, but I forgot, so I picked up Don't Believe a Word, by David Shariatmadari, to remember.
Shariatmadari's not bad at reactivating all the learning channels of yore with his survey of the gringo's lingo; I could feel bright neurons lighting up (and the dim wit of my many meurons, too). He's got all the bases and graces of language covered -- origins; class, race and cultural differences; finding language in other species: insects, animals, computers; thought and communication; wordplay and translations. And he devotes a whole chapter to challenging Noam Chomsky's 'language instinct' and its evolution.
But, as I read, I started thinking about my pudding proof again and what came before my cry of Jell-o. Before all of our cries of Jell-o. At what point did thoughts and language come spontaneously combusting out of our brains, as if our ganglia-jungle were suddenly woken up by Johnny Weismuller? That's what I was wondering. However, Shariatmadari doesn't really address ancient languages -- or more specifically, the oral tradition we all come from, so we'll never know, from this book, how language produced by oral-centric people is (or was) different than that produced by the meaning of, say, reading this page.
That's fine. I put on my beanie for a minute and recalled a book I'd read as an undergrad, titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. The interesting thing the book posits is the notion that language preceded consciousness, that the left wing and right wing of the brain were in constant dialogue, creating gods, making us functional schizoids, until the imaginot line was breached and a unitary consciousness emerged. "Iliadic man did not have subjectivity as do we," wrote Jaynes. "He had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon." There was no consciousness of consciousness, like that which informs a survey review, such as Shariatmadari's Don't Believe A Word.
The nearest Shariatmadari wants to get to the origins of language is through the lens of certain academic presumptions: Chomsky's language instinct, which the author wants to challenge; and, what he calls the etymological fallacy, putting a lie to the notion that tracing a word back to its root meaning necessarily clarifies a modern understanding. Shariatmadari not only devotes an entire chapter to reducing the value of Noam Chomsky's long-held, and widely accepted, language acquisition gene, but comes at him right from the introduction on.
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