Yesterday I said that, for the medievalists, the “literal” meaning of a text is one that assumes the words are being used “normally” or “naturally.” I suggested that the normal, natural, literal meaning of a text is more or less the same for us today as it would have been for a Near Eastern Bedouin from 3,000 years ago. Why?
Because all human languages work pretty much the same way. Even otherwise primitive cultures use sophisticated grammar and syntax. All human languages are grammatically and syntactically similar to one another. By an early age children become adept users of the language spoken in whatever culture they happen to be raised in, even without explicit instruction. And again, why?
It’s not completely clear. Chomsky asserted that the human brain is specially structured to understand a “universal grammar” common to all languages. Chomsky doubts whether this specialized and highly complex cognitive structure could have resulted solely from natural selection. Pinker argues that it could – that the evolution of language is not that different from the evolution of vision. Just as incremental improvements in light sensitivity and motion detection and depth perception would have afforded adaptive advantages, so too would incremental improvements in the ability to communicate and to understand others’ communication. But language isn’t just an individual cognitive ability; it is also – it is primarily – a means of social exchange. A language isn’t just inside the head; it’s part of a shared cultural environment. Science, math, architecture, agronomy: these cultural artifacts have increased in complexity over the millennia, but not because the human brain continues to evolve. It’s because our biologically modern ancestors continually thought up incremental improvements and taught them to others, who in turn passed them down through the generations to us. The languages we use today are the product of thousands of generations of cumulative incremental modifications.
Only recently have people begun systematically studying linguistic evolution, which means we haven’t been able to witness a lot of historic transformation of real languages. Tomasello suggests that all languages are structurally similar to one another because they’re all offshoots of a single complex Ur-language:
“It may just be that language, for whatever reason, began its historical development first – early in the evolution of modern humans some 200,000 years ago – and so reached something near its current level of complexity before modern languages began to diverge from this prototype.”
It seems fair to say that genetic, developmental, cultural, and historical forces have all contributed to the similarity of all modern natural languages. Say we’re trying to read a Biblical text written in 1000 BC. From the standpoint of genetic evolution the writer would have been no different from us in terms of sheer brain capacity and ability to use language. In linguistic history three thousand years just isn’t all that long ago: the structure and complexity of ancient Hebrew is more or less the same as modern English. We should be able to understand what the ancient writer had to say.
But what about text – written rather than spoken language? Written language wasn’t invented until about 6,000 years ago, which is like last week in linguistic history. The spoken languages would already have achieved modern levels of complexity before writing was invented. Unwritten languages spoken by isolated tribes are as complex as modern written languages. Writing was independently invented probably only three times in human history: in Mesopotamia, in China, in South America. Modern English writing and ancient Hebrew writing stemmed from the same Middle Eastern source – so our understandings of written language wouldn’t be all that different.
In conclusion, then, it seems reasonable and empirically justifiable to assert that, when we read an ancient text, our natural, literal understanding of that text is pretty similar to how the writer’s contemporaries would have understood it.