Thursday, May 12, 2016

Communicating on Communication

When I begin wondering, I wonder till the beginning. Even if that sentence sounded syntactically wrong, that is the best way I can put it. I wonder a lot, about a lot of things. Somehow, I am always keen to know where it started, how it started, who started it, how did it catch on. The search which thus ensues leads me on to very interesting vistas of knowledge, interpretation and analysis.

The thing I have been wondering about most, of late, is 'Communication'. This happened as a result of a work-place assignment, which needed me to build a programme on communications for students, including aspects of verbal, written, visual and digital communication. We named it 'creative communications', because we thought of firmly instilling the 'creative process' in the minds of our students (at Shiv Nadar School - for those who did not know where I worked), while giving them exposure to and insight into relevant skills and the practice thereof.

While I had an entire module ready on the nuances to touch while dealing with distinct aspects of communication, what intrigued me, again, was where did it all start? How did humans start talking? When did they realise they could produce sounds? Forget sounds, how did they realise that they could use gestures and organise actions and elicit reaction? Since language (and gestures) pre-date writing by aeons, there, obviously, exists no written record of the same.

A good way of understanding things which predate organised system of recording knowledge is to delve into myths and oral traditions. Man has the tremendous ability of crafting narratives around most happenings in the world, which have been passed down through generations. These passed down oral narratives hold the key to understanding many things which form the ancient history of mankind.

Now, even in myths, I have not been able to find many tales which relate specifically to the origin of speech (Tower of Babel story is an exception, but it helps one understand distortions, expansion and diversity, rather than origins). In most places, language or speech has been presented as a 'gift from God'. Anything inexplicable is conveniently bracketed here.

The Mythical Tower of Babel
Some interesting answers can be found on Quora in this regard, but my understanding after conducting some decent secondary research is that there is no conclusive word on it. There are biological (evolutionary) roads to understanding speech, and there are sociological routes to doing this. Linguistics based on sociology, of course, interested me more, since Biology bas ki nahi hai. So, I found the following really cutely named (nicknamed) theories on how humans started talking, attributable to various people -

1. Bow Wow Theory
Man probably started talking as an imitation of sounds around him. Humans have learnt much via mimesis, ape-trait, I guess, and language could be claimed under the same. So we'd hear the birds and chirp, hear the wolves and howl, hear the brook and gurgle - aah, the pleasures of the early man days!

2. Pooh-Pooh Theory
According to this theory, sounds were not generated as an imitation of something external, but emerged intuitively from deep within when man experienced extremes of emotions. So you step on a thorn and scream in response - that is the kind of sounds this theory is talking about. Only, these sounds are not unique to humans - they are possessed by most animals who did not end up having a language system as elaborate and nuanced as ours.

3. Ding Dong Theory
This theory is based on the idea that man started referring to objects by the virtue of the sounds they made. It would be like calling a door 'knock-knock'. In fact, a more realistic example can be drawn from the Chinook language, where heart is called 'tum-tum', probably the interpretation of the sounds the beats make. The same 'tum-tum' is used to referred to 'feelings'. So pretty!

4. Yo-He-Ho Theory
This is the sound of effort. Rhythmic chants on grunt noises which people made during organised effort is supposed as a possible source of speech origin. Consider our own 'zor laga ke,, hayeesha!' While hayeesha doesn't mean anything in particular, it is what helps organise action while rowing huge boats.

By now, my students in the class were convinced I had made these up, so I thought it best to not introduce them to the 'Ta-Ta' and 'La La' theories. Truth be told, I do not understand them that well myself.

The question of origin of speech was abandoned for quite sometime, but it gained traction again sometime back. Now, the answers are being searched for in the domain of evolution, using the tool of palaeontology. Some people out there are actually doing really creative work, and this is one field I would love to stay abreast with.

Leave me nuggets of knowledge if you happen to know something on these lines. I'll tell you more about classroom escapades in my future blogs, because these 'Creative Communication' lectures are really teaching me so much! Till then, ta-ta! And la-la-la!

Source - idoartkarenrobinson.com4