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Why Does Man Have Language?

The Thinker.jpg

I’ve just begun reading Tom Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom of Speech. In his first chapter he raises a very important question for which there is a very important answer.


Speech is not one of man’s several unique attributes — speech is the attribute of all attributes!… Darwin had [a big] problem: a huge gap in evidence when he came to language, which set humans far apart from any animal ancestors. It gnawed at him. He could explain man’s opposable thumb, upright stature, and huge cranium, but he couldn’t find one shred of solid evidence that human speech evolved from animals. Speech seemed to have just popped up into the mouths of human beings out of nowhere. He thought and thought and thought… Wait a minute, what was speech?

Wolfe implicitly asks two questions: What is speech, and why do we have language? I propose that the answer to these questions is of fundamental importance to understanding what it means to be human.

Both humans and other animals use signs. Signs are things that direct attention to something else. There are two kinds of signs — signals and designators. Signals are noises or gestures or objects that direct attention to something else in the immediate environment. Smoke is a signal for fire. Pointing is a signal to look at the object pointed at. An inarticulate scream is a signal that something frightening has just happened.

A designator is a word. What distinguishes a word from a signal is that a word directs attention to an object abstractly. A word bears no physical relationship to the object that it designates. The word “fire” bears an abstract relation to fire, and is unlike smoke, which bears a direct physical relation to fire. Words are signs that point to things abstractly.

It is the abstract nature of words, along with the grammatical structure by which words are arranged, that makes language. Only human beings have language. Only human beings use words that refer abstractly to their objects and only human beings use grammar. Animals are able to communicate by signaling, but their communications are of proximate concrete objects. Animals do not use words abstractly and they do not use grammar.

The first clue as to why human beings have language is the observation that language is a system of abstract signs. This leads to the second question: What is language for? What is its purpose?

Now of course a Darwinist would complain here that there are no purposes in nature. But that’s nonsense. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood. The purpose of the kidney is to excrete. The purpose of the eye is to see. Of course there are purposes in nature.

What is the purpose of language? The obvious (and incorrect) answer is that the purpose of language is communication. But as we’ve seen, animals that don’t have language are able to communicate with signals. Abstract signs are not a prerequisite for communication. While communication is certainly an important use to which humans put language, it is not the fundamental purpose for language.

The purpose for language is to make human thought possible. It’s important to understand the ways in which human thought differs from animal thought. Humans think abstractly. We are able to contemplate universals — concepts — abstracted from particular things. Animals are only able to know particular things. When an animal sees a red apple, it only knows it as a particular red apple. When a man sees a red apple, he has the ability to abstract universals such as “fruit” and “redness” from the particular apple and can contemplate these abstract characteristics independently of the apple itself. Human beings can think abstractly. Animals can only think particularly.

Human intellect and will — the powers of the soul that permit man to think abstractly — are immaterial powers. Only human beings have souls (minds) that exercise immaterial abilities — abstract thought.

Language is necessary for abstract thought. Language is necessary for human beings because abstract thought, lacking particulars, needs abstract signs — words — to designate abstract concepts. If we have no language, and we wished to think about an abstract concept, what exactly is it that we will be thinking about? We couldn’t be thinking about a particular thing, such as a physical object, because our thought is abstract and we are thinking about a concept. Without language how could we think about a concept?

Without language we could not think abstractly. For example, consider mathematics. Mathematical notation is itself a language. Without this language how can we think of the square root of -1? Without language there is no object that signifies the square root of -1, because the square root of -1 is not a physical particular. It’s imaginary. The square root of -1 is a concept and it requires language, not merely to say it, but to think it.

The same applies to the concept of justice. How can we think about the concept of justice without words? Of course we might answer that we can visualize a just act or we can visualize the Supreme Court building. However to visualize a just act or the Supreme Court building is to visualize a particular thing, not to contemplate justice itself. The contemplation of justice itself is an abstract act that requires language, which is the indispensable vehicle of abstract thought.

This is the answer to the question: Why do we have language? We have language so we can think in a human way. We have language because language is a system of abstract signs, and abstract signs are necessary for abstract thought, and abstract thought is what makes us human.

Photo credit: Rodin’s “The Thinker,” by Joe deSousa via Flickr.

Michael Egnor

Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics, State University of New York, Stony Brook
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and is an award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.