Impossible to conceive of a time before language, because to conceive thoughts requires the articulation of language, we can not project ourselves backward into the minds of forbears before speech. Even where we can not talk, every gesture we make and every grunt we sound has been shaped by a mind that thinks in words.
Creatures of language, we both master and become captive to the flow of ideas that spring forth from our mouths. The fish swims, the bird flies, and the human speaks. We do not know how this happened, nor when, though perhaps we now know where — on the plains of southern Africa. We have never asked why we speak. The answer has always been obvious.
The pressures of survival drive all living things to explore the full range of their innate capabilities. For human beings, survival has always been a social skill, thriving by working together. Across tens of millions of years we watched one another closely, and used that observation to get into each other’s heads. That was powerful – because we were smart. As we grew more social, we learned to wage war and raise children far more effectively.
We had always grunted, signaling with our voices – just as all primates do. Within the depths of our minds, already hypertrophied from managing our social relationships, we expanded this repertoire, modulating and clarifying these sounds. Each refinement made it possible to share our own mental state more concisely and completely than ever before. The drive to speech is its own reward: the more clearly you can make yourself understood, the more closely you can work together, and the more successful you will be as a group. Even a little bit of speech improves things so much that the advantages of a fully-developed language follow along immediately.
“Ontogeny recapitulates philology.” The transition from simple words – perhaps something close to ‘baby talk’ – into the full, and infinitely flexible creative tool we use as our principal means of communication, likely took less than a billion seconds.
Within a few generations we had become inseparable from our linguistic skills. Speech had become synonymous with being human, because it conferred upon us far greater depth in our social relations, now populated not just with feelings and actions, but with the thoughts of others. Speech allows us to know the minds of those around us; though we don’t equate speech with telepathy, those very first linguistic humans wouldn’t have recognized any difference. Speech is the first technology of connection, bringing minds together, and improving the performance of both the individual and the tribe.
With language comes the capability for a distributed coordination: “Go there and do that.” Working together no longer necessitates working in close quarters. There is safety in numbers, but there is another kind of strength in the distributed intelligence of a tribe verbally coordinating their activities in pursuit of a specific goal. Much of that strategic capability would have been applied to martial pursuits, crafting a battle plan wrought in words. The endless chatter of women, seemingly so casual and frivolous, serves to continuously reinforce the web of social relationships, and thereby ensuring that these women and their children will have resources to draw upon.
It is impossible to imagine a wordless myth. Chimpanzees may dance about in a thunderstorm, but without words, this act remains a reflection of the present, and can never be a frame around the past, nor a presentiment of the future. Words are the vehicles for myth. “In the beginning was the word.” As soon as we learned to speak, we began to tell stories of origin, of great deeds, of the eventual and the eternal. We learned these stories, passing them down the generations.
Most of these stories contained within them some information which helped those who heard the story to understand their world. This useful bit of knowledge made life somewhat easier for those who knew these stories, each story distilling hard-won human experience into a digestible and memorable form. Those who knew many stories had more experience to draw upon, and act upon. “All doing is knowing, all knowing and doing.”
The stories we tell ourselves act as encyclopedias, telling us everything about how the world works. Those who know more will do better and will be more successful, on the whole. Language increases capability, and stories – memorized language – further amplifies those capabilities. Just as we are driven to speak, so we are driven to learn and tell stories.
From the Paleolithic through to the present, every culture comes with its own set of stories, carefully conserved and passed down through the generations, inviolable and immutable because the words themselves hold the culture together. The ‘dreamings’ – mythologies – of Australian aboriginals have been preserved, coherently and without significant change, for fifty thousand years. These stories present a specific, cultural map of the known world, an encyclopedia of facts framing a landscape that did not change in any significant way until the arrival of British settlers in 1788.
Stories alter the people who hear them, changing behaviour, forming expectations, and setting limits. Just as language has become both a liberation and a prison, stories release and constrain us. As the generations pass, these stories accrue, usually quite slowly, reflecting a mostly-unchanging world. In times of threat or disaster, these stories might grow by leaps and bounds, as traumatic events faded into a past of mythological dimensions. At other times the stories themselves might even transform the storytellers, taking them outside of themselves, and into a different world.