Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity

Language allows you to implant something from your mind into someone else’s mind and they can attempt to do the same to you.

When you speak you are using a form of telemetry, language relies on discrete impulses of sound.

 You use language to alter the thoughts in someone else brain to suit your interests.

Languages subversive power has been recognised throughout the ages in censorship, books you can’t read, phrases you can’t use and words you can’t say.

The ‘tower of Bable’ a fable in the bible is a warning about the power of language. According to the story early humans developed their conduit that by using their language from witch to work together, they could build a tower to heaven together. God got angry and destroyed the tower and to make sure it never happened again, he scatted the people by giving them different languages and this confused them.

The wonderful irony that our languages exist to prevent us communicating with other people.

Even in this day and age we are not allowed to use certain words and phrases because if we do we will have to face some sort of punishment, be it a telling off, or even death is some countries.  

Why is it that we are the only species with coherent speech? Why don’t chimps talk? We see them to be intelligent as they use tools of grass stems to get termites out the nest, but why don’t they use a shovel? Chimps lack social learning, they lack the ability to copy others, so they just do the same things over and over again. We know this as the Homo erectus who lived in the African savannah over 2 million years ago made hand axes but they made the same axes for 1 million years, that’s about 44,000 generations.  The Neanderthals had more complicated tools but again very little change.

But we can learn, we can learn by watching other people and coping or imitating, we can then choose form a range of options to be the best we can be, it is a cumulative of ideas and adaptation.

Social learning is visual theft. A person can watch another person and take their best idea without putting in the time or energy to create the idea in the first place.

At the human Turing point we had two options, to either stay in family groups and only share ideas with them that would have led to our species dying out or to work as a community to benefit from each other, we chose the community and from that we cave created language to communicate and to stop the visual theft that was going on.

It is social technology to help with cooperation, for reaching agreements, for striking deals and coordinating.

In a developing society, language is so important, without is like a bird without wings. It is the panicle of the world, it makes things clear, and it’s what has made us advance.

Where an animal would have to stay in a certain habitat as it suits their needs, we have social learning that allows us to go where we want and change that setting to suit us.

As we evolved we created many different languages, over 8000. The greatest density of different languages is in the places where lots of people are crammed into small places. We use languages to establish identities and to protect it from other people.

EU language translation costs over 1 billion pounds a year. The EU employs 2000 official translators.

There lots of was to measure things, but the metric is used the most, with time all around the world most uses minutes seconds and hours.


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