Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
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How wondrous a creature man is! I roll my eyes when I hear that some animal or other has the intelligence of a two year old child. Yes, by some rather rudimentary and not very helpful standard of measurement; and if you pick your cherries right, you may as well say that homing pigeons and hummingbirds and the swallows flying back to San Juan Capistrano are perfect geniuses, because they can do, apparently without study, what man cannot. Those little hummingbirds are smart enough to fly thousands of miles north in the spring, often to the very same places, the very same trees whose flowers they have sipped from the year before.

But the two year old child is busy doing something quite stupendous: he is learning the most versatile and complex “software,” by far, that man has invented; perhaps even the most versatile and complex software that is conceivable. The child is learning LANGUAGE. Even the unborn child in the womb has all the latent but developing powers for learning LANGUAGE, and he will do so, barring something that obstructs the powers, such as a grave birth defect, or disease, or death.

Children Teaching a Cat to Read. Jan Steen. Public Domain.

Now, if you want a go-to text for meditations on the sign-making power of man, Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos is it. Percy understands that when you add genuine LANGUAGE to the universe, it is like adding another dimension to reality. You have not only man and the thing he is contemplating, but the sign he invents to name it and to express his feelings about it, and then the SIGN itself becomes an object of his fancy. He plays with the signs; he delights in manipulating them, turning them upside-down, putting them together in oddball ways, making up new ones for the fun of it, thinking about his thought and talking about his talk. That is a feature of every human language, because it is a feature of man himself, the maker of signs.

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Yet if you’re used to Indo-European LANGUAGES, you'd be stunned to learn of other languages that are not in our big family and that are organized along what seem like dizzyingly strange principles. There are the ERGATIVE languages, wherein the subject of an intransitive verb is treated like the object of a transitive verb, so that you would say, “I kicked the cat,” just as in English, but “Me went down the street,” and “Him came to Camelot,” and, if you were Caesar, “Me came, I saw, I conquered.” And little ergative babies learn it without any study at all.

A lot of the native American languages, on both continents, were so-called ACTIVE languages, with ACTIVE-STATIVE distinction, so that if you do something intransitive on purpose, you are the subject of the verb, but if it does not happen on purpose, you are the object of the verb. So you can say, “I FELL on the sleeping enemy, and that was the end of him!” But not if you tripped on a rock. Then it would be something like ME FELL, meaning I FELL BY ACCIDENT; a FALL HAPPENED TO ME. It explains a good deal of what I’d always thought was Hollywood Injun-speak, but which may have reflected actual speech patterns among the Sioux and the Hurons and the others. Anyway, the active-stative baby learns it without a problem.

Now, you would think that LANGUAGE, ultimately from Latin LINGUA = TONGUE, would be a cousin of Latin LINGERE, to LICK. You would be wrong, though. The words have nothing to do with each other. The similarity is purely accidental.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
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