The Beginning – The Development of Language in Five Minutes

If we are going to embark on this summer’s philosophy, we need to begin where it all began…as much as I can, that is. Philosophy and the evolution of thought parallels the evolution of language. Though people have been thinking deep and abstract nebulous thoughts since we had the ability, being able to express them and share with others how one sees the world probably gained some level of intensity. More than that, keeping those thoughts over time proved harder than sharing them over distance.

This is actually a tall order since man has been creating the abstract for (presumably) millennia before any system of writing came to be. In fact, writing, according to some historians, began as a purely economic tool. From what I have been able to surmise, humanity began recording checkmarks on bone, wood, or stone for as long as we could comprehend the need to record anything. The first writing systems developed (relatively) simultaneously in Egypt and Mesopotamia as a means to record ownership. Be it ownership of cattle or land, when we settled and started accumulating, it became increasingly important to indicate that this bag of rice or wheat did indeed belong to Jamsheed, and the system of pictograms on the clay seal indicates that Jamsheed is the only rightful owner.


It is not really a stretch to suggest that soon, the language needed to make a switch from the concrete to the abstract as people became comfortable in their new life in cities and farms rather than wandering (though I am sure the wandering life appealed to them again quickly when city life became apparent). In time, language and the written language began to shift to no longer represent strictly the cattle and grain that sustain life, but then, over time, wheat and water both began to represent the metaphorical. Letters and poetry began to be written down, though written in the traditional sense is not totally accurate. Ancient Sumerian, for example, was a series of wedge-shaped indents created by a stylus being pushed into wet clay. To erase, the clay could be kneaded, or to be made permanent, the clay could be baked and then transported, or saved for posterity.

It’s easy for us to take for granted how ubiquitous writing is to our lives, but to almost everyone, until relatively recently (like, around a hundred years ago) most people were not literate, nor was it necessary to their lives as farmers, potters, warriors, or any other handicraft. Only scribes in palaces, royalty, and the religious orders generally knew the magic of letters.

2This all is, of course, an oversimplification, but the image is the important part. I am not interested in the settling of peoples so much as the result of that settling. When we reach into the prehistoric, it is harder to look at people as individuals, instead, we seem to always read about them in some amoebic, shifting form that makes them into a single body that shifted from hunter-gatherers in 10,000 BC to a point where Sargon of Akkad was conquering the Gutians (another ancient people) sometime in 2300 BC. There is not only lots of speculation and missing the beauty in the individual in that approach, but quite frankly, we know little of anything with any certainty.

I mean, the Sumerian King List says the first rulers of the Mesopotamian area during what is now called the Antediluvian Period ruled on average for over 28,000 years apiece. That longevity in any given ruler means we have to gloss over lots. I want to have each of these subsequent posts focus on a single person or period as well as their thought process. That way we can not only keep the individual in mind, but it will be easier to apply newer philosophies to older concepts through interrogating the evolution of individual thought.

A few guidelines for this series. After a few posts giving us a grounding in western thought, I will skip around to whatever hits my fancy on that date. I also will be using dates that follow the BC and AD system that have fallen out of use in recent years. I personally find that changing the date to a secular BCE title while still counting year 0 as Christ’s birth to be purely superficial, and the old system works well enough for the same reconning.

Please ask questions, engage in the conversation, chat with each other. If we engage over the summer, we can engage easier in class when the fall starts. If you are reading this and are not in my High School Language Arts classes, welcome, please feel free to join in the discussion if you can be respectful. You are welcome.

I won’t lie to you. Philosophy is hard. There is a reason why people have advanced degrees in this stuff and still make no sense. There is a good reason why you have to watch Interstellar or Inception at least a half-dozen times to understand what is going on. But I can tell you this. If you embark on this ship with me you will be confused, angry, and disoriented, but you will also be coming down a path of critical thinking that can actually be mesmerizing. Your world will be open and you will never be able to look at the world in the same way again…but more of that when we talk Plato.

Here are a few questions you can ponder until the next post: Who are you? When did you first know who you were? Are you someone who stays still and doesn’t change, or do you change over time? What makes you change?

Next post I will be looking at The Code of Hammurabi as the first written code of ethics, a branch of philosophy that deals with what is permissible, and what is forbidden, or at least frowned upon.

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