Langauge as an Instinct

Language is an instinct but written language is not.

Writing was invented a small number of times in history, and alphabetic writing, where one character corresponds to one sound, seems to have been invented only once. Most societies have lacked written language, and those that have it inherited it or borrowed it from one of the inventors.

The word ‘dog’ does not look like a dog but it means “dog” just the same. It does this because every English speaker has undergone an identical act of rote learning in childhood that links the sound to the meaning. For the price of this standardized memorization, the members of a language community receive an enormous benefit: the ability to convey a concept from mind to mind virtually instantaneously. But for this universality of communication, children must be taught to read and write how one ought to talk in laborious lessons; these are prescriptive rules.

Scientists studying language propose descriptive rules- describing how people do talk, implying the innate instinct within all us towards a language tendency.

Take infants as an example. Infants have the concept of an object before they learn any words to describe the object. They keep track of the bits of stuff we show them, showing surprise when objects appear or disappear. Visual thinking uses -not language, but a mental graphics system, with operations that rotate, scan, zoom, pan, displace, and fill in patterns of contours. Visualizing certain images is the essential feature of productive thought; this must happen before there is any attempt at using ‘words’ or language to communicate with others.

-Compressed summary from the book

What’s the take away? Language is complicated, but not completely synthetic. We learn rules that allow for the universality of communication- a kind of worldly guidebook- but part of the journey is organic too. Starting from infancy our experience with the objects of the world, and our mental physical representation of these objects shapes our cognition.

My inspiration to synthesize this piece came from my reading of Steve Pinker’s book Language as an Instinct

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