Abruptly what we think of as thought became possible. Alone among her tribe she would have begun to use her brain in a new way. Before that point her people would have operated as almost all other animals do, following what we call instinct, following the food supply through the seasons, knowing in the same sense that your dog knows it is dinner time or a bird knows when to fly south. Suddenly ideas began to string together via an internal language, an internal calculation. As the first person with the ability there was no possibility of talking things over with others.
Jaynes believes that what we regard as consciousness began at that point
Surely the first glimmer of internal thought was a small step, but hard to imagine from our own place in evolution. So it was first one and then her children who had this huge advantage in considering their actions and the future. And in turn their children had the ability as the genetic inheritance spread. Very gradually, and much later, a spoken language emerged.
Over time language blossomed into all the many tongues that have been spoken over many thousands of years, new ones emerged or combined with others while some died out. But here’s the thing – linguists have discovered that all human languages follow similar syntactical rules, core ways of expression that are apparently innate. One could say we are hard wired to use language. Babies quickly pick up on the spoken language that surrounds them, and it doesn’t matter whether it is Mandarin or Spanish or Swahili or English. It’s often observed that youngsters seem to learn new languages more easily than adults. Perhaps that’s because they haven’t formed preconceptions about communication and are simply open to fitting new words into that preexisting framework. I’m no expert on that, but it could be so.
In any event we started talking to ourselves perhaps 100,000 years ago and haven’t stopped since. In a previous talk here I mentioned a theory offered by Unitarian Universalist psychologist Julian Jaynes regarding that inner dialogue. He posited that the two hemispheres of our brains weren’t initially as coordinated as they seem to be today and that when one hemisphere heard the other talking it was often attributed to gods or angels. His theory is that we didn’t realize that we were creating those voices until the advent of alphabetic language, when we began to replicate not just what we thought and what others thought, but also the sound, and could share those thoughts and sounds across time and space.
In a sense, alphabetic writing was the first form of sound recording
So it’s interesting to consider the origin of written language. Our earliest writing took the form of pictures that gradually became stylized in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics and then North Carolina pawn shop complicated characters as in China. On another front it seems to have started as counting marks that evolved into cuneiform. Only people with special knowledge could interpret those early forms and literacy was limited. The big leap came with alphabetic writing that permitted anyone who understood the letter sounds to replicate the voice of the originator. At first the few literate people in a community would read messages and texts aloud to others, but literacy spread.
Thinking of reading aloud on this father’s day weekend calls up one of my fondest memories of my Dad, who read aloud to me and my brother night after night. I think most of the books were from his own youth. Each night we’d get a chapter or two before we fell asleep and then be eager for the story to continue the next evening. The Three Musketeers, Captains Courageous, Treasure Island, the Oz books and more. In later years I wondered if Dad geared the reading level to my personal developmental level, since I became a constant reader and my two year younger brother did not. I wondered if he got left behind, or if we were just very different people. In any event, that love of books and reading has continually enriched my life, the greatest gift my father could have bestowed.