If language is our operating system, what was our first language? #blogjune 4

This came out of a cheap joke with Fi, and developed into a question I posed our little one. Yes, I talk and tell stories to our unborn child. Does it come as any surprise?

If you read between the lines, you’ll realise I don’t have the energy for a deep philosophical discussion to back this one up. It does spring from thoughts I’ve had frequently over the years, and I’ll do my best within limited means.

To clarify – I’m not talking about universal language, a set of sounds that would make sense to all if they could only be found. If such a thing existed, it would spring from a supernatural, miraculous source. I’m not talking here about a possible code that exists in all of us. What interests me today is the possibility of universal processes.

Let’s take language out of the equation, but keep communication in. Let’s invent a wolf pack, and make it a successful one. It hunts well, and it does so because over time systems of communicating roles, strategies and on-the-fly initiatives has arisen. Success breeds success over generations, literally.

I love my imaginary little pack; one could write a fine series of tales about its adventures and setbacks, about how struggles for dominance and hierarchy contributed to and detracted from its success. I have a problem with two words in the premise: “has arisen”. I don’t have a problem with the notion of cultural development; but I’d like to consider the medium that culture exists within.

Let’s take it back to a puppy in the pack. Puppies are not born knowing the systems; they are taught them. There is some part of instinct, as we are said to have an instinct for language, but teaching has to take place. More importantly: learning has to take place.

Where does learning lie? In the puppy. The question is, how does learning come about? What’s the difference between a puppy which learns how to hunt and the flower that follows the sun? Let’s not talk about a nervous system. What does the puppy actually do?

I’m going to use a word from learning theory: encoding. It’s used to discuss memory formation across a wide variety of types of memory. I’d like to argue that the process of memory and the process of creating meaning are interlinked, and that communication, be it whines and barks or what we call language is a process of confirming within reasonable doubt memories we’ve encoded match those of others. The now-grown wolf running with the pack is able to play its part well because at some point it took the risk of acting on the encoded understandings in a dynamic situation, and met success.

What about our own human cub? Is anything being encoded now? Obviously it’s not for me to say, and I’ll allow you to do your own research. Here’s some things I know: He or she settles on hearing my voice when restless; and he or she kicks Fi’s iPad off her stomach should she temporarily rest it there.

I don’t know what our first language is. Perhaps the journey starts in the womb, noting aural presences and responding to feelings of discomfort. Of all the things to come in parenthood, learning to communicate with our child is the aspect that excites me the most.


About seanmurgatroyd
Library (Shared blog): http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Personal including infoculture, book reviews: http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Music: http://seanfishmusic.wordpress.com/ Last.fm band page: http://www.last.fm/music/Seanfish @seanfish

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