Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hey, Dude, You’ve Got Something Stuck In Your Teeth

“Before language, we were critically limited in our ability to represent what wasn’t there,” writes Daniel Levitan in “The World in Six Songs.”

When I reflect on the meaning of this statement, I wonder how exactly it applies in very specific cases. Having no knowledge of linguistics, at all—or perhaps it is my equally limited grasp of anthropology that fails me—I have no idea if language first developed to distinguish you from me; or to help us all to understand that fire is not merely hot, but dangerous; or to share vocally the good feelings generated by touching and rubbing each other.

Regardless, once we had a word for rabbit and one for fire, we certainly needed more words to communicate our delight in the taste of cooked rabbit. I assume that it is at that point that things must have begun to get really complicated.

How do you say to a hungry person holding a dead rabbit and possessing a vocabulary of, say, 40 words, that we should cook the thing before we eat it? And cook it with the skin off because, after all, you want to wear the furry part on your head?

What if “skin,” meaning remove the hide, was the 50th word you learned? That means the dude holding the rabbit is 10 words behind you, not interested in a language lesson, and staring at you as though you, the educated one, are some sort of crazy caveperson.

You, meanwhile, are thinking this guy is an idiot, but he’s also the one holding dinner. Armed with only the rudiments of language, you are probably going to shrug and eat your portion raw, pausing occasionally to pick rabbit hair out of your teeth.

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