As a part of our everyday experience, we talk to others about our day, our feelings, and our thoughts. Its one of the many talents we as humans (homo sapiens) have that the other animals we share our planet with do not possess. We can articulate with precision, if we so choose. We can say exactly what is going on inside our brains and what we are emotionally reacting to around us. But we may choose to keep silent out of respect, fear or timidness amongst other reasons.
As a forensic, I am a student of language. I listen to how the person I am interviewing phrases their thoughts, whether they are delusional, paranoid, or emotionally distant amongst a host of other possibilities. When interviewing an assailant or a survivor, I listen for the language they use to express their experience. It helps to give me insight into knowing how they interpret their world.
Was the assailant enraged by what someone else said without justification? Did the assailant provoke their target on purpose? Was the survivor in the wrong place at the wrong time, or was the assailant stalking them?
Language can certainly be used to instigate or to calm. How do you use language when you are threatened?
We are social creatures, and language is a way for us to bond. But the paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, cognitive scientists, phoneticians, and comparative psychologists have not made up their minds yet about how language originated. Stay tuned: they may still have an answer for us this century.
On a more mundane level, we are amused when we hear slips of the tongue. And think to ourselves, ah hah! Now I know what they were really thinking, they just gave it away. By the way, have you ever made a slip of the tongue?
Freud called these slips Fehlleistungen (faulty actions), and, you guessed it, he thought of them as unconscious admissions of one’s intent or underlying focus of attention. Freud said, “ almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside the intended speech… the disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder.”
As it turns out, Freud may have been partially correct. We may have intended to say iced tea, but had ice cream in our thoughts and said what we were thinking and not what we intended. No harm with that one, but other times we may become very embarrassed by our slip, like when George H.W. Bush said at a news gathering about his time with President Reagan, “we have had triumphs, Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex… uh…setbacks.”
But, as George Burns said about slips of the tongue, “sometimes a cigar, is just a cigar.”
Slips of the tongue increase when we are tired, and certainly when we have been influenced by drugs, including alcohol. Slips also happen a lot when we are multi-tasking, and our mouth gets ahead of our brain.
As humans we can express our beliefs, spirituality, and disgust in a sentence or two. But no other species can communicate the poetry of a sunset, nor the revery of a favorite flavor and the delight we intend to have when we can get home and take our shoes off at the end of the day.
We are learning more about how other species can relate more than a greeting or a threat with their vocal expressions, but our understanding is still so limited. We have not found the Rosetta Stone of language to translate their grunts and motions into words.
Bees can dance and direct the hive to a wonderful field of clover, but they certainly cannot tell the others about a very tasteful gladiola patch, but we can!
Not to deny the monkeys their communication skills, like humans, monkeys and apes have a specific group of movements where we have learned they express themselves (with both their body parts and faces) regarding their emotions, but unless you are Jane Goodall, you nor I would be able to understand the meanings or separate out the body movements from their grunts.
Just like us humans, who laugh, and cry, or scream, without the person telling us in their own words, we are lost as to what they are carrying on about.
But before we head too far down the etymology, or origin of words trail, how did we start talking in the first place? Any ideas?
One theory about language development in humans holds that our talking with others in our tribe started with our use of gestures. And as we gestured, we made grunts, probably to emphasize a point or to tell the other person that they were about to step on a snake, and eventually our grunts became more refined. We also changed anatomically over the centuries, and as our larynx evolved, so did our ability to speak.
On to the study of words. Etymology comes from the Latin meaning “for a good thing.” Etymology is not a word’s definition, but rather, it is the study of what our words meant historically and where they originated.
To study language is to discover the origin of a word and its culture.
Early on in America, we spoke to each other in the original English that the colony’s first settlers brought with them. But don’t be fooled; the English spoken by the colonists wasn’t only from England. It already had Greek, Germanic, Spanish and other language influences.
With more immigration, we acquired more words from different languages, and our English has continued to change. It has changed, not only by new words, but by the way the immigrants pronounced our words, and in turn, our language changed in the process.
For me, the origins of the word psycho seemed both relevant and interesting as I hear it so often.
Its origins are from the Greek language, combining the form of psyche, the soul, mind spirit; one’s life, the invisible animating principle or entity which occupies and directs the physical body.
What words intrigue you?
Another word getting a lot of use these days with climate change, unusual temperatures, and humidity, is the word ice. Any guesses about its origins?
It is an old English term, as well as Germanic and Dutch. The modern spelling began in the fifteenth century and the expression, “on ice” was intended to mean, you guessed it, to keep out of the way until wanted. The term “thin ice” originated in 1884. “To break the ice” was meant to make the first opening and originated in the 1580’s. It was a term that was metaphoric, relating to making passages for boats by breaking up river ice. “Ice fishing” is from 1869 and “ice scraper” originated from the field of cooking in 1789.
Karl Albrecht said, “change your language and you change your thoughts.”
Rita Mae Brown said about language: “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”
I hope your travels are safe and filled with a language of understanding and delight. Thanks for reading the column. Be well.
Send in questions and suggestions. See you here next month. Questions? Comments? Thoughts about future topics of discussion? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will respond.