Language (and with it the capacity to accumulate cultural information) and reason are two of the most outstanding expressions of our human nature, characteristics that distinguish humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Language is such an integral part of our lives that we take it for granted, but getting complicated thoughts from my brain into yours by using simple symbols and sounds is a miracle of nature’s and our ingenuity. The use of symbols and sounds to convey meaning that can relate to remote times and places, as well as imaginary or abstract thoughts – this is what distinguishes human language from animal communication.
Today we know more about the nature of language – its biology, history, grammar, logic, rhetoric, and poetics – than ever before and much of what we now know about the structure of language has come to us in the last few decades. In the twentieth century language was recognised as a key component of philosophy in the triad language, thought, and reality. Knowing how this tool we use for communication works is esential because language is the cement of our social organisation and communal life and we need to know where it is efficient and how it might mislead.
Language falls into three interconnected realms of study: thought, written language, and spoken language. Language is a product of both our biology and our culture. I speak English because of my cultural background but the reason I use language at all is a consequence of my biology. This is demonstrated by children who have an instinctive or innate ability to absorb and recreate language without any effort while they need to be taught the cultural skills of reading and writing. To what extent does the language we use structure the way we think about the world? Do we think in words? Can the way our minds structure language give us clues about the the way the mind structures the world in general?
What are the structures of language imposed instinctively on all languages by our minds. This is the biological aspect of language. Culturally every language is like a secret historical code waiting to be deciphered: embedded within its spoken sounds, written symbols, and vocabulary lies the history of its speakers … but unlocking this history requires the specialist skills of the linguist. These topics will be discussed in Language – structure. In two further articles I cover the history of language in general and the history of the English language in particular.
Language & cultural evolution
Humans are the products of the interaction between genetic and cultural change. Darwin gave us a compelling explanation of biological evolution but the mechanism of cultural evolution is still the subject of vigorous debate. One popular school of thinking is that of mimetics, developed out of the proposal by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) that there are ideas and practices as meanings that can spread through cultures, transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals and other forms of imitation. Memes are the cultural analogues of genes, responding to selective pressures as viral phenomena that can evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to biological evolution. Memes undergo variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success. Philosopher Dan Dennett has discussed the way that words have been created by genetic and cultural evolution as ‘memes that can be pronounced”. Words are semi-autonomous informational structures with multiple roles to play in cognition. Words, as memes, are in effect apps that can be downloaded from our culture on to our neck tops and can be reinforced by copying or repetition. In this sense they have a semi-independent existence. Errors in thought (‘thinkos’) are akin to errors in writing (‘typos’).
Citations & notes
 We are familiar with word meanings as dictionary definitions but there is the further question of how sounds and marks convey meaning. So, for example, the word ‘cat’ has meaning for us in a way that rattling keys do not. The former kind of meaning is called descriptive meaning, the latter foundational meaning. Philosophers have two basic views on this: internalists believe that meaning is fixed by a speaker’s intentions (purposes or goals), while externalists believe that meaning is fixed by things in the outside world