Monday, December 08, 2008

A Brief History of Language

I always have the same reaction when I pick up a dictionary.

Do you mean those are ALL the words? That's IT? I don't know. The total number of pages seems pretty small to me.

Webster's French-English DictionaryThe French-English dictionnaire that I am using seems REALLY small, probably because it doesn't include "existentialist" or "psoriasis." It's good on yellow bicycles, though, and "how much is that."

So here's what it is.

It's all code, this language thing. I am really amazed at human ingenuity. I mean some of us over here on the English side, back when we were in our caves and sort of sitting around of an evening, not trying to waste the fire, mind you, but relaxing---one of our lot looked down at those extremity things that he used all day to poke things with, and said "hands. These are my hands." And then probably at the same time [and maybe he'd just finished some of those wildebeest-flavored CheezIts] he coined the term "fingers."

"Huh?" said his buddy, or more correctly "uuunh?"

"God, you people are stupid," this genius said, or I guess he acted it out in a Charades kind of communication. But it made him get up and start to pace around the cave. "Do you think we can just always grunt and groan when we want something? Are we going to live all our lives like animals? Like brutes?"

"Brute this," his buddy said.

"Shut the f up," everyone else yelled, trying to catch a few winks before the next horrible crisis occurred, like a flood or childbirth or measles.

"I'm telling you right now," the true and upright homo sapiens said, "This is my finger. Watch me put it right in your eye."

Somewhere over in another cave, somebody looked down and had the same epiphany, but for some reason that has been lost through history, said "les mains" and "doigts" instead. Don't ask me how, but he thought they meant the same thing as "hands" and "fingers." Go figure. That's the French for you.

So anyway, they started using their code and we started using ours.

Their code is nearly incomprehensible.

Sorry, I don't really mean that. But they talk too fast. They try to use the code far too rapidly for good understanding. But the really weird thing is our dictionaries are nearly the same size.

And I find that meaningful. And hopeful. And sad.

This is a busy week for me, dear reader. Tests and papers and lots of code.

A bientot



At 11:14 PM , Blogger sandman1 said...

Ah, but did the two come independently, or did the same group of cave scholars start language and then spread out, and the various languages evolved as from a giant game of "telephone"? Or, maybe they stormed off in opposite directions over whether it should be hands or mains??

I vaguely remember some stuff about language families from an anthropology course, but that could have come after the beginning. More recently I learned a bit about Basque, spoken in parts of France and Spain (guess which region!), which isn't related to any European language. ".. a language isolate, the last remaining pre-Indo-European language in Europe", says wikipedia. Ooh, I should check the French version to see if there's more controversy... (hmm, nope, I can't tell -- your RS study is going well if you can read this stuff!)

At 6:28 AM , Blogger Becky Motew said...

I can't imagine learning Basque, sm. I think I am doing well until I turn on French radio and then I know I am still near the bottom.

Maybe it WAS Telephone.


At 3:46 AM , Blogger Kay said...

I like your version of the origins language! I think as long as you attempt to speak their language, the French will respect you. It's only manners. You are going to wow them with your attitude and humour, I just know it!

At 6:35 AM , Blogger Becky Motew said...

Aw, you're sweet to say that, Kay. Thanks.



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