Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity

As I was driving in traffic the other day, and I was bored. I picked up my phone and started scrolling through InstaCast, waiting for traffic to move and waiting for my eyes to fall on a podcast of interest. I found Mark Pagel’s TED talk, “How language transformed humanity,” and though I couldn’t watch the video as I drove, I listened along, and it turns out I had found a great podcast companion for the last leg of my drive.

I encourage you to check it out:

Pagel talks about how language is the root of human cooperation, and how this has allowed us to expand our minds, progress, and modernize. While this is obviously, definitely a positive thing in many respects, I found myself wondering as well about all the problems both language and cooperation have developed for us.

For one, Pagel mentions how many millions and billions of dollars are spent on translations every day – a lot just in the EU, translating between the 27 countries in the 23 various official languages.

Additionally, he cites the story of Babel, in which humans were split up and given different languages to prevent communicating and cooperating in order to reach some kind of pinnacle of human success, insinuating  that perhaps we weren’t meant to translate between languages and build across language as we have. And let’s face it – if we weren’t able to communicate between languages, the human race would never have been able to accomplish all the scientific, cultural, linguistic, and so on and so forth feats that we have, building our modern world. While I understand how incredible and complex the modern world is (and convenient!), I have to question if it was ever “supposed” to be this way. Many cultural and peace problems wouldn’t exist if our developments in language didn’t exist either.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being able to speak other languages and learn the intricacies of them. I’m fluent in Italian, and I used to study Spanish as well. It seems to me like we are in the middle of two directions: we are coming from a world in which we used to be separated by language, and moving toward a world in which perhaps the majority will all speak the same language (English, it looks like, from the way it has spread and is spreading).

So what will the differences be? Would having “one world: one language” (Pagel’s phrase) mean less misunderstanding between countries and culture? How is language related to the context in which we interpret our lives and the world? Do you agree with what Pagel says about language having built cooperation?

I’m interested to hear what other people think, and to sort through my own thoughts some more. I might post on this again later, after more contemplation.



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