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Language is unique hallmark of human civilization

Author  :  LI YUMING     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-03-02

As the most vital semiotic system for mankind to conduct social contact and thinking, language is the driving force advancing the progress of human society. In the interactive and mutually expanding process between language and society, the structure and function of language keeps developing. People’s ways of life, modes of production, and even thinking patterns are also in the midst of major changes. A comprehensive understanding of language and its relationship with human civilization is thus beneficial to scientific research in the following fields, people’s language life, national governance, and global governance at large.

Language and human progress

Research shows that phonatory organs are accompanied by neuronal activity when people think. Children’s linguistic ability is not mature—that is why they often express their thinking by means of talking to themselves. With declining linguistic abilities, elderly people’s thinking is often assisted by means of babbling in their daily life.

The relationship between language and culture can be described as complementary. First, language is an important part of culture. More than 80% of human information is recorded, transmitted, and stored by language. Second, language is the most important carrier, constructor, and interpreter of culture.

Third, culture breeds language, the vitality of which is decided by the cultural profundity and creativity of the speaking group. With new discoveries, new inventions, new thoughts, new arts, and new crafts emerging within the group, the language is invigorated, and even begins to influence other languages. But if the culture within the group fades, its language will correspondingly suffer from malnutrition and even gradually become endangered. Language is the totem of many countries and nations—it is also a symbol of individual identity which embodies special bonds within a group.

Humans came into being and evolved through the process of acquiring, using, developing, and creating language. Humans struggled to survive through long nights and harsh environments before language appeared, and it is believed that they acquired language in the late Paleolithic Age, about 70,000 years ago. With language, humans’ cognitive abilities progressed in a revolutionary way. As the ship, the oil lamp, and arrows were invented, they were able to migrate to each corner of the world. Human languages have two characteristics: to express infinite meaning with finite symbols; and to express things that occur outside the field of vision. This endows humans with the ability to express the past through recollection; to illustrate the future through imagination; to fabricate stories and distill them into a common belief held by a group; to create such epics as the Iliad of Homer, Gilgamesh, and Ramayan.

After arduously exploring for more than 60,000 years, humans finally invented the character. Wedge-formed characters (also called arrowheaded characters) appeared in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin about 5500 years ago. Chinese oracle bone inscriptions originated more than 3300 years ago, but before they formally appeared, there had already been an evolution history of about a thousand years. There are more than 3000 kinds of characters in today’s world. The invention and application of characters helped produce the written language and a new literate group emerged, who were able to identify characters and thus collected, collated, interpreted, and imparted knowledge. Human history had transited from the era of legends to the time of recorded history.

Printing is an important language technology which aids in the distribution of written texts. Its predecessor is woodblock printing, which originated in the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and flourished in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). After Bi Sheng from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) invented movable-type printing with clay characters, the technique spread to Europe (400 years later), and metal alloy was invented by Gutenberg for the printing press. With the advent of laser phototypesetting technology, printing accelerated its pace and integrated with modern language technology. People now have more opportunities to read, and knowledge is more widely available due to rapid social progress.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, when the audio media such as radio and television were produced, electric waves had become the transmitters for the sound and images of language. The oral functions of language had largely improved. Film and television present the scene of language interaction by simultaneously using images, captions, and voices. The information is disseminated quickly to far-away places, and the world is becoming more integrated.

The development of the internet and artificial intelligence stirred the emergence of big data. As the key element promoting the progress of science and technology, data is also the key to development of the digital economy. In October 2019, the Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of CPC (Communist Party of China) listed data as the seventh major factor of production, apart from the other six factors of “labor, capital, land, knowledge, technology, and management.” This is an important theoretical innovation. Among the data formed as a result of human’s observations of the world and the data available for computer processing, 80% is language data. Language data starts to play a new role as a factor of production in human history.

Before mankind, the natural world was a “physical space.” The appearance of mankind enabled a “social space” to grow within the physical space. Cyberspace, constituted by the internet, began as a social space, but with the development of artificial intelligence, especially the emergence of robots which possess linguistic intelligence, cyberspace has gradually transformed into a third kind of space for humans—information space. In a lecture delivered in November, 2019, by Pan Yunhe, an academician from the Chinese Academy of Engineering, it was pointed out that human beings are now in the ternary space stage which consists of “physical space, human society, and information space.”

Language and individual life

An individual’s life is the lifespan during which one acquires and uses language, while accomplishing one’s goals by the means of language. There are different language tasks in different phases of one’s life, which necessitates different language abilities.

Good language skills involve three points. The first is a multilingual ability, which includes the mastery of dialects and languages of different ethnic groups, as well as mastery of the national spoken language. The second is the mastery of modern language technology, especially language tools commonly used in the information space. The third is about language planning, which includes good language planning for one’s family to ensure that children receive a strong language education and an understanding of the language planning of a country, sector, or workplace so as to better fulfill one’s professional duties.

The intellect of a newborn infant is not as advanced as that of apes, but after children acquire spoken language during their pre-school period, their cognitive levels rapidly grow. Obvious declines in linguistic ability will appear after the age of 70, since the cerebral language center begins to degenerate. It is thus an important task for society to study compensation for the elderly’s linguistic loss and to delay language decline to ensure a healthy life.

Many diseases hinder one’s language life and affect an individual’s life path. In recent years, child autism has become a frequent disorder in cities. Barriers in social contact resulting from autism have impacted children’s educational development and their families’ psychology and living. It deserves high attention from society to study, prevent, and treat diseases caused by problems related to language, as well as to compensate for patients’ language life by means of modern linguistic technology.

Language and community building

Human beings are gregarious animals who belong to different communities. Through history and today, communities exist on different levels, and language is the tie for communication.

In the ancient times, the size of communities depended on the efficacy of communication tools. Before language appeared, communities were small in size. With language as a powerful communication tool, communities kept expanding and could migrate long distances to seek more favorable environments for survival. Such primitive flocks were distributed almost across the globe, which helped produce different tribes and religions and create rich prehistoric culture.

The spread of Chinese characters and the written Chinese language in the East built a community characterized by the “cultural circle of Chinese characters.” Through the process of learning and using Chinese language and Chinese characters, the Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese languages absorbed and borrowed a large amount of words from Chinese characters. Up to now, Chinese characters, Chinese language, and the Chinese culture are still influential in the cultural community.

There are currently more than 7000 languages in the world. These languages and their dialects are connected with language communities either large or small, and connected with tribes, nations, countries and supranational communities. Most communities have a story for their language.

By means of cooperation on the “Belt and Road” initiative, South-South cooperation, North-South dialogue, and cooperative platforms on regional integration, as well as platforms on China-Africa, China-Latin America, and China-Arab cooperation, China has promoted the formation of a number of communities of shared future between itself and its neighboring countries, Asian communities of shared future, and other multi-leveled “intermediary communities” which ultimately direct to the grand blueprint of “a community of shared future for mankind.”

A shared future necessitates a shared language. The world today is marked by great changes unseen in a century, which includes international political changes, and also other changes brought by scientific and technological development as well as economic forms. In coming to understand, adapt, and guide the changes, linguistic consciousness is needed. Especially in the face of the rapidly developing information space, the ternary space pattern which will affect humanity’s future, and the digital economic era with language data as the main factor of production, the power of language should be valued to gain its benefit.

 

Li Yuming is professor from the Beijing Language and Culture University and director of China Lexicographical Research Society.

Editor: Yu Hui

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