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Let There Be Language – a short talk at Anglia Ruskin University, 18 Oct 2016

October 18, 2016

The following text is the transcript of a short talk presented at Anglia Ruskin University, 18 Oct 2016. The text includes 3 paragraphs found elsewhere on this website, however, rather than providing links to the earlier paragraphs, then asking readers to jump backwards and forwards between different posts, it seemed more sensible to provide the entire script of this talk, for the sake of continuity and uninterrupted reading. Those visitors who are already familiar with the earlier paragraphs are asked to read on through to find the newest material. Thanks to everyone who came along to the talk…

There is a perception, particularly among contemporary art critics and commentators, but also among members of the public, that sonic art is a relatively new art form; of course the truth is that sounds produced by voices are among the earliest materials ever subjected to any form of creative manipulation. Speech itself is an art-form, and therefore poetry and literature of the oral tradition are, alongside music, the oldest forms of sonic art, and probably in fact the oldest art-forms. On that basis it can be argued that far from being a marginal or in any way “difficult” art-form, sonic art is instead the most primal, the most pervasive, and arguably the earliest form of creative art, ever. The argument put forward in the book “Rorschach Audio – Art & Illusion for Sound”, is that, paraphrasing Aristotle’s “Poetics”, since written language is based on symbolic visual representations of indivisible sounds, the earliest form of sound recording technology was not therefore, as is generally presumed, any form of machine, but was in fact written language. Alongside poetry and literature of the oral tradition, even written literature and poetry are therefore forms of sound art. So, when one considers music, poetry, literature, theatre dialogue, theatre sound effects and architectural acoustics, and particularly also sound design for contemporary cinema and computer games, it can be argued that, in its various diverse and widespread manifestations, sonic art is one of, if not the most mainstream and commercially important of cultural commodities.

By way of just one illustration, the art of designing theatre sound effects is for instance quite clearly a form of sonic art, which goes back at least as far as those architects whose expertise ensured that the proverbial pin could be heard dropping throughout the auditoria of ancient Greek amphitheatres. As regards specifically British theatre, the historian Robert Mott describes how since “Shakespearian days” a “popular” method for creating illusions of thunder in theatre shows involved “a cannon-ball rolling down a trough and falling onto a huge drum”. Robert Mott states that “some people were not pleased with this cumbersome technique”, so, in 1708, the dramatist John Dennis designed a thunder effect for his play “Appius & Virginia” in Drury Lane. John Dennis “invented something more realistic and controllable – a large piece of thin copper sheeting suspended from a frame by wires”. “The thunder sheet was a great success, and as a result other stage productions began using his effect. This infuriated Dennis to the point where he would angrily confront the offending producer by charging ‘you, Sir, are stealing my thunder’.” Dennis is also said to have stated that “that is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play”. What this anecdote provides is not just another example of “early” sound art – of sonic art that predates contemporary fine-arts practice by 200 years – but also potentially the earliest recorded instance of what amounts to an intellectual property dispute between sound artists. This dispute was in fact so important that the phrase “stealing my thunder” has, for hundreds of years since, been immortalised as a very common figure-of-speech in the English language.

As you can all see, “The Act of Creation” is a collaborative neon sign artwork, created by myself and by Zata Banks. Genesis 1:3 states “Let there be Light”, while however John 1:1 states “in the beginning was the Word”. The philosopher, originally engineer and psychologist, Charles W. Morris defined semiotics as “the science of signs”; so, analysed in terms of visual semiotics, “The Act of Creation” is an artwork which articulates a message that’s implicit in all neon signs – namely the association between illumination and language; and, in articulating the phrase “Let There Be Language”, “The Act of Creation” is unique among neon sign artworks in the depth of integration between medium and message, since it’s light itself that literally and metaphorically illuminates the nature of the play on words.

As described in his book “The Search for the Perfect Language”, the novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco, described how “our story has an advantage over many others, [since] it can begin at the beginning”. Eco goes on to describe how “God spoke before all things… [God] said, let there be light. In this way [God] created both heaven and earth, for, with the utterance of the divine word, there was light… Creation itself arose through an act of speech”. Eco describes how, in Genesis 2:16-17 “the Lord speaks to man for the first time, putting at his disposal all the goods in the earthly paradise, commanding him, however, not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge”. Umberto Eco continues “we are not told in what language God spoke to Adam. Tradition has pictured it as a sort of language of interior illumination, in which God… expresses himself by thunderclaps and lightning” [1]; this theme forms the subject matter of one of the earlier sonic artworks I’ve created – which is a recording of radio noise produced by lightning strikes during an electrical storm, a recording entitled “Theophany” – “the Voice of God” – which was published on LP in 1996 [2].

As regards the origin of language, the scriptural, ie – religious, provenance of these anecdotes is potentially misleading however… they shouldn’t be dismissed as simple fantasies, because mythological stories have considerable anthropological, arguably archaeological, significance. As what amounts to a kind of fossil record of early human thought, Biblical passages show early writers testing hypotheses not only about the act of creation, but also about the origin of language (likewise the Biblical story about the Tower of Babel). Now, as regards scientific studies of that same subject, one scholarly discourse on the origin of language, affirms what seem to be quite widely held assumptions… the first is that “language disappears on the air as soon as it’s produced, it doesn’t get left behind”, the second is that “humans are the only beings that have language” [3].

That second statement, that “humans are the only beings that have language”, seems, in my opinion, highly debatable, since improvements in audio and video recording technology continually furnish anthropologists with new insights into subtleties of animal communications, which were previously much less accessible to human study. It was once thought that tool use was a uniquely human characteristic… it isn’t any more, and it seems likely that the equivalent article-of-faith, about animals and language, is likely to go the same way. While it should be stressed that the video in question contains a great deal of excellent material, nonetheless the other statement, that “language disappears on the air as soon as it’s produced”, is just plain false. Modern language retains a wealth of evidence about the forms and origins from which it evolved – just because evidence is hard to read doesn’t mean it isn’t evidence; plus, as I’ve already said, written language is a form of audio recording technology, so the irony of asserting that “language disappears on the air” is that our ability to quote this statement forms part of the evidence that disproves that assertion.

As regards studying the origin of language, the philosopher James Stam is quoted as describing how until recently a “shortage of empirical evidence has led many scholars to regard the entire topic as unsuitable for serious study”, and as describing how in 1866 the Société de Linguistique de Paris “banned any existing or future debates on the subject, a prohibition which remained influential… until late in the twentieth century” [4]. The neurolinguists Morten Christiansen and Simon Kirby described this question as “the hardest problem in science” [5]. Noam Chomsky – who is arguably the most famous and important living philosopher in the world – proposes the theory which suggests that infant language acquisition essentially adds-on, as they’ve been called, “parochial” and so-called “surface” features, to the “deep structure” of language circuits – circuits which hard-wire themselves, during neurogenesis, into the infant brain. Deep structures are said to be more concerned with grammar and syntax than with the audible forms in which those structures find symbolic representation [6].

In terms of evolutionary biology, Noam Chomsky suggested that language emerged as a result of one genetic mutation, in one single prehistoric human, which installed the linguistic faculty in “near-perfect” form, inherited by billions of descendants; in this way, the origin of language is compared to the formation of a crystal, such as that of a snowflake [7][8]… which might all sound wildly far-fetched, however in fact the geometric structures of the proteins found in DNA are, though fantastically complex, are still essentially crystalline. The notion that underlying neural structures are common to all languages, resembles the idea of the “Perfect” or “Divine” language that preoccupied the medieval theologians and mystics discussed by Umberto Eco, and you might recall that it’s the divine language that’s spoken by the character Leeloo in the science-fiction film “The Fifth Element”.

In fact, in terms of empirical evidence, studies of this subject experienced something of a quantum leap after the treatment by speech and language therapists of a single family in Brentford, West London, in the late 1980s. Fifteen members of one family, spread across 3 generations, were diagnosed as suffering a severe speech disorder, Developmental Verbal Dyspraxia, which, by 1998, had been identified as stemming from damage to one specific gene, the Forkhead Box Protein P2, or FoxP2.

The FoxP2 gene has been referred to as “the language gene”, “the grammar gene”, and even as “the creativity gene”. It seems however that such descriptions are all exaggerations, since FoxP2 genes are common in species not thought to have “proper” language, and, according to advice from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the apraxia occurs when “children have problems saying sounds, syllables, and words”, because “the brain has problems planning to move the body parts… needed for speech”. So, in other words “the child knows what they want to say, but their brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to say those words” [9]. So, the discovery of the FoxP2 “crystal” (so-to-speak) doesn’t prove one single, dramatic evolutionary break-out point for the origin of language, however, to conclude this talk, it does suggest that studies of the human genome are likely to shed a great deal more light on the origins of language in the near future.

[1] Umberto Eco “The Search for the Perfect Language” Fontana 1995
[2] Disinformation “National Grid”, “Stargate”, “Theophany” Ash 3.2 LP 1996
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvRtlH-3Asc
[4] James H. Stam “Inquiries into the Origin of Language” Harper Collins 1976
[5] Morten Christiansen & Simon Kirby “Language Evolution” OUP 2003
[6] Noam Chomsky “Aspects of the Theory of Syntax” 1965
[7] Noam Chomsky “Language & Mind” in Lyle Jenkins (editor) “Variation & Universals in Biolinguistics” Elsevier 2004
[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Sw15-vSY8E [1:12:30]
[9] http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/ChildhoodApraxia/

Article copyright Joe Banks © 18 Oct 2016

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