Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.

-- Alexander von Humboldt

Somewhere along the line humans began attaching meaning to the sounds they made. We are not alone among God’s creatures in communicating with sounds or gestures, but no other animal has the vocal or mental equipment to convey such a rich tapestry of meaning. Honeybees, with a brain the size of a sesame seed, are capable of doing a little waggle dance that signals the distance and direction of food sources to others in the hive. Prairie dogs can differentiate types of predators in their alarm calls, which in turn trigger different escape behaviors among their kind. Chimpanzees – our evolutionary next of kin -- have been taught sign language and have even passed it on to their offspring. Whether any of this constitutes the actual use of language is a matter of ferocious debate. Can there be true language without grammar or syntax? Regardless, you would be hard-pressed to find any poets in the animal kingdom, since they do not express themselves in metaphor.

How is it that humans are arguably the only creatures that possess language – or at least the only creatures that can speak in poetry as well as in prose? Linguist Noam Chomsky argues that a single genetic mutation in one individual resulted in the sudden emergence of language in humans. Others believe the capacity for language evolved incrementally, along with changes in vocal apparatus. According to the so-called “grunt” theory on the origin of language, early humans – or perhaps some hominid ancestor -- began pointing at objects in the world and making sounds that became signs. These signs provided our ancestors with an enormous evolutionary advantage by enabling them to fashion tools in common and to engage in other cooperative ventures, such as hunting. Their big brains were gradually rewired for speech and grammar and lastly for metaphor, which enabled them to express inner states. Over tens of thousands of years, those grunts became the language of Shakespeare.

The main problem with the grunt theory, at least according to philologist and philosopher Owen Barfield, is that there is little evidence language started with simple signs and worked its way up to metaphor. In fact, he suggests the evidence more nearly points to the opposite. Barfield believes language has its origins in music and ritual, not in pointing at objects and grunting. So-called primitive cultures are perfectly comfortable expressing themselves in figurative language; indeed, unlike more advanced societies, they make little distinction between inner and outer experience. For example, the ancient Greeks used the same word, pneuma, for “spirit,” “breath” and “wind,” depending on context, in contrast to modern languages that have more restrictive meanings for each. The evolution – if not devolution – of language since then has been toward greater literalness and spiritual isolation.

"Language has preserved for us the inner, living history of man's soul,” wrote Barfield in Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. He makes clear that at an early stage the human soul and the world’s soul were one and the same. There was no sense in tribal societies of being an onlooker to life or of the world existing apart from oneself, with “me” on the inside and everything else on the outside. In the words of naturalist Stephen A. Talbot, when there is no sense of separation, “the world itself lives upon the stage of one's consciousness.”

If that is the case, then where do the words come from to express one’s sense of the world – indeed, whose thoughts are being expressed? What did Barfield mean when he wrote that “man was, so to say, spoken into being before he himself began to speak?” There are intimations of this in the biblical creation story, when the Lord God literally calls the world into being: first light from darkness, then firmament from waters and waters from dry land; finally, human beings from the dust of the ground. The name for the first man, who is called “Adam,” meaning "mankind" in Hebrew, is a play on the word for earth (adamah). This creature may come from common clay, but the Genesis story states that he is made in God’s image. How so? By naming the other creatures, as God had named him, thereby giving voice to the world with thoughts that would otherwise find no other means of expression.

Mark Vernon, "The Say of the Land," Aeon, Sept 25, 2018
Genesis, 1-2

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