Why Language Is The Human Superpower

Why Language Is The Human Superpower

How can we best make sense of the world? There are a number of areas that, taken together, give a useful description of the human condition: the nature of society, how language is essential for its complexity, and further consequences of having language. I will be exploring these over a series of posts.

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An essential characteristic of humans is language.

As life developed, it first responded to the world with reflexes, then emotions, then by thinking, but it was the human development of language that turned thinking into a superpower.

Starting with the use of labels to stand for things like apples, actions like running, categories like fruit, and interior experiences like sadness, words were used as metaphors to explain the world, and those explanations were further labeled and combined to create ideas that we cannot see directly—ideas like gravity, money or negative numbers. “Run over the figures for me.” Run? Over? Figures? Each of these words and its meaning has their origins in the physical world.

Language is the way that ideas are passed from one person to another, allowing each person to benefit from the thoughts of many others. In this way, we have constructed a house of understanding whose foundation rests on the ground of experience and whose bricks are ideas stacked one on top of another and held in place by the mortar of logic.

This house was at first limited in size by the capacity of the human mind, but when writing was invented, the insights of individual people could accumulate without end. By building and sharing knowledge in this way over millennia, we have constructed a vast edifice of understanding.

It is language that has made our collaborative nature vastly more potent. To give a simple example, imagine working with someone else to prepare a Christmas dinner without speaking at all about the menu, shopping, preparation or timing. We use language to make acts of coordination detailed and explicit.

Through the combination of thought, language and cooperation, we have learned how to understand and control the world more than any other species. Human civilization, from textiles through television, is the consequence—and proof—of this power.

Next: how language is a contradictory second voice.

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