Language is perhaps the first cultural commons, the greater part of which is the eternal silence out of which sound comes and into which it returns. Without silence, no sound is possible. Conversely, without sound, silence could not be recognized for itself. Without sound, words could not exist. Without worlds, abstract thought could not exist. Without abstract thought, meaning and experience in the form of knowledge could not exist. Without knowledge, an idea could not exist. Without an idea, humanity could not so drastically alter the Earth. Without knowledge, humanity could neither understand what is nor create that which is unreal.
I have experienced the eternal silence while camping in the deep snows of winter high in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, while rescuing cattle stuck in deep snow high in a Rocky-Mountain winter of northwestern Colorado, and while conducting research in the Nubian Desert of Egypt. Silence on a still day in deep winter in the high country is so profound that, as a young man, I not only could “hear” it but also could hear the “swishing” sound snowflakes made as they felling through it. In the Nubian Desert, on the other hand, there was nothing on a still day to rupture the silence—not the slightest sound could I detect.
Had I not experienced the eternal silence, would it exist for me? Would I recognize it in our increasingly noisy world? Hence the age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course it does because mice hear it, and squirrels hear it, as do the creatures living in the tree and below ground, where they feel the vibrations it sends through the soil as it strikes the Earth. I would therefore rephrase that question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is nothing to hear it or feel the impact of its falling, does it make a sound? Vibrations are, after all, the essence of sound. This being the case, one might ask: What is the essence of silence, if not inaudible vibrations in eternal emptiness?
As I mull over the probable events that led to our modern, human languages, it occurs to me that all words are the names of things, be it a touchable entity (a flower, animal, or tool—each a noun); a definition of quantifiably time (a second, an hour, today, yesterday, tomorrow, next year—each a noun); an action (do, run, sit, speak—each a verb); or something that qualities something else (pretty, ugly, hairy, large, small, fast, slow—each an adjective), in time (now, earlier, later—each an adverb), and as a degree (very, exceedingly, little, much—each an adverb or an adjective). Put differently, words define the mental boundaries of our perceptions. A child points to something, hears the utterance of sound from an adult in response to the gesture, and lo, the rudiments of meaning are born. In fact, parents who simultaneously point to something and verbalize its name have children who not only gesture by the age of 14 months but also develop larger vocabularies by the time they are 54 months old than do children whose parents fail to gesture.1 With repetition, a boundary of meaning (a definition) is established.
An eagle on the wall of a residence in the ancient city of Teotihuacán near Mexico City.
With the invention of each new word (each new name), we humans are doing our best to simultaneously explore, define, and refine the boundaries of meaning attached to our perceptions of the world around us—boundaries encompassed in the names by which we recognize what we see. When we speak, therefore, we are attempting to transfer boundaries of meaning attached to names of things, time, actions, and qualifiers, which is like trying to fence a portion of the sky to own the stars.2
Language is not just about naming things, like objectified islands in a sea of eternal silence. It’s also about stringing those names together in a specific order, a verbal archipelago, as it were, to express a “thought.” But can a thought exist without expression. In other words, can a thought exist in eternal silence? For instance, can a solitary earthworm, deep within the soil, have a thought? If not, how does it function? If so, are an earthworm’s thoughts and an idea synonymous?
This raises the question: Can an idea exist without a thought? Put differently, can either exist without some kind of expression to embody them? But what is an idea?
The embodyiment of ideas on the wall of a residence in Teotihuacán.
According to the 1999 Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, an “idea” is: any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity.3 But what does this definition really say? Not much.
To me, an idea is a mural of the evolution of human consciousness through time. An idea, like everything else humanity has given a name to, seems to arise in the universal ethers and infiltrates the mind as an insight, a flash of intuitive understanding, a cosmic recognition—but of what? It’s precisely what that’s the problem with language. Words, those structured sounds we utter in our need to share our search for meaning in life, are merely symbols, metaphors whereby we approach, but never touch or capture, the object we attempt to convey with the words we use.
Therefore, as with the falling tree, one might ask: If a word cannot directly touch the object it is meant to define, does the object exist? By the same token, one might ask: Do I exist, if I do not have a personal name, the sound of which I can hear and recognize? Do I exist, if I cannot write my name and see it as a concrete mark made by my own hand?
If we don’t know where ideas come from or why one person is granted a specific idea and not another, how can any one person “own” an idea—patented an idea and claim it as theirs? As such, ideas seem to be part of the global, etheric commons, or perhaps of the “collective unconscious,” as Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung termed it. By that I mean, to be alone with an idea is to visit in silence with every human who in any way helped to shape the precursor of the idea though the collective thought that, in time, led to an expression through language. Without the expression of thought, the world would be devoid of even a single idea. And yet, when I allow things to be what they are without attempting to confine them within the intellectual fence of language, I see them most clearly because there is no preconceived structure through which to filter my relationship with them. They simply are, as silence simply is.
Where could a thought come from except out of eternal silence? Was it necessary to break the silence in order to consummate a thought? Probably not, because the first thought was most likely an unconscious act based on an intuitive impulse that produced a pleasing or perhaps decidedly unpleasing result.
The first time an unconscious act produced a conscious recognition of an outcome, a thought forever left the eternal silence to reside in the human psyche. In that instant, an apparently random act became the building block of an idea, most likely in the form of a question of whether repeating the act would produce the same result. And so a happenstance became an a conscious process of investigation to satisfy curiosity, which led to a thought, which morphed into an idea, even though the idea’s entire existence was confined within the mind of a single individual who possessed no recognizable name or verbal means with which to either examine the idea within or convey it without to another individual.
Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán.
The first idea was the beginning of a never-ending story—albeit one without title, plot, or final outcome. As such, the simplest embryonic idea began in the silent language of a physical demonstration, which was enough to convey it from one person to another through demonstration. As the first idea gathered unto itself other intuitive gifts from the eternal silence, the ensuing complications became so great there arose the need for some kind of formal communication, of a verbal language, and so began humanity’s search for meaning, with its simultaneous fragmentation of the eternal silence.
Because ideas evolved over millennia with thought and language, it seems to me, they belong to everyone and thus are meant to be free—part of the global commons, a point well made by author Daniel Boorstin, “Languages would become pathways through space and time. While nations would be held together by their new vernaculars, lone readers could seek remote continents and voyage into the faraway past.”4 To this notion, the German poet Johann von Goethe would likely add, “All truly wise thoughts [ideas] have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.”5
But now, as I enter my seventies, I find ideas take on a reflective glow, and yet, like the oceanic depths, ideas seem fathomless. They appear in one instant to be amorphous, well shaped in another, and diffuse in yet another. In a manner similar to an amoeba, an idea grows here and there, only to withdraw its boundaries somewhere else. I therefore find ideas to be living gifts, the embodiment of the Eternal Mystery from which all things arise, into which all things disappear, only to arise again in some other form.
Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacán.
Like the water of a mountain lake, ideas are an abiding mystery. Precipitation falls into the lake as rain, snow, or hail. It remains awhile as a liquid or a solid. It leaves as a gas to travel the currents of air that circumnavigate the globe. From the salty water of the sea to the fresh water of the lake, the continuous cycle of water has traveled the world throughout the eons, just as ideas traverse the cosmic realm. As the lake could not exist without water, could language exist without ideas? By the same token, could ideas exist without language and a mind to midwife their transformation from the eternal silence into sound as the utterance of expression? Whether a bridge, a building, a medicine, or a musical note, each is the embodiment of an idea. To be honored by—entrusted with—an idea is, indeed, a magnificent gift, one that often leads to knowledge.
Myth expressed in art on the wall of a residence in Teotihuacán.
Every human language—the master tool representing its own culture—has its unique construct, which determines both its limitations and its possibilities in expressing myth, emotion, ideas, and logic. One of the greatest feats of humanity is the evolution written language—those silent, ritualistic marks with their encoded meaning that not only made culture possible but also archive its history as part of the cultural commons, which is everyone’s birthright.
The relative independence with which cultures evolve creates their uniqueness both within themselves and within the reciprocity they experience with one another and their immediate environments. Each culture, and each community within that culture, affects its environment in a specific way and is accordingly affected by the environment in a particular way. So it is that distinct cultures in their living create culturally designed landscapes, which in some measure are reflected in the myths they hold and the languages they speak. As such, language is the medium with which the condition of the human soul is painted.
The artist, using words to convey the colors of meaning by mixing them on a palette of syntax, composes the broad shapes of a cultural story line. Then, by matching the colors of words to give expression to ideas, the artist adds verbal structure, texture, and shades of meaning, to the story. In doing so, the verbal artist paints a picture or portrait as fine as any accomplished with brush, paint, palette, and canvas; with camera and film; or musical instruments and mute notes on paper. In addition, a verbal picture often outlasts the ravages of time that claim those of paint on canvas, imprints of light on photographic paper, or musical instruments that give “voice” to mute shapes.
So what does it say about Western industrialized society when the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary has omitted words of historical significance pertaining to Nature and culture to make way for greater modernity, including such “technobabble” such as: BlackBerry, blog, voicemail, and broadband? Yet, according to Vineeta Gupta, head of the children’s dictionaries at Oxford University Press, changes in the world are responsible for these alterations. “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance,” she said. “That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.” Several criteria were used to select the 10,000 words and phrases in the junior dictionary, including how often words would be used by young children.6 However, as Elaine Brooks points out, “Humans seldom value what they cannot name.”7
Nature words deleted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary include: Acorn, adder, almond, apricot, ash, ass, beaver, beech, beetroot, blackberry, bloom, bluebell, boar, bramble, bran, bray, brook, budgerigar, bullock, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, cheetah, chestnut, clover, colt, conker, corgi, cowslip, crocus, cygnet, dandelion, doe, drake, fern, ferret, fungus, gerbil, goldfish, gooseberry, gorse, guinea pig, hamster, hazel, hazelnut, heather, heron, herring, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, kingfisher, lark, lavender, leek, leopard, liquorice, lobster, magpie, melon, minnow, mint, mistletoe, mussel, nectar, nectarine, newt, oats, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pansy, parsnip, pasture, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, poppy, porcupine, porpoise, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, raven, rhubarb, spaniel, spinach, starling, stoat, stork, sycamore, terrapin, thrush, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, weasel, willow, and wren.
Cultural words taken out of the dictionary: Abbey, aisle, allotment, altar, bacon, bishop, blacksmith, bridle, carol, chapel, christen, coronation, county, cracker, decade, devil, diesel, disciple, duchess, duke, dwarf, elf, emperor, empire, goblin, manger, marzipan, monarch, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, porridge, psalm, pulpit, saint, sheaf, sin, vicar.
Words put in: Allergic, alliteration, analogue, apparatus, attachment, bilingual, biodegradable, block graph, blog, boisterous, brainy, broadband, bullet point, bungee jumping, cautionary tale, celebrity, chatroom, childhood, chronological, citizenship, classify, colloquial, committee, common sense, compulsory, conflict, cope, creep, curriculum, cut and paste, database, debate, democratic, donate, drought, dyslexic, emotion, endangered, EU, Euro, export, food chain, idiom, incisor, interdependent, MP3 player, negotiate, square number, tolerant, trapezium, vandalism, voicemail.8
Some languages, as exemplified above, are simply being eroded through the conscious substitutions of words, whereas others cease to exist altogether. Although language is not something we generally think of as becoming extinct, languages are disappearing all over the world, especially the spoken-only languages of indigenous peoples. As languages vanish, so too do the cultural variations of the landscape they allowed, even fostered, because a unique culture cannot exist without the uniqueness of its language to protect its history and guide its evolution.
While it probably took thousands of years for the different human languages to evolve, it can take less than a century for some of them to disappear. As languages become extinct, we lose their cultural knowledge along with their perceptions and modes of expression. Because language is the fabric of culture and the living trust of our identity, when a language dies, the demise of the culture that gave it birth is imminent.
What is lost when a language becomes extinct? How many potential answers to contemporary problems, how much ancient wisdom, will be lost because we are losing languages to so-called “progress,” especially obscure, indigenous ones?
Expressions of the Eternal Mystery in Teotihuacán.
With the loss of each language, we also lose the evolution of its logic and its cultural myths and rituals—those metaphors that give the people a sense of place within the greater context of the universe, because language represents unity within and through time. Temporal unity is the language of memory, those images of experience stored in the human psyche and passed forward from generation to generation in the form of stories, myths, and rituals. Therefore, each time we allow a human language to become extinct, we are losing a facet of understanding, a facet of ourselves—the collective memory of a people archived in their language, a memory that is part of the human hologram, our collective commons of the human experience. As a global society, we are slowly making ourselves blind to our relationships one another, the universe, and ourselves.
I have thought much about the loss of languages as I have traveled and worked abroad over the years. And it seems to me, that languages are in many ways the reflective surface of the human psyche—the living trust of our cultural commons. Therefore, to lose a language is to fracture the mirror and thus progressively distort the image of humanity as pieces of the broken mirror fall into oblivion. What a tragic loss of such a great gift.
Our growing blindness through the extinction of languages is exacerbated by the global spread of such languages as English, which limits the imagination and understanding within the rigid confines of its own intellectual fence. The logic of which each language is born and of which it is the caretaker can be likened to a one-way window through which a person can see the world without from a singular point of view but cannot see themselves within the cage of their own thoughts. Thus it is that the hologram of the human family requires people representing many systems of logic all peering at one another simultaneously in order to see the wholeness of the creature we have dubbed Homo sapiens.
In this sense, a few dominant languages are replacing relatively obscure ones at a tremendous cost of lost cultural identity, history, myths, stories, and human dignity. And to lose one’s cultural myths, which only one’s own language can adequately portray, is to lose one’s sense of place and identity in the human family and in the Universe—one’s temporal unity with every human thought ever formed, every question ever asked, every imagining unveiled, and every spiritual impulse born in that sacred land of the psyche we variously call “innocence” or “ignorance.”
I say this because each language in its own way is a living trust of the cultural commons that reflects the myths by which a people have learned how to cope with life. As we lose languages, we simplify the instructional reflection of humanity’s mythology and so destabilize human society as a whole. We are, in the name of modernity, destroying humanity’s collective, spiritual vitality by relegating to the scrap heap of “useless, obsolete” information of so many of its cultural myths and the rituals that express their essence, the archived lessons they teach about living a humane life, and the transcendent ideas upon which the myths, rituals, and lessons are founded—all of which are part of our cultural commons as a living trust.9
Precisely because it is a living trust in both the legal and cultural sense, the commons in all its myriad forms is an open system of biophysical evolution interwoven with cultural mythology. Although people speak today of “closed-loop technology,” there neither is nor can there be a truly closed system of any kind. The closest thing to a closed system is the fossilization of invertebrates in amber, albeit the system in still open in the technical sense because light and the ambient temperature can penetrate the amber.
Insects in amber are an example of true preservation in Nature. Amberization, the process whereby fresh resin is transformed into amber, is so gentle that it forms the most complete type of fossilization known for small, delicate, soft-bodied organisms, such as insects. In fact, a small piece of amber found along the south coast of England in 2006 contained a 140-million-year old spider web constructed in the same orb configuration as that of today’s garden spiders. This is 30 million years older than a previous spider web found encased in Spanish amber.10
The web demonstrates that spiders have been ensnaring their prey since the time of the dinosaurs. And because amber is three-dimensional in form, it preserves color patterns and minute details of the organism’s exoskeleton, and so allows the study of micro-evolution, biogeography, mimicry, behavior, reconstruction of the environmental characteristics, the chronology of extinctions, paleo-symbiosis,11 and molecular phylogeny.12 But the same dynamic cannot be employed outside of an airtight container, such as a drop of amber or canning jar. In other words, whether natural or artificial, all functional systems are open because they all require—and respond to—the input of energy in order to function; conversely, a totally closed system is a physical impossibility, which makes governing the commons a difficult task at best.
Language archived in sculpture in Teotihuacán.
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.