Society Spotlight: The Science of Language with Linguist Magazine

SATNAV and Linguist Magazine have collaborated for an article swap! Check out our sister article, "The Science of Language," in Issue 24 of Linguist.


“We cannot tell as yet what language is.” - Max Müller, M.A.


Defining language is complex, but as we have come to know, language is a central feature of human 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 of language, it is important to consider how humans have evolved to use and understand it.


Theories of the origins of language have included the idea that language could be a divine gift from God, a human work of art or a product of nature. Supposing that language is a gift from God, this implies that it was invented as a way of worshipping and communicating with God. If language were a work of art, the human artist would be considered a seraphic creator. As a product of nature, language is inferred to come as second or even first nature to us. Toddlers and children learn the subtleties of language 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 of their 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 of years, we have evidence of cavemen 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 of art. The reawakening of the past became a guide to the future, and the development of a 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 of their commissioned artworks.


Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary art historian of the 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 of the Renaissance. Vasari spoke of Michelangelo as a ‘divine creator’ and an ‘artisan’, and he demonstrated Michelangelo’s talent of translating language through Renaissance art in his paintings and especially his religious murals on the ceiling of the 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 of this would be Tránsito (1948) by Max Aub. Aub uses language to create a sense of realism when expressing the aporia of his 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 of art, 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.


From Issue 14

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