A powerful facilitator of and stimulus to memory is, of course, language and it is via this capacity to assimilate and deploy words that man differs so markedly from other members of the animal kingdom. Indeed, one might – with a certain justification – conclude that language is crucial to humanization. Accordingly, let us first of all consider the development of verbal, i.e. spoken language.
At one time it was held that the rapid expansion of brain, which began in our ancestors over 2 million years ago, would correlate with the onset and development of a propensity for language. However, it is now well accepted that many of the several anatomical structures essential to its development, did not appear until between half and a quarter million years ago. According to leading archaeologists, it is also the case that verbal language as such, i.e. entailing syntax and grammar, is unlikely to be more than 50,000 years old. Certainly no evidence of any form of artistic or symbolic representation (essential for language) has been found anywhere, which predates 50,000 years ago. On the other hand – and interestingly enough – there exist no gross anatomical differences between a man’s brain and that of other mammals, of an order that can account for language, (although there are subtle differences between the two hemispheres. see previous blog). Moreover, such differences clearly indicate that it is the left hemisphere predominantly, which facilitates
Just why it is that language functions are localized in the left hemisphere in 95+% of the population, is only poorly understood, since in early childhood both hemispheres would appear to possess almost equal potential for continuing development. No impediment to language development occurs in children under three years of age as the result of damage to the left hemisphere. However, the prognosis arising from such damage does rapidly worsen as the age of its occurrence increases. The truth then is that no human society, however simple or complex, could exist without language. Moreover, language development relies heavily upon its presence and use in the developing child’s environment (as opposed to – say – normal hand-brain coordination, which develops without special training). Gradually, via the processes of memory, perception, cognition, emotion etc., its multifarious ingredients become wonderfully and flexibly enmeshed into a complex whole.
The basic essentials of language are, of course, imparted to the child in the overwhelming number of cases, by the parents. This is of great importance to the growth of vocabulary, as it is to the formation of early beliefs and opinions. None of this should surprise us since it comes with all the weight and authority – and indeed, at the time, often seeming omnipotence and omniscience – that parents, especially in those very early developmental days, appear to possess. Yet it also comes with all the tenderness of appeal that words can convey; very important, this. In terms of the development of linguistic ability, the earliest vocalisations take the form of cries, grunts and gurgles indicating at different times, discomfort or hunger; contentment or pleasure as the case may be. Moreover, as time passes, these gradually develop into a repertoire of communicative sounds from which the relevant muscles and brain structures develop. It is difficult, if not impossible, to pin down a precise age at which the first words are spoken, although studies on the subject suggest somewhere between the 10th and the 14th month. However, once they are articulated, albeit crudely, a vocabulary quickly begins to be established. Generally speaking, nouns come first, followed by verbs, then adjectives and adverbs. Pronouns commonly come last of all and, in seemingly no time at all thereafter, words are combined into, at first crude and later, incomplete sentences.
Language development is then dependent to differing degrees, on a variety of factors. Clearly – and as we have already acknowledged – maturation plays a major role, as does intelligence, gender and social environment (the latter forming a key aspect in the development of bilingualism and multilingualism where this occurs). And it is also from the social environment – especially from within the home setting – that other key processes in the growing child’s development takes place. Thus a first perception of moral authority, of emotional values, of social reactions and of introduction to the supporting culture is afforded, forming a foundation for whatever reinforcement – or change – is to follow. It is also important to emphasise here that this process successively blurs any seeming distinction in the form of a line, which may at first appear to distinguish the inner realm of mind from the outer and daily perceived world of community, society and custom. Thus are, in reality, joined together what on the face of it may appear to be several apparently distinct activities/associations, e.g. recreational interests, daily occupation, political affiliation and involvement, desire for worship and so on. Indeed, the complexity of this fusion of public and social relationships with a common idiom of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, prejudices into the private world of the individual, is the very stuff of mind and of spirit; of – in a word – humanity.
Whilst it is clearly the case that the spoken and written word in its various forms is a key component of communication, it is equally clear that there also exists multifarious forms of nonverbal language which at times, equally contribute to the constant flow and exchange of both trivial and vital information. No more than a mere change of facial expression, e.g. a smile or frown or raised eyebrows, can convey a very great deal by way of information, as indeed, can posture, e.g. kneeling, bowing, standing to attention or, again, gesture, e.g. the beckoning finger, nodding head or wave of the hand.
Mode of dress can and does communicate a great deal about intention, occasion and status i.e. the donning of a hat and coat for out-of-doors activity or of a morning suit or uniform or other kinds of formal or regulation dress. Items of personal possession, e.g. the wearing of a wedding or engagement ring or, indeed, place of abode – the mansion or detached villa or council flat, all in their own way convey much by way of information about the status/social standing and, to some extent, role etc. of an individual/individual’s in society.
In future blogs, I intend to turn to a subject which attempts to describe and explain our observations of the world in which we live. Some – as we shall see – are likely to be of a general, almost universal nature. Others are more specific. Many are practical, whilst others are theoretical in nature. They all arise out of a very old question concerning the manner in which man ever comes to know and to be at home in his world; in a word, “perception”. (C)SB.