27 February 2010

Shadows on a cave wall

Around 35,000 years ago a series of 26 symbols began to emerge on cave walls and rock formations around which our neolithic ancestors gathered and sheltered. Overlooked until recently a pattern has begun to emerge of a global written language, or at the very least a globally recognized system of synecdoches that signify an intelligence in our neolithic ancestors far more complex than previously credited. While some of these symbols can be clearly seen in Irish sites such as Newgrange, itself around 5,000 years old, examples have been found on all six inhabited continents up to 30,000 years earlier, indicating a continuous pattern of symbol usage over the course of at least 30,000 years.

Our current Latin alphabet evolved from the earlier Etruscan, itself based on Cumaen Greek which first appeared around the 8th century BCE, placing our own letters in existence for less than 3,000 years, or 10% of the lifetime of the neolithic synecdoches.

The need and desire to communicate complex thoughts with the Other is something that has been a driving force in the human psyche since the first clearly identifiable humans evolved. Indeed recent research suggest something much older, with a proto-language being postulated in the hoots and bellows of Campbell's monkey's in the Ivory Coast, yet to date recorded communication seems to be the exclusive provenance of humanity.

And yet despite 35,000 years of literary evolution I have found myself frustrated with my inability to communicate with those around me. It seems that the more time I spend trying to understand a concept, the poorer I am at relating my understanding to others. I grasp for the words, looking for the ability to synthesize what I think and believe into something explainable to those around me, and I find that I can't. There is a bottleneck between the concepts in my head and my interactions with the Other and in the immediacy of conversation communication fails me.

Misunderstandings by the Other, the sense of failure in the Self birthed by the constant stream of questioning and clarifications my statements induce, the internal anger at my own inability to effectively share my thoughts with those around me.

Why am I not better at this?

Is that what writing is? Is that why synecdoches and symbols evolved, to condense a series of thoughts and concepts into a single sigil easily grasped and understood by all who view it, imparting knowledge through familiarity, an agreed first principle of gnosis?

Or is it the opposite, are symbols a trigger to self-understanding rather than the object of understanding itself? In conversation you have the ability to question statements and demand further clarification from the Other, but in writing the Other is removed and you have only your own knowledge and experience to question, thus the work necessary to understand is greater. Is knowledge gained through debate less ingrained because the work to gain it has been shared?

Or is this thought just a salve to sooth my own frustrations at not being able to communicate effectively with the Other through conversation? A bad workman blames his tools, thus by necessity it is language itself at fault, not my own ability to use it.

Why am I not better at this?

Links
The Origins of Writing at New Scientist
"Alpha Beta" - John Man traces the evolution of the Latin alphabet
NY Times on simian linguistics

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