I’ve been a life-long student of languages moreso since my matriculation as a comparative studies major at the University of Pittsburgh from 1948 to 1952. That major included study of modern forms of English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Russian languages as well as their literatures. That part of my study was coupled to linguistic courses on the writing systems of those languages.
From the origins of human life forms on earth to the emergence of literacy may have taken hundreds of thousands of years (Austin, 6). In that time period human communication was essentially oral augmented with hand signs, gestures, and facial expressions. That dark hole of illiteracy raises a Pandora’s box of questions, especially since literacy is so fundamentally an essential component of today’s human existence.
It’s true that even today there are people without writing systems. By and large, how-ever, writing is the evolutionary hallmark of human progress. It’s the non-plus-ultra that records the past and present for transmission to the future.
If humans got along for hundreds of thousands of years without writing, it’s not likely they can get along without writing now. Like language, writing developed cumulatively, becoming ingrained as a social necessity much like language. The two are now inextricably yoked to each other.
During research on writing systems early in my interest in linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh, I was surprised to learn that writing sprang up creatively in only two places on earth: Sumeria with cuneiform and Zapotec Mexico with glyphs. All other languages on earth were/are either derived from or inspired by these two writing systems. The former came into being some 6,000 years ago; the latter, 2,600 years ago. Interestingly both sites were centers f food production which, according to some scholars engendered the need for writing.
Learning about the Mexican writing system stirred angry feelings in me toward those who over the centuries since the Spanish invasion of Mexico in 1521 have anathematized the indigenous Mexicans as coarse brutes who practiced cannibalism and worshipped the Devil (as depicted in their codices). Shame on Fray Zumarraga! Montezuma’s grandfather, Nezahualcoyotl. ushered in the Golden Age of Texcoco, a period of high culture with art and literature—transcribed on codices.
It’s important to note that the Spaniards did not bring civilization to Mexico. According to Jared Diamond, they brought “guns, germs, and steel” as well as violence and chaos. Much of what we know about the Aztecs, los Señores de Mexico as they have come to be called, comes to us not from the Aztecs themselves nor from primary sources but from works written by Spaniards which “must be read carefully and without naïve acceptance of their assertions” (Townsend, 7), and from sources considerably removed from the historical moments of the Aztecs.
The primary sources that could have been of some use to us in understanding the Aztecs were burned by the early prelates, like bishop Zumárraga, as pictographic representations of the devil. We do know that on the eve of conquest, the population center of the Aztec empire may have been as high as 50 million in the Valley of Mexico alone (Borah and Cook, 4), almost twice the population of present-day Iraq.
The state of civilization in the Valley of Mexico in 1521 surpassed that of the Old World as attested to by Bernal Diaz del Castillo in his True History of the Conquest of New Spain. When first spying the Aztec island-city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), del Castillo wrote:
And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico we were astounded. These great towns and cues [temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.
Almost a century later, Hamlet would tell Horatio that there were more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in his philosophy.
In his narrative, Bernal Diaz del Castillo extols the courtly cuisine of Montezuma’s empire (Fernando-Armesto, passim). Given Richard Wrangham’s hypothesis about “how cooking made us human,” the autocthonous peoples of the Americas were very human when the Spaniards invaded the Americas, for they were advanced in how they cooked their meals. Moreover, the Aztecs bathed at least twice daily while the Spaniards lived in their clothes for weeks at a time.
What makes the graphic representation of speech difficult is determining a sign to stand for the sound. Early efforts along this line were logograms (pictorial representations that were immediate in their recognition). This left room for a lot of ambiguity even when there was consensual agreement about the meanings of the signs. This is still a problem with all languages. Moreso with cross-cultural communication. Important to note is that all languages depend on consensual agreement of meanings. That is, for the language to be effective all speakers of the language must agree on the meaning of the phonetic or symbolic signs
There are some 6,800 spoken languages in the world today, with some totaling millions of speakers and some with only a handful of speakers. “Just 4 percent (275) of all languages are spoken by 96 percent of the world’s population” (Austin, 6). “More than half of all languages today have fewer than 10,000 speakers; more than a quarter have fewer than 1,000 speakers” (Ibid.). Not all of these languages have a writing system. “The normal situation throughout the world and throughout human history is multilingual-ism, that is, people regularly speaking two or more languages” (Austin, 7).
Important to consider in this language maze is the Whorf-Sapir (Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf ) hypothesis that the language one speaks shapes one’s view of the world. [This hypothesis has been challenged.] In other words, “a language reflects the society that creates it” (Gorrell `1). That’s what makes communication across cultures with differing languages challenging. We cannot trust nor depend on transliteration (word for word matches across languages) in cross-cultural communication.
The phenomena of language operates in two domains or dimensions: the literal and the figurative. [This proposition has also been challenged.] The former deals with the world as it is; and the latter with the world as it could be. Figurative language is charged with simile and metaphor and a host of imaginative considerations.
Language is the hand-maiden of cognition—the light that lets us comprehend the heretofore incomprehensible, that Eureka moment of Archimedes; the light that lets us see the invisible, giving rise to Robert Kennedy’s expression: “Other men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I see things as they could be and ask ‘Why not?”
Of the world languages, the language with most speakers is Mandarin Chinese with 1,055 million speakers. English has 760 million speakers. Hindi with 490 million speakers. Spanish with 417 million speakers. Russian with 277 million speakers. Bengali has 230 million speakers. Arabic with 205 million speakers. Portuguese has 191 million speakers. French, 128 million speakers. German 128 million. Japanese 122 mil-lion. These 4 billion speakers of these languages total more than half of the world’s population.
For any number of reasons, many of the world’s earlier languages have become extinct. In some cases remnants of some of those languages are still with us. Greek and Latin words abound, for example, in many modern languages. A number of words from the ancient Semitic languages of Sumeria and Akkadia are in the lexicons of modern spoken languages. Akkadian was the lingua franca of the ancient near-East until the advent of the Christian era. In Spanish, for example, the still used surname Antu is the Sumerian word designating the wife of Anu—one of the ancient gods of Sumer (note that the “t” in Antu is a feminine marker).
According to Peter K. Austin, “By the end of this century, as many as 90 percent of these languages will have disappeared entirely, replaced by more widely used (national and/or global) languages” (216). Two examples of linguistic resuscitation or resurrection are the Hebrew of Israel and the Gaelic of Ireland. The formation and emergence of new languages is often underway without notice. A good example is the construction of Spanglish (see Ortego y Gasca, 2013), generated by the blending of English and Spanish, principally by Spanish-speakers in English-language contexts. In Texas, this patois is disparagingly labeled as Tex-Mex.
This phenomenon actually occurs anywhere that two languages are in geographic con-tact with each other, especially as bordering nations with distinct languages. In my linguistic and language-acquisition classes, I’ve likened this phenomena to two consenting adults producing a startling array of issue. It’s not bad Spanish mixed with bad English producing a bastard language like Tex-Mex. It’s a naturally occurring phenomena, a lot like Latin consorting with the Iberian languages in producing Spanish. Or like Latin consorting with the languages of Gaul in producing French. The same for Portuguese and Italian. Nobody in Chaucer’s time called the mixture of French and the English of that time (such as it was) Frenglish. As an Anglo-Norman, Chaucer was essentially a French speaker, his wife spoke Flemish. They were a bilingual couple. Actually trilingual with the emergence of English.
What is passing strange is that many if not most lexistents (speakers of languages) are lexocentric (belief in the priority of their language). For example, many speakers of English in the United States insist that Americans speak only English. This English Only Movement has gained considerable adherents in recent times.
Most writing systems of modern languages are alphabet-based which has become the norm for graphic representation of sound. Some languages like Japanese Kanji, for ex-ample, have borrowed freely from already existing non-alphabetic languages. Kanji borrowed ideographic symbols from an earlier Chinese language. There are over 2 thousand joyo kanji symbols in everyday use in Japan. All Japanese family names and most Japanese first names are written in kanji. The Kanji symbol above is the Japanese symbol for love. These symbols are often referred to as “pictographs.”
In many languages, symbolic representation for concepts is used with symbolic logo-grams like $, %, &, @, # in place of phonetic representation. Highway and street signs are a short hand way of getting long messages across without words. Sign language is a way of communicating a message without words. Sighs, laughs, anger, and body language are additional ways of communicating without words. A kiss communicates a world of emotions as do cultural customs. In proxemics, space conveys significant mes-sages—the comfort proximity between speakers.
Language as a conveyance of narrative information is of relatively recent origin. In ancient times of writing it was used to record business transactions. Literacy connoted special training as scribes and privileged consideration in royal or governing ranks. Writing meant power. “First Sumerian texts [were] emotionless accounts of palace and temple bureaucrats” (Diamond, 234). Claude Levi Strauss contends that the main function of ancient writing was “to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings” (Diamond, 235).
As a consequence of social media and their driving technologies, the writing system of American English is undergoing a change of profound consequences to be adjudicated by the future. In text messages, for example, “face to face” becomes “f2f.” Numbers are used like grammatical logograms: “tomorrow” becomes “2morrow.” Phrases like “laughing out loud” are reduced to acronyms like ‘lol” and “Oh my God” is rendered as “OMG.” In a text message the word “your” becomes “ur ” This is a matter of serious import—not to resist this trend as conservatives hewing to the tried and true at any cost but to mediate the current linguistic phenomenon not only in its applicability to current standard usage in communication but to ensure the clarity of messages.
This situation may be like the Dutch boy running out of fingers to stop the water in the dyke from spilling out of its confines. The English language of 21st century America is different than the English language of Chaucer’s time and certainly far different than the English language of King Alfred in 9th century England.
This evolution of language carries with it in tandem the evolution of thought—that which made possible for Watson and Crick to grasp the concept of “the Double Helix.” What made possible for Edison and his telephone and phonograph. What has made possible for humans to think about a trip to Mars or the moons of Barzoom.
Copyright 2015 by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca.
WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED
Austin, Peter K., Living, Endangered, and Lost: One Thousand Languages, University of
California Press, 2008.
Borah, Woodrow Wilson and Cook, Sherburne Friend. The Aboriginal Population of
Central Mexico on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest, 1963.
Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Norton 1999.
Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. True History of the Conquest of New Spain (A.P. Maudslay
Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food. Free Press, 2002.
Gorrell, Robert, Watch Your Language. University of Nevada Press, 1994.
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de, “On Spanglish,” Language: A Reader for Writers, Oxford
University Press, 2013.
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de, “Lords of Aztlan,” Somos Primos (Hispanic Website for Heritage and Diversity Issues), April 2009.
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de and Marta Sotomayor, Chicanos and Concepts of Language (Monograph), Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, 1974.
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de and Marta Sotomayor, Chicanos and Concepts of Culture
(Monograph), Marfel Associates, 1974.
Ortony, Andrew, Metaphor and Thought (2nd Ed), Cambridge University Press. 1993.
Townsesnd, Camilla. Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico. Uni-versity of New Mexico Press, 2006.
Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human.