What is the purpose of language?  

We can use it not only to describe the appearances of physical things and our experiences, but also to describe a whole world of purely theoretical particles and the rules that govern them.

There are many things in the world that communicate: animals use gestures and sounds, cells exchange information via chemicals and electrical potentials, even satellites and smartphones ping back and forth. But language is not just communication. Human language is different.

Language reveals that we have this extraordinary capacity to form conceptual ideas even about things that are beyond our physical experience.

It can be argued that human language is itself a “system of meanings”, a tool we use to convey our understanding of the world that comes to us through experiencing the world “out there”. As Steve Talbott elucidated in his article mentioned in a previous post:

Nothing is “out there” for our understanding, except by virtue of its meaningful dimensions that can be put into word and thought. [emphasis added]

A Physicist, a Philologist, and the Meaning of Life

In another article, he makes his point another way:

[The]perceived world is a world of thought as well as a world of sensory input. The sum of it is that there are no appearances without the concepts that constitute the appearances as the particular appearances they are. The concepts, in other words, belong to the appearances…

A Modest Epistemological Exercise

That is why even if your perception of a tree, for example, is different from mine (because you are color blind and I am not, because you are standing close to it and I am farther away, because I know it is an oak tree and you do not, etc.) we can still recognize that it is a tree and that it is present to both of us.

The roots of language

The Roots of Language

Let’s tie these thoughts back to the evolution of language. (For Fr. Spitzer’s take on evolution in general, click here.) Using the brilliant insights of JRR Tolkien’s fellow Inkling and philologist, Owen Barfield, Talbott makes it startlingly clear that the traceable linguistic roots of the evolution of language hold the key to human perception of the natural world and tell us something significant about that world.

It is a far cry from the usual narrative.

Much like the faulty narrative on the origins of religion, Talbott points out that modern commentators project current assumptions onto our “brutish” ancestors, who “starting with crude grunts and gestures” somehow (and for what reason?) developed literary devices like metaphor and words that can be used when discussing the purely theoretical (hidden) concepts of quantum mechanics!

Including more details than can be related here, the real story is that language developed because for our ancestors, the world was charged with meaning and it developed to express “the primeval experience of nature as a material/immaterial…unity.

The history of language then proclaims that Nature bears intelligibility and meaning in her face and that we are meant to perceive it. We developed language to describe this world of our experience, this face of Nature, but also to unpack the more hidden (immaterial) meaning and purpose we encounter in our contemplation of that world.

Faith and Nature

The perspective of faith adds another dimension to these insights. As John Paul II reminded us, the universe itself is an “immense word” to be deciphered and understood by us:

“[T]o get to know the world is not a gratuitous or useless thing; on the contrary, it is supremely necessary in order to know who man is…the adventure of science has made us discover and experience with new vividness the immensity and transcendence of man’s spirit, capable of penetrating the abysses of the universe, of delving into its laws, of tracing its history, rising to a level incomparably higher than the other creatures that surround him.”

At the crossroads of faith, science, and philology, language points the way to discovering meaning in the Universe and to the significance of the intelligent observers that contemplate it.

This is the fourth article in the Pale Blue Dot series. Check out the previous post here.

Maggie Ciskanik is a regular contributor to the Magis Center blog.

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