“We cannot tell as yet what language is.” -Max Müller, M.A.]
SATNAV and Linguist Magazine have collaborated for an article swap! Check out our sister article, “The Language of Science”, in Issue 24 of Linguist.
Defining language is complex, but as we have come to know, language is a central feature ofhuman society. In its simplest form, we understand language as a method of interaction with others, either spoken or written. To fully decipher the definition and origins oflanguage, it is important to consider how humans have evolved to use and understand it. Theories ofthe origins oflanguage have included the idea that language could be a divine gift from God, a human work ofart or a product of nature. Supposing that language is a gift from God, this implies that it was invented as a way ofworshipping and communicating with God. Iflanguage were a work ofart, the human artist would be considered a seraphic creator. As a product ofnature, language is inferred to come as second or even first nature to us. Toddlers and children learn the subtleties oflanguage through hearing others use it, suggesting it only requires a stimulus to develop within us. Animals also develop their own language skills and mechanisms to communicate with others oftheir kind: fireflies glow to attract mates, cobras inflate their hood to scare enemies, ants use pheromone trails to follow each other, and wolves howl to call others from their pack. Looking back millions ofyears, we have evidence ofcavemen communicating with their tribes and others through drawings and etchings on walls. Language through art has been a common occurrence throughout history.
Reaching its height in the 15th century, the Renaissance was an artistic period in Europe, most commonly known as the rebirth ofart. The reawakening ofthe past became a guide to the future, and the development ofa new language through art. Artists used their works to communicate and showcase their talent. Art patrons would flaunt their wealth and status to those around them through the display oftheir commissioned artworks. Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary art historian ofthe Renaissance wrote a book devoted to the ‘artistic genius’, as he called it. He focused on the biographies of‘great’ artists and gave special emphasis to Michelangelo, whom he believed to be the greatest artist ofthe Renaissance. Vasari spoke ofMichelangelo as a ‘divine creator’ and an ‘artisan’, and he demonstrated Michelangelo’s talent oftranslating language through Renaissance art in his paintings and especially his religious murals on the ceiling ofthe Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Humans have been able to use language in a way to fascinate, educate and captivate their audience, not only through art but also in literature. An example ofthis would be Tránsito (1948) by Max Aub. Aub uses language to create a sense ofrealism when expressing the aporia ofhis loss of identity whilst being in exile in Mexico. Aub is highly celebrated for his works, and as he considers the possibility that language is a humane work ofart, the author could be named a divine creator like Michelangelo.
The 21st century has been the birth of technology and its advancements. Mobile phones, the internet, and social media have all shaped the way we communicate with each other, thus changing the way we use language. Although emoticons express some feelings and emotions, the language used in text, email and social media prove different to the language in previous generations. The language expressed through literature, art and even face-to-face interaction seems to convey more emotion than the language translated through technological advancements. It is possible that through technological advancements, language is changing and taking a new form. The origins of language may always be debatable, and as the human lifestyle consistently develops, language and the way we use it will also develop and change.
–Valentina Somers Kohli
The UoB Linguist Magazine is a student-run magazine for language learners and culture vultures at the University of Birmingham. Available online and in print, it’ll keep you updated with world affairs, culture, style and all things international.