Stories tell us that language was bestowed by divine powers: gods, God. Nowhere in them (that I’ve been able to locate, at any rate; if anyone has found one, please post it in a comment!) is there an account of that mysterious transition, in people, from silence to noise to words to speech to meaning to human connection and communication. What did that look like? What drove it? Was it gradual or abrupt? Private or public? Did it resemble a child learning words? But children have others around them whom they imitate, you might reply; the first speakers, whoever they were, were flying blind.
In myth, speech and language are always a divine gift, possessed first by its giver (and often used to create the world; language is handy that way) and then passed along to human recipients, often to the considerable regret of both: ‘As soon as we got language,’ Mark Pagel wrote, and as I think I’ve quoted elsewhere, ‘we became a really dangerous species.’ Stories about language’s origins aren’t strictly about origins at all, or, rather, they are about the origins of language diversity, how humanity went, usually by way of disobedience or arrogance, from one language to many, and they are each of them embedded in Creation myths: accounts of how it all began, theories born of imagination and the need to explain (mercurial parents, for sure) that can never be conclusively proven. Every civilization, every culture on earth has its Creation myth. They’re wildly divergent and eerily similar at once, and we’ll look at them in more detail later. But for now, here’s a pitifully incomplete laundry list of the world’s various divine bestowers of the gift of speech:
- The Ancient Egyptian god Ptah, patron of craftsmen, created the world ‘through his heart and through his tongue’: ‘simply by speaking a string of names, Ptah produced all of Egypt, the other gods…the cities and temples.’*
- Vak (later called Saraswati) is a goddess in the Hindu pantheon, described alongside her immortal companions in the Rig Veda, the Ancient Hindu scriptures dating from between 1700-1100 B.C.:
“She enables one to perceive, understand, and then express in words the true nature of things…she is the Mother, who has given birth to things through naming them….On one level, Mother Vak is sacred speech, including the hymns and ritual chants. On another level she is also ordinary speech among ordinary people. She is far more than speech and includes the power of perceiving, grasping the nature of things, naming them, and expressing the perception with coherence and form.
(with gratitude to https://shestirs.wordpress.com/tag/rig-veda/. Head over there for a wonderful description and examination of Vak)
Vak has a Japanese counterpart (the astonishing cross-fertilization of world mythology is something we’ll examine more closely later), Benzaiten, goddess of everything that flows: ‘water, words, speech, eloquence, music and, by extension, knowledge’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki)
- Ogma is the Celtic god of language, speech, and eloquence.
- Fabulinis is the Roman god of education and wisdom, and is the protector of children: he teaches them to speak.
- Hermes is the Greek messenger of the gods, god of speech, and, interestingly, of tricksters, thieves, and all who live by their wits.
- In the mythology of the African Yoruba people, Eshu is Hermes’ counterpart: a god who speaks all languages, he, too, is a messenger of the gods and a trickster. (are you starting to notice an associative trend here?)
- Bik’eh Hózhó is the Navajo personification of speech. Storytelling is a powerful creative and social force in Native American traditions.
- Quetzalcoatl, literally ‘Winged Serpent,’ is the Aztec god of wind and learning, which are, when you think about it, two essential components of speech.
You get the idea.
Well, and who can forget this guy:
‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.’ [italics mine]
Every day for six days, God speaks, God names, and sees that it is good: the world blooms into being. God said…God said…God said. God is all-powerful, and he is all-powerful because he calls the world into being with words.
…and he bestows that gift upon Adam, the first man, who gets right to work with some naming of his own.
And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
Genesis 2:19 [King James Version]
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for one thing, the serpent in the garden was also endowed with the gift of speech. Like all human ‘gifts,’ language is a double-edged sword: it can make the world, and it can destroy it. It can speak the truth, and it can deceive. It can kill and it can heal. It can be twisted into orders (‘But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.‘), pleas, prayers, oaths, promises, curses and lies.
Well, and then there was this whole mess:
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Genesis 11:1-9 [King James Version]
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
(The Bible, among all of the other ways it can be read and understood, yields up so much about language: its power, its nature, its origin and dissemination, the gifts it bestows, the lethal damage it can do.)
For all of its great stories, though, this whole Divine Gift business feels a little like a cop-out, doesn’t it? At the very least, it’s a kind of magic-wand shorthand. Whether God was involved or not (and I have no idea), I kind of would like a few more specifics; we’ve grown accustomed to more scientific, rational accounts (which doesn’t necessarily imply that a power greater than we are doesn’t have a hand in things: greater powers tend to work in all kinds of ways).
As you probably already know from both sweet and bitter experience, language is both blessing and curse; God had some real regrets about having passed this particular gift along.
And there were some men who weren’t real thrilled about it, either.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2
The godlike figure of Prospero, magician, philosopher, king, rules his own private island. He has only two subjects-his daughter, Miranda, and a hideous, half-savage servant called Caliban-until a handful of shipwreck survivors, among them the Duke who exiled Prospero to this place (hmm. Who do you suppose might have conjured up that storm?), washes up on the shore and sets the story of The Tempest in motion, a story shaped and arranged by Prospero. For all his power, he regrets having taught Caliban language (much as God face-palmed as he looked down on Adam’s fall and the tower of Babel’s rise). The beast did not deserve it. And Caliban regrets having learned it, too: it has awakened him to all he can ultimately never have: intelligence, discernment, noble humanity. It has given him a taste of these things, but, like the fox with the grapes, he can never have them. All he is able to do with words is curse his fate.
Max Müller, a German Sanskrit scholar, believed that myths were expressions of ideas that could not be conveyed in language. But I suspect that the drive to myth might just precede language, and shape it. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was the engine (or one engine, at any rate; it’s a long, long train) that drove its creation.
We were desperate for a story. And for a story, we needed language.
Why couldn’t I find a story that described humanity’s first tentative stabs at speech? Why is there no myth depicting the birth of speech in people? Invoking a deity was a way to explain what we could not comprehend, but maybe it’s more than that. Maybe the human origin of language has no myth because myth itself is the origin. It sounds crazy, but maybe the yearning for a story that explained the world to us, explained us to ourselves, came first; language followed. How do we tell stories without words? Cave paintings tell stories in images; why was that not enough? (and were they created before or after the birth of language?) Well, cave walls aren’t super portable, for one thing, and can’t spread like wildfire. We needed a way to carry our stories with us, and pass them around. My hunch is that the need to tell them was so innate, so powerful, that it drove the creation of the medium by which they are put out into the world, spoken and heard by us and others, binding us into communities of common effort, explaining, entertaining, world-building.
So my personal True Beginning is that language began as a way of defining, expressing, and satisfying our curiosity, our desperation to explain and understand. Language began, and was driven by, our need to know. And that need to know was best satisfied by way of entertainment: a good story.
pull out your phone or laptop (OR, if this is used as an out-of-class assignment, go to the library too) and examine the Creation Myth of any culture you like (as with scientific explanations, there are tons!), and scribble a brief, summary description. As with the exercise from Part One, push past Wikipedia, although you can start there, as it has many references to other sources.
Sit quietly and come up with a story, a myth of your own, addressing the following questions: 1) How did everything begin? 2) How did speech and language begin? Depict your answers as scenes of a story. Write them down.
As with the Science exercise, the research and writing aspects here can be tweaked to fit either into an in-class context or an out-of-class assignment.
Younger students, rather than being asked to do full-on research (although some modeling of this process is never ill-placed, IMHO), can be presented with a series of stories, ideally recorded and played.
During the telling portion of this exercise I pull my buttonhole-an-unsuspecting-student thing, asking him or her to repeat/summarize a just-told story. If he/she fumbles and stumbles I open it up to the whole group, then invite embellishments and additions (this is, after all, the way a lot of myths evolved: tellings, re-tellings, additions, deletions, repetitions, contradictions, the whole nine yards). I seek to establish a context with this exercise that will carry over into later stuff having to do with oral traditions, and the fact that so many stories came to life prior to the development of writing. The oral tradition has, of course, left its fingerprints all over every story ever told, and a big one has to do with how these stories got shaped and told so that they were remembered and passed along from one teller, and audience, to the next.
*Davis, Kenneth C. Don’t Know Much About Mythology. New York: Harper-Collins, 2005
©Melinda Rooney, 2017