The Deep Impact of Language

October 17, 2007

I came across two very interesting articles today having to do with how the development of language has impacted human beings.

The first comes from the New York Times. Written by John Tierney, it talks about how language may have developed to help fulfill the “social grooming” aspects of communities. You may know that an integral part of social animal cultures, especially primates, is social grooming. This is where different individuals spend time taking care of other individuals in the group, whether it be un-matting hair, picking bugs, etc. By doing this, they develop social bonds and a social hierarchy – the better groomer you are, the more friends you have. Tierney’s article points out a theory that as groups get larger, ie human communities, the time for grooming drops and something else had to develop to take it’s place. Enter language. We could now say, “Gee, your hair looks very un-matted today,” rather than actually go through with the grooming. Take this up another level and you start to get gossip. Eventually, we could build our reputation by talking kindly about others, or hurt someone else’s reputation by talking badly about them. Of course there are consequences for talking badly about someone else, for eventually people will find out that we have been mean and think badly about us, etc. etc. He goes on to talk about how strongly ingrained in our makeup gossip has become, even trumping facts sometimes. (Does this sound like Facebook, Myspace, etc. to anyone else?)

The second article was written by Chris Chatham, a grad student at CU Boulder, on his blog Developing Intelligence. In this article, summarizing cognitive neuroscience researcher Michael C Corballis’s theories, he talks about how hand gestures and handedness are connected to language. In the early stages of language, gesticulation was needed to increase comprehension. However, as language became more sophisticated, we relied more and more on our brains for direct interpretation. Now, I know this is oversimplifying but, as language became faster and more complicated the left side of the brain, part of which processes rapid information aquisition, came into use even more in order to deal with this hightened use of language. Oh, you’re saying, but the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body. And yes, you’re on to something. According to Chatham, the increased use of language is a possible cause of the predominance of human beings to be right handed; something not seen in any other species, even chimpanzees and gorillas.

So, what does all this mean? I don’t know, but looking at language as the motivator for both social behavior and physical conditions is just fascinating to me. And what does this say about left handed people and their ability to function in a highly developed, language centered, gossipy environment? And how about the long existing social bias against left handedness? (My mother was one of those lucky few who were actually whacked on the hand with a ruler in school if she wrote with her left hand.)

I guess it’s just one more example of how important language is to who and what we are.

Here are links to the original articles if you’re interested in reading more.

New York Times Article

Tierney’s Article


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