Ilana Simons

Ilana Simons Ph.D.

The Literary Mind

The Origins of Language (and a Jump Rope)

We learned to talk before we learned to playtalk.

Posted Oct 22, 2010

I do not know much about the origins of language, but I imagine that in the first 30,000 years, from cave drawings to the beginning of script, realism was a moving target, the world words shot for, ever tightening their grip on the physical thing: to represent a cliff as a cliff; to tell a father that you wanted to meet him here, at this spot, later.

People wanted words to reliably represent a thing or a thought.

I imagine a similar goal with painting: Once we figured out how to dye a flat-ish surface, we must have run hard for realism, because it was useful and elusive: to make a sun a sun, a plant a plant. We wanted pictures to serve the purpose of representing a thing.

Maybe once we knew how to map the most urgent and concrete things ("fire!" "ceremony," "food"), and most useful abstractions and emotions ("surprise," "pain"), we felt relatively at home with our realism; we tried to get subtler in representation, to convey quickly passing state of mind. How to tell someone that you just experienced "nostalgia," "déjà vu," or "diffuse anxiety"? Those subtle goals helped language change.

I imagine a string run taught between two spots and eventually let to dangle a bit, to swing, like a jump rope, to capture more of the space around the center. There was a sort of abstraction in 40,000 BC, with no words at all at first, and no shared symbols. Wanting a solid shared code, we achieved a reliable realism in words and painting. The journey to realism always included a romance with abstraction, I know, because there is no way to refer to any thing in the world without also evoking related, tangential ideas; there is no realism without getting a bit drunk or disoriented. But these days, we go back to abstraction with a different playfulness, as an exploration already anchored in time-worn clichés. Think of how poems dance away from the real, to tease:

The place of language is the place between me
and the world of presences I have lost
-complex country, not flat. Its elements free-
float, coherent for luck to come across;
its lines curve as in a mental orrery
implicit with stars in active orbit,
only their slowness or swiftness lost to sense.
The will dissolves here. It becomes the infinite
air of imagination that stirs immense
among losses and leaves me less desolate.
Breathing it I spot a sentence or a name,
a rescuer, charted for recovery,
to speak against the daily sinking flame
& the shrinking waters of the mortal sea.

That's Marie Ponsot's poem "Imagining Starry."

Poetry plays because we already have a history in which words represent their meanings rather reliably. After naming the world quite well, we could try hard to capture the vague.

I'm thinking about our trip from abstraction and back into it because of this recent article in The New York Times, on the origins of language.

Thinking about abstraction led me to think about the poetry of Marie Ponsot, quoted above. She recently had a stroke, and is suffering from aphasia, the loss of language. I don't know what her world feels like, but she'll be speaking about it at the Philoctetes Center, here, tomorrow.

About the Author

Ilana Simons

Ilana Simons, Ph.D., is a literature professor at The New School as well as a practicing therapist.

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