By Michael Corballis 07/10/2019


What is language? We generally assume that it a facility unique to humans, allowing us to share what’s in and on our minds. We can tell of our plans, our past exploits, our knowledge. It also allows us to lie. And yet there are vast numbers of people we can’t talk to, because they speak a different language.

Speech is perhaps the most effective secret code ever invented. During the two world wars of the last century, speakers of little-known languages were used as “code talkers,” sending messages in their native tongue that were known to one side but not to the other. Best-known were the bilingual Navajo speakers during World War II, who transmitted secret messages to the US military during operations in the Pacific, secure in the knowledge that they could not be decoded by the enemy. At the outset of the war there were said to be only about 30 people who could speak Navajo, which remains impenetrable to outsiders.

Code talking had been pioneered earlier by the US military in World War I, with the use of Cherokee, Choctaw and Comanche on the European front. The Germans got wind of the operation and sent some anthropologists to study Native American languages, but the task proved too difficult. Even so, the US military learned of the German reaction, and stopped the operation. Other languages used in code-talking operations in World War II include Assiniboine, Basque, Cree, Meskwawi, Mohawk, Muscogee, Tlinglit, and Welsh. More recently, Egyptian forces used Nubian in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and China used Wenzenhounese in the 1979 Sino-Vietnam War.

Although language itself seems distinctively human, then, individual languages seem designed as much to exclude as to share. Some 7,000 languages are spoken or signed in the world and mark out different territories and tribes, much as cats use the scent of their urine to establish their patch. Could it be that language evolved to compensate for the human loss of smell?

Maybe not, but language does create silos, cementing bonds within groups but excluding outsiders. Although languages such as English and Mandarin have come to dominate across much of the globe, one can still observe changes within those languages, marking out social classes, teenage fashions, legal jargon, locker-room exchanges. Languages also blend. The English language itself emerged from a melting pot of different tongues introduced by successive invaders, and even in modern-day New Zealand the insertion of Maori words and phrases seems to be creating a new dialect. We no longer sound much like the Australians.

English is also widely used as a second language, creating hybrids, including Chinglish (Chinese English), Ponglish (Polish English), Singlish (Singaporean English), and Hinglish (Hindu English). These may well morph into separate languages.

Language probably evolved from manual gestures, perhaps like the signed languages invented by deaf communities, and in the gesturing that still accompanies speech, especially in Italy. At one time in our distant past, our forebears may have communicated mainly through pantomime, along with some vocal accompaniment. But this has reversed, with speech now carrying the burden, and gesture as the accompaniment.

Because sign languages are as powerful and eloquent as speech, if not more so, one might ask why speech took over to become dominant. One answer might be that speech removes most of the visible quality, making it harder to decipher. We can make such a variety of sounds, hums and clicks and grunts, that there is no limit to the number of different words we can coin, not to mention variations in the way we can order them or add bits to refine meaning. Speech is an intricate code, not least so among long-standing indigenous languages which continue to baffle linguists.

We tend to resort to gesture when we go to places where a different language is spoken, relying on some universal understanding of action to get the message across. Gesture removes some of the cloak, so we can peek into the silo. But the 7,000 or so spoken languages of the world tell us that we generally prefer to remain in our silos, and keep the invaders out.

Language is a wonderful facility, but those 7,000 languages remind us that we are a fundamentally tribal species. Speech lies at the interface between the two conflicting drivers of the human condition, cooperation and conflict. Or to put it more bluntly, peace and war.