No one remembers learning to speak. We can sympathize with a parent as they endure a toddler exploring the capacity of their vocal cords, hooting and howling in joyous cacophony, everywhere: during the middle of a religious service, in a movie theatre, on the subway. Something about the voice feels so alluring the child finds it impossible to remain quiet. We must speak: something between our voice and our ears demands stimulation.
Our earliest memories tie themselves to the words of others: something our mother said to us, our father showed us, or a sibling shared in play. Words seem to be the necessary anchor to ground our memories. Before we have grasped language, we hold onto nothing. Those memories might be there, deep within us, but we have no way to find them, no hook that would allow us to trawl our preverbal history. “Where there are no words, thereof we can not speak.”
We come into knowing as we come into language, judged both by adults and other children through our facility with words. Using language as an informal intelligence assessment, we assume a well-spoken child to be more mature than one who stumbles through words and makes a mess of grammar. An adult with a poor command of the language often finds themselves treated like an idiot – a perennial complaint of immigrants. We have tied language to intelligence for so long the two feel almost inseparable, perfectly expressed in the dual meaning of the word ‘dumb’.
Humans have been ‘anatomically modern’ – that is, recognizably identical to ourselves – for almost two hundred thousand years. Caves in South Africa bear the evidence of habitation by our earliest ancestors. We have their bones and their tools, but no sense of who they were. We can hypothesize what they felt and thought, but a gulf separates us from them — the gulf of language.
It isn’t until about eighty thousand years ago that we start to see the hallmarks of what we think of as human intelligence – patterns carved in clay, fragments of textiles. These first elements of decoration – accenting the purely functional – speak to an internal depth which the earliest humans seem to have lacked. That depth came with the emergence of language.
Few topics in science ignite more heated and less illuminating debate than the origin of human language. For three hundred years, the question has tantalized and frustrated the best minds. Hypotheses abound, but answers are thin on the ground. We study the growls of chimpanzees, our nearest cousins, and analyze the clicks of dolphins – who seem to have a language of their own – in an attempt to understand how we navigated the passage from silence into speech.
Although we don’t know much about what happened, we have recently learned where: southwest Africa. Quentin Atkinson, a biologist from the University of Auckland, analyzed the phonemes – individual sounds – which compose a broad sampling of human languages. He found that the language family of southwest Africa – Xhosan, home to the !Kung people, with their famous clicking dialect – had the greatest number of phonemes, over 100. Hawai’ian, on the other hand, has only 13.
Southwest Africa is close to the birthplace of our species; Hawai’i, the most recently colonized land on Earth. Atkinson saw that as our race migrated ‘out of Africa’, languages tended to lose phonemes, and each subsequent migration dropped some of these basic sounds. (The number of phonemes a language possesses doesn’t affect the ability of that speakers of that to express rich thoughts; it simply means that the phonemes in a phoneme-poor language get more of a workout.) Atkinson gave us a map, which points back in time, to the first people we would recognize as people, the first people with language, memory, and culture.
Even if we never know why, we know where we began to speak, and know that we carried that capability with us as we moved out across the planet. Once language had arrived, it never left us. It became too vital to be forgotten, so important that we consider language one of the defining characteristics of our species: to be human is to have command of language. Our myths remind us of this: God blessed Adam with an ability to name the animals.
Yet there was a humanity before, a Homo sapiens before sapience. We can reach back through prehistory, but our reach extends only as far as language. Before language, our species was like a small child, remembering nothing. After language we have continuous memory – indigenous Australians claim a cultural continuity going back some 60,000 years. Language empowers us to express ourselves and know one another’s minds, but also imprisons us within an unbreakable cage that limits our ability to know anything about our pre-linguistic ancestors. We are so different from them they are incomprehensible to us. Language has so changed us that we understand nothing of those who do not share language.
“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” Language was among the first human tools – along with stone axes and fire – and definitively the first tool that lived entirely within us, a bit of innovation as much cultural as technological. In the moment language arrived on the scene, it became indispensable, and once indispensable, we adopted it as innate, favoring those with the greatest linguistic capability, and thereby subtly affecting the evolution of our species. People who ‘talk pretty’ have broader prospects for success in the world. They and their children will thrive.
Every claim made for the power of language – as an amplifier of human capability – can also be made for the sudden arrival of hyperconnectivity. Connected people are more successful, and those most successful at mastering the techniques of connectivity have the greatest successes. Connection is becoming indispensable, and we have already begun to think of it as an innate capability. The billion seconds from 1995 – 2026 is witness to a transition from a world in which no one is connected, to a world where being connected and being human is seen as synonymous.
Just as we now see being verbal and being human as synonymous, hyperconnectivity is adding another layer of richness and depth to our experience. Where we can observe the sudden explosion of depth in the human record, eighty thousand years ago, so our children’s children’s children’s children will look upon this billion seconds as a second explosion, another sudden quickening, before which the ‘dumb’ and disconnected generations of humanity will seem incomprehensible and inhuman.
We are at a threshold. In fact, we are already more than half-way across it. We can look in either direction; behind us we can see the familiar shape of a species as we’ve known ourselves for eighty millennia; before us we see something quite different, a form not wholly realized, yet quite real. We still don’t have all of the language of hyperconnectivity. The chaos of the present moment is very much like the hollering of seven billion toddlers learning to stretch their voices across an entire planet. It’s growing quite loud, as everyone clamors to be heard. There’s a lot of sound, but not much sense.
That sense will come over the next billion seconds. When it does, the door to our recent past will be closed. We will have been these disconnected people, but we will not understand them, any more than we can understand our earliest ancestors. We will have lived two lives, before and after we all connected.