Sound familiar …..

Posted on May 3, 2011 by


I have just come back from a two-week visit to South Africa. It’s a fascinating country, quite apart from the usual ‘safari’ stuff! One of the many discoveries I made was ‘click language’. My attempts to learn even the basic clicks were comic. My daughter was much better.

This article from The Boston Times explains the complexity of ‘click’ languages and the need for mental-CPU power to speak them. The tell-tale tongue-clicks in these languages are the rule rather than the exception. Here is an interesting paragraph comparing ‘click’ languages and modern languages:

The cultures with the least contact with modern civilization have the most elaborate languages, while the languages of societies with tall buildings, iPhones, and psychoanalysis tend to be among the world’s most elementary. As such, the finding that these obscure African languages were the world’s first is instructive beyond the mere issue of primacy.

The first humans who spoke these first languages were of a particular societal type: indigenous hunter-gatherers like most click-language speakers today. Yet their languages were more complex than distant-descendant languages like English, spoken by post-Stone Age urbanites. The sophistication of tiny, unwritten languages reminds us not only that their speakers are the equal of First Worlders in mental capacity, but that we moderns express the intellectual in languages that are romper-room compared to any tribal language.

In this, we can truly understand that language and thought hardly walk in lockstep. Nuance and complexity are tools common to all humans, regardless of the form of the language they speak.

Spend some time reading this article. It is a good antidote for our ‘chrono-narcissism’, where we think that our time is the most advanced. We can learn more from our ancient predecessors. Fortunately, we have still reminders such as ‘click’ languages.

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