Words are not just important, they are the key invention of Homo sapiens, which separates us by miles from the other animals here on planet earth. With our complex languages and hundreds of thousands of words, we describe things we can see and touch and things we only imagine. What is in front of us and what is not. The trick is to string words together in clear sentences that tell a story, an imaginative vision, or a descriptive picture. For me, the challenge is to use surprising and creative language within those sentences to catch the reader’s attention — to make the effort an entertainment for both writer and reader.
Lots of species communicate non-verbally. Humpback whales sing to each other, lions roar meaningfully, gorillas thump their chests, birds trill away. But these and other animal communications are only basic modes of signaling. No other species is equipped to form words which can describe, hurt, make pictures, elate, curse, relay emotions, instruct, excite, and all the other things that words can do. “But,” you ask, “aren’t we the only species that has sex just for fun and not necessarily to procreate? Doesn’t that also distinguish us from the other animals?” Tell that to the Bonobo monkeys. “But we use tools and have an opposable thumb.” Yes, we do. And so do Chimpanzees, our nearest relative.
We take our words and apply them to intangible concepts without giving it much thought. What is love? Hate? Greed? Intuition? Altruism? God? Use our invented words to describe religion and various concepts of God and we are instantly transformed into beings that are far removed from the other creatures with which we share our blue planet. William Blake said everything that lives is God. Some of us go further. We believe that everything that exists, every atom of every single thing that is tangible, is God. The word is panentheism, a belief that everything in the universe is part of a God that even transcends that universe. Let’s see the chimps work that one out. We humans need to work on inventing still more words, as it happens, and as most people know. Try describing a color or a taste without using another color or taste as part of your description. That’s weak. We need some new words.
The origin of Homo sapiens language is considered by many scholars as a subject completely unsuitable for scientific inquiry because actual evidence just doesn’t exist. There is no agreement. Inferences are sometimes drawn from fossil discoveries, cave drawings and the like, but it seems that any inference or common sense approach is sure to draw both adherents and detractors. Wiki informs us that some scientists consider the subject one of the most difficult to study. There are just too many possibilities. Darwin thought the origin of language came from “imitation and modification, aided by signs and gestures, of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries.” In any case, study of the development of language provokes a wide range of estimates spanning emergence of the first Homo some 2.5 million years ago and probably nothing more than rudimentary proto-language, down to we Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago and our invention of what might be thought of as proper language as we know it today.
Have some fun with words when you’re out of things to do. Sit down at your keyboard and start using our words to describe what you’re thinking about. What you want to do with the rest of your day or the rest of your life? Don’t worry about what someone else might think of your effort. It’s for you only. It’s a mini-memoir of something that was in your mind at that day and that time. Call it a free-form download of your thoughts at a given moment, a very personal short diary, then wait a few days and look back at what you’ve written. Do you agree with yourself? Do you need to make corrections, or rework the whole shebang? At the very least, you’ll more than likely find your eruption of words amusing and interesting. Something you may want to repeat a few times and get to know yourself better.
Words, sometimes plain and simple, sometimes complex and difficult. That’s what makes us human.
Jeffery Viles is the author of “The Sasquatch Murder (A Love Story)”, now available in hardcover and e-book through Amazon, Indiebound, Barnes and Noble and Itasca Books. Foreword Clarion Reviews gives the novel five stars and says: “The Sasquatch Murder is an accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable tale, the kind of book one is sorry to finish because it’s such good company.” Kirkus Reviews adds “Viles writes in a crisp, balanced prose that’s laden with wonderful details… An earnest, thoughtful story about an unplanned discovery.”