How does the power of language affect us as humans?

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kateanswers eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the defining characteristics of humans is our ability to communicate through language. Language may be spoken, written, or performed physically as in Sign Language. The development of language is an integral part of the story of human evolution, as it has influenced and been influenced by the evolution of other parts of our brain and the behaviors these control.

Language is essentially using combinations of symbols (or signifying components) to express complex meaning. For example, we can consider the individual terms "cat," "run," and "fast," and understand their meanings independent of each other. But when we combine them into the phrase, "The cat runs fast," we can express a multifaceted message.

The evolution of tool-use and language in our ancient ancestors had a reflexive relationship, one which profoundly altered the development of the brain to incorporate abstract thought. Anthropologists believe that tool use and crafting developed before spoken language, based on the dates of early stone tools and the types of vocal structures of the species who would have made such tools. The practice of making a stone tool requires having an idea for what the end-result might look like and the ability to adapt during the process of making the tool. Such abstract thought is directly related to what happens when we speak- we must plan ahead of time what we'd like to say, and improvise as we continue speaking or writing. Naturally, a system of language or complex communication would have enabled more and more complex messages to be shared, and even contributed to the creation of more complex tools.

As humans are today, language is a unifying force in our world. It is one of the first things we learn and our primary means of learning after language acquisition. Language allows us to communicate with great numbers of people, even across space and throughout time. Shakespeare wrote in the 15th and 16th centuries, and just think of how many students read his plays today! Language has become one of the driving forces of cultural production and reproduction. It is how we construct and reinforce our identities and share ideas with others. 

Language has the power to be deeply moving. If our means of communication were more simple, like a cat or sheep, we would only be able to produce one sound or "call" at a time. It is the complexity of human language which makes it so special. It is quite remarkable how certain combinations of words can excite us or make us laugh or cry. Here, too, it is our capability for abstract thought which allows us to empathize with another's sorrows or understand a witty reference. Human language has achieved the ability to not just describe events but convey emotion, too. Our evolution to rely on language as a means of communication, education, and pleasure has made it an important part of our adaptation and survival in the world.