Thoughts From a Boring Dinner Party

It was Christmas season last month, so it meant endless boring dinner parties. One day I was just at such an event, so I had loads of time to think and daydream. During one of the conversations I suddenly had some thoughts in relation to the origins of languages and the more I thought the more intrigued I became.

Being a Chinese, one part of our culture that I absolutely love is the Chinese language. It is so absolutely amazing and different from any other languages that I have heard of. The words are not a permutation of a set of letters, like English, but rather a combination of different strokes in different positions. Sitting at the dinner table yesterday I thought about the short, stout, sad stone-age men struggling to start a fire and scratching in the sand to create the sparks of civilisation— How did they come up with these languages? And why are two branches of languages (Latin & Greek verses Asian & Chinese ) so radically different?

The Chinese words are pictures, literally. Originally they are basically pictures on the back of turtles that represent different things, one picture for one thing. For example: in the three characters shown above, the one on the left was the moon, the middle one was the mountain, and the one on the right was water. (Picture source: Wikipedia) Vivid, huh? These words slowly evolved to become 月, 山 and 水. So they are very much visual—pictures tell the story. I think the sounds must have come after because, in Chinese, there are often a handful of words of different meaning but sharing the same pronunciation. This shows the prominence of sight over hearing.

English (and all European languages, but I’ll just take English as the example), however, is a different story. The words themselves are just permutations of 26 letters and by themselves do not necessarily mean anything. Their form are not resembling any specific thing. And come to think about it, who decided that the linear permutations of letters seem like a good idea to create meanings? After a wonderful piece of apple pie, I decided that it must be that instead of visual, the Celts and the German creators of English were somewhat more auditory. In order to convey meanings, people used sounds rather than pictures. They used different pronunciations to represent different things, and as the sounds got more complex and abstract the need to change them into form emerged. However there are just a limited amount of sounds that humans can utter and they appeared repeatedly in different permutations, so in order to represent these sounds to our knowledge our ancestors developed the system of the alphabet, each having its own phonetic representation and its form brings out the auditory meaning.

Chinese is 2D, English is 1D. Chinese is pictures, English is sounds. My theory is that the Chinese ancestors probably relied more on sight, whereas the early Celts and Germans and Greeks rely more on hearing, and this different way of processing information led to different styles of languages. I can’t justify this biologically and geographically, my best guess is that this may be related to the agricultural activity (as it is the most important part of early humanity). For example, maybe one group of people relies on hunting more than the other, and therefore their auditory ability is more treasured, whereas the other focus more on farming and therefore sight would be required to make sense of the different crops?

Of course, this is just my hypothesis, but I am quite satisfied with it and it then led me to think— apart from auditory and visual, is there any other form of languages? To my imagination, the communicating by action probably has been attempted, but they are too time-costing and energy consuming, and would be hard to record, so in the end, these languages did not come into being.

I have always believed that languages are derived from a way of thinking, and languages form and shape our way of thinking from an early age. I think of Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, a wonderful sci-fi short story which was later adapted into the film Arrival. In this story, alien creatures came to earth with no clear intentions and the governments sent a group of scientists to investigate. They were trying to understand their language and communicate. Their language are formed in such a way that it transcends the concept of order. All the components of a sentence are arranged in whatever permutation in one picture, with certain connections between them. The sentences can therefore go on and form paragraphs…all in one big character. You could write an entire book in one weird and complex drawing. This interesting characteristic was due to the fact that the biology of these aliens allows them to look into the future, and so in their world, there was no first, nor last, everything was just there. After learning their language, the lead linguistic professor found that her way of thinking was changed too, and she can now see into the future and see what will happen to hers and her daughter’s life. This story kept bugging me across the years because I think it is a vivid portrayal of how language is intertwined with our own thoughts. The possible forms of languages are confined by our physical properties and it can in turn change us. Boomerang!

The path just went further from there and gave me an insight into what might be the reason that we have not yet discovered any pattern in animal vocal sounds. Despite our dreams and endeavours, we still could not identify any pattern in the chirps and quakes of sparrows. Now if we agree that our ability to interpret languages are bound by our biology, then a possibility is that because we do not have the mechanism to make the sound birds can make, the fine details of bird-language are also inconceivable to us. Could it be that the birds actually have a complex language system—several language systems—but we just couldn’t tell the difference between their chirping words because our biology just doesn’t allow us to? What this implies is that—to break through the bonds of languages, we may need to break through the bonds of biology first.

So as you can imagine, I went home from the dinner party the other day very hyper and excited. I think that hypothesis though it is, this is an idea worth sharing and I would be very glad if this can give you a moment of aha and somethings to consider and chat about in your next dinner party.

-Ian