an alternative thought experiment by Nikola Danaylov
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein
Humanity has searched for meaning since our beginning. And we find it in story. The story that we tell ourselves. Thus, a world devoid of meaning becomes meaningful. But this meaning is given by and designed for us. And it is created in language.
The truly unique feature of human language is not its ability to transmit practical information – about animals, rivers, stones, and trees because this feature is present in the languages of many other species. What makes human language unique is its ability to transmit information about things that don’t exist in the physical world at all – like gods, money, law, ethics, corporations and so on. That’s why ours is a fictive language. And this fact is very important for the two key features of our civilization:
1. Large-scale cooperation: Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons rarely cooperated in groups larger than 150 [Dunbar’s number]. This placed a rather low upper limit on what they could accomplish. Homo Sapiens, however, when given a powerful enough story, can exhibit cooperation among millions of strangers working towards the same goal. And what we can accomplish is of unlimited scale. Both positive and negative examples abound in history from wars and genocides to sports events, through religious rituals, social movements, construction projects such as the Great Wall of China, or technological and scientific breakthroughs such as the Large Hadron Collider and space exploration.
2. Rapid Innovation of social behavior and faster cultural evolution: What this means is that when we change the story, we change the culture. When enough people switch the story they believe in we have a popular revolution. For example, in 1789 the population of France shifted almost overnight from believing in the story of the divine right of their king to the story of the sovereignty of the people. [“Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”] Now known as the French Revolution, this event shows how cultural revolutions, in contrast to genetic revolutions, are very fast. And that, in turn, is the main reason why humanity has outstripped all other species in evolutionary terms – because we are using our culture, not our genes, to evolve faster.
In short, without our fictive language, we can’t have a story. And without a human story, our human civilization will not exist. So, the story of story is the story of our language.