Sunday, 10 June 2012

Sunday Sermon: Logos 2

Every, good morning. Thank you for this week. Help us to help ourselves. Bless all the earth. Amen.


Last week I attempted to describe in sketch, as a kind of dialectic, the origins of logos. I'm aware that I am way outside of anything close to an expertise and will not be doing the subject of the origins of language any real scientific justice. I did have to try though, and there was a point to it.

When we use the word 'mind' we are generally referring to the modern human mind, even though, as we should meanwhile understand, the brain and cerebral cortex has a very long evolution and exists in thousands of creature types. It was important for me to illustrate that although I am generally referring to the world of literature when I use the term 'logos', it also has a long evolution and sort of means its entire evolution as well as its most modern and developed forms.

Theologically it is also important that logos is not something that came to earth by chance in about 3000BC (say), but is something rooted in and a part of the greater process of the unfolding of the complexity of the life and consciousness of Every. In the beginnings of the universe, with barely anything more complex than a neutrino in existence, the potentiality of complex, conscious life already existed as surely as it exists today. Life was in the universe, implicitly, from the beginning, as surely as a chicken may be in a freshly laid egg, and that's a compelling thought. The universe as a natural system wants (tends naturally) to live.

And even more astounding, I am suggesting, logos itself - the universe's capacity to seek knowledge of its own identity and purpose, was implicit from before the foundations of the world. Now I'm not trying to assert that the universe has any organised 'will' in the matter, but in the same way that it can be said, metaphorically, that gravity wants things to fall, it can be said that the universe wants to know itself.

And we're it. That's the central idea here.

The origin of spoken language is one of those wonderful questions which scientific enquiry has virtually dismissed as folly due to lack of any evidence which might substantiate or contradict any theory. Hence, in my view, it is precisely the sort of question where enlightened theologians should be able to freely swap notes with secularists. (It's neat in my view that for an Everyite 'enlightenment' actually refers to the Enlightenment.)

Look, I suspect that a range of nouns - animals and places, followed by proper nouns based on these used in courtship, and intonated by the range of grunt-meaning available to many creatures, was the first proto-language, but there are many theories and we can not really know. The point is that even the simple hypothetical sentence, "Bear!", with an intonation of fear, only communicates everything intended with 'us' (not 'them'), with a shared community.

But regardless of the nature of the first proto-languages or how they first began to develop into the elaborate recursive grammar we now have available to us, there is, it seems to me, a step in development between the first proto-language and written language that, however little we can know about it, can at least be broadly identified. That is the development of story, as in extended, repeatable and regularly repeated narrative, which occurred way before written language, and existed for millennia in oral form, but must have occurred way after the first major developments of vocabulary and grammar.

It's an odd thing. We cannot know anything about the details of this development, which isn't generally discussed scientifically because it is smack bang in the middle of the unknown, but in recognising that it must have happened we open up the possibility that it might be very important. Could it - the development of communally shared story - be the developmental basis of the outbreak of modern humans that happened about 80,000 years ago in Africa? Neanderthals and other Homos had apparently been using some form of language for many millennia, after all, so it wasn't language as such.

Story. That is my candidate anyway, but let's be clear that we shall probably never really know.

The thing is, we can talk about 'language' as an anthropological development, but language, beyond the universal grunt expressions of fear, opportunity, happiness and the like, only has any usefulness as an operation among a specific community which shares the language and hence necessarily shares a history. And because the survival of given language is embedded in this living community - it does not exist if it is not shared - and at the same time language is plastic and arbitrary, the range of the language might start as very limited. Archaically I guess, the first shared word-meaning begins between two people, and is then shared among a kin group, but only survives as long as they survive and stay in touch.

I suppose I'm suggesting that the Tower of Babel bit of Genesis (Ch.11) got it pretty damn wrong, even as a metaphor. With very early language - first shared word-meanings between individuals and small groups, coming and going probably over hundreds of millennia - there was not a single language that broke into many but thousands of languages that overlapped, coalesced and variegated once again and could only slowly become fewer languages of larger groupings. Once again, even if language had a single origin (possible), the thousands of millennia, the massive geographic scale and the apparent plasticity of language would have ensured that language across the late palaeolithic earth was very diverse indeed, constantly reinforcing the everyday 'us and them' conflict between religions, between adopted shared meaning; crucial to survival yet different from the others'; bound to for life however arbitrary; names yet not eternal or universal names.

Tribalism based on shared narrative, along with its concomitant 'other', still firmly exists in our genes and in our society, as far as I can observe. The time I'm attempting to discuss is the time when these tendencies in human nature evolved.

One of those analogy operations that we know will sometimes bear fruits of illumination but scientists strictly can't use (but may be inspired by) is that between the development of written language, for which we have a wonderful paper trail, so to speak, of evidence, and the incremental development of spoken language, for which we have no evidence at all and almost by definition can not have any evidence. There is a sequential trace of our long biological evolution in our foetal development, for example, so perhaps there is a sequential trace of the development of spoken language in the well documented development of written language.

If so, I'm not going to discuss it much. I'm just going to leap way ahead of the story to 14th century England. At that time there were many 'Englishes', many of which would not be able to understand one another, as well as various versions of Latin and French. Outside the aristocracy, for what it was, local dialect ruled. That is when Chaucer invented the first widely recognised English language which became the basis of a much bigger world of shared meaning. English speakers would barely recognise this, but it is historically arguable that before Chaucer there was not a standard English. With him, English as we now know it was born. They may be more likely to recognise the next layer of deep, long-term standardisation of English two centuries later. For in a very real sense the English that so much of the world broadly shares exists as a unity upon Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Shared story alright. Pretty good stuff too. We're privileged.

And maybe there is an insight into developing spoken language from Chaucer. As more elaborate narratives could be shared with the use of mnemonic devices like rhythm and repetition, and as stories were able to recurse upon older stories, as much later on in writing Aeschylus was to recurse Homer and Shakespeare was going to retell Plutarch, it became possible for larger groups to share the story, hence the language. At its very origins, language is a story, and in a strong sense a religion. It is very difficult to separate the three phenomena in the late palaeolithic, in my view.

My apologies for being a bit discursive, a bit rambling perhaps. I admit these ideas continue to emerge and I am obliged to flesh them out exploratorily. As always, your feedback, dear reader, is most welcome.

Next week I promise I will talk about the development of written literature which is, in practice, mostly what is meant in the House of Every by 'logos'.

This guy reckons that if everyone played a ukulele the world would be at peace. Who knows? His gift is stunning.

Every, bless my readers. Thank you. So be it.

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