By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Without language it is almost certain that there would not have been human civilization as we know it. It is therefore no wonder that experts from several fields have been interested about the development of human language, a unique mode of communication that is not found in other animals.
Since, at the present state of scientific knowledge, the evidence is in favour of humans having originated from Africa, it is hypothesized that human language also has its roots there. Evolutionary biologists are continuing their work on this aspect of human language.
The instrument for producing sound, voice and eventually leading to language is the voice box or larynx that is situated in the neck. It is visible as the most prominent, firm part of the front of the neck, and it can be observed to move up and down with swallowing. It consists of several cartilages (which give the firmness), muscles and ligaments which are joined together and function in coordination with each other to emit sound, which is in turn modulated by the vocal cords and other folds to then come out as voice, and then speech and language.
In the newborn and certain mammals the larynx is situated higher up, but descends to its permanent, lower level as growth takes place, and this is supposed to be a key feature needed for voice production. Professor Noam Chomsky, world famous linguist based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, postulates that we have a language instinct. However, more recent work by Michael Dunn of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands points to a greater role for nurture rather than nature, in the sense that grammatical features found in the four large language families – Indo-European, Bantu, Austronesian (South-East Asia and Pacific), Uto-Aztecan (Americas) – seem to be passed down generations as part of a language culture. More details can be found in an excellent article entitled ‘Babel or Babble?’ in The Economist of 16 April 2011. It should also be noted that the tongue has its role to play in the articulation of speech.
And in fact, a most fascinating issue is the development of speech and human understanding, in which common experience tells us that language has a vital role to play, although one can also understand very deeply with the heart and silence – also something that we know from experience. However, we can equally see that language and its written form have played a determining role in the development and progress of human civilization, because being able to record what was happening helped us to build on from where others had left. This is a truism for all fields of human endeavour, and certainly in science this is more than evident.
To take another example, in India the source-books of Hinduism known as the Vedas were, according to what we are taught, first transmitted orally. Which meant that there were people who specialized in memorizing (Chaturvedis) and reciting for others to learn and memorize in their turn, and thus the contents were passed from generation to generation for unknown thousands of years. And then, at some stage about 5000 years ago, the Great Guru Vyasa compiled them in the four categories that we are familiar with today, the Rigveda, Atharvaveda, Samveda and Yajurveda. This has made them accessible to a larger number of people than would not otherwise have been possible, and I was privileged to be presented with a special hardbound edition of the set of 22 volumes as a New Year gift this year. The sheer quality of the publication is a joy to the eyes – and when one starts reading one is plunged deeper into this mahasagar (mega-ocean) of enchanting knowledge.
From these depths, I must resurface to a more mundane but no less interesting phenomenon, that of figures of speech and twists of language that give them their uniqueness, appeal and beauty. Once I met an ex-patient of mine as I was going towards my car at Trou-O-Cerfs – where else! – and he was getting down from his to start his walk. Good morning doctor, he said, justement, mo bisin revine guette ou ene coup pou sa genou là. Ou pou bisin refaire sa ti reglaz ki ou ti faire ene fois là, plis ki deux li fine korek.
What caught my attention in particular was the use of the expression ti reglaz là, and the gesture that accompanied it: a slight pin-rolling movement between the tips of his right index finger and thumb, held up towards me to indicate what he meant. Exactly the most apt expression matched his occupation: a car mechanic – don’t we also say, when we go to a mechanic, guete ene coup, bisin regle sa machine/ moteur là? He had come to me with knee pain for which he had been advised operation, but was reluctant to undergo one because he was a marathon-runner taking part in high-level competitive runs at national and regional levels, and he couldn’t be guaranteed that he would be able to continue. That worried him because running was mo la vie. As is walking for me, so I immediately empathized. It turned out that he had pain arising from injury to the ligaments in his problem knee, and this was amenable to non-surgical treatment.
I therefore treated him accordingly, and a few months later he was able to take part in his competition and won, and has repeated the performance several times since. And for him, if I extrapolate from his occupation, the knee was equivalent to an engine and the treatment was the fine-tuning, the ti reglaz, that had set it right. Isn’t that absolutely fascinating? And there are many more examples that each one of us can think of, and some day someone must compile them.
A senior colleague of mine told me that during a consultation shortly after he had arrived in Rodrigues in the late 1960s, a lady patient complained to him, Docteur, mo marriaze faire mal. Can we get more colourful than that? Now I leave my readers to find out for themselves what that meant…
* Published in print edition on 22 April 2011
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