On The Creation Of Languages

One of the aspects of human creativity that deserves more attention is the way that languages can be created.  While the evolution of languages has been viewed by some [1] as an undirected evolution that demonstrates the feasibility of evolution in other aspects, the recent research spoken of by Margalit Fox in her book Talking Hands demonstrates that there is a hard-wired capacity within the brain for language that, in the absence of linguistic clues will take gestures or pidgin and turn it into a formal language.  There are a great many human languages, and so it is obvious that there are a great many ways that languages can be formed.  Languages also change over time, leaving some parts of a language as irregular remnants of past rules that were more regular, and where some changes in language induce others in turn, like the great vowel shift that is currently occurring in the United States in some dialects of American English.  What I would like to talk about is the way that the creation of languages can help provide insights into the context of human creation on a more general level.

I speak as someone with some personal experience in the creation of languages.  Like many people inspired by the example of J.R.R. Tolkien (who was a master of many European languages and a creator of a great many languages for his own legendarium of Middle Earth) I have participated in a great many role playing games and one of the things that people do in text-based role playing games is engage in a creative process by which government types, constitutions, cultures, and languages are formed.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s language creation was helped in many ways by his own familiarity with Old English and Finnish and other languages of Northern and Western Europe.  These languages provided him with options other than that which contemporary English has about how a language can be made, and how a culture that had particular values and perspectives would speak and write.  To be sure, knowing more than one language is one of the ways in which creativity can be helped, since it allows us to see that our own language tradition is not something fixed but is rather one option among many, and that recognition of the presence of options allows one to imaginatively select other options.

But where does this ability come from?  To know that one can creatively invent languages is one thing, but to know where the capacity comes from is of great importance as well.  As it turns out, studies of the deaf and of cultural interactions between people who have no common language have demonstrated the processes by which languages develop.  At first, gestures and/or a vocal pidgin develop among adults who meet other adults with whom they cannot communicate.  After that, children who grow up in an environment take that pidgin and very quickly develop formal Creole languages from it in as little as one generation.  These languages tend to adopt various strategies, including a fixed word order and/or case endings, the use of various categories of color and other objects, and means by which words can easily be adapted to other tenses.  It is via such means, for example, that nouns are regularly verbed in contemporary use, such as “adulting” for the completion of various unpleasant tasks that are involved with being a responsible adult.

The existence of a pattern within the mind by which gestures and words can be easily formed into the raw materials of new languages anytime that people who need to communicate are placed next to each other suggests that there is some sort of pattern-building aspect of our own minds that lead to creation when the need provides.  We will first take up the patterns that we find around us and master them, but in the absence of such patterns we have within us programs to build languages that will lead us to automatically create languages out of any raw materials that are available.  This suggests that the capacity to create is somehow part of our programmed ability, that we as human beings have an innate desire to create structure and order in our communication and other aspects of our lives, and suggests that creativity is something that is hard-wired within us.  Obviously, there are some serious implications about this that deserve to be explored.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Musings, On Creativity and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On The Creation Of Languages

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The On Creativity Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Catharine E. Martin says:

    It makes one pause and wonder about this form of creativity within man’s brain in the pre-Nimrod era. It’s a fascinating question to ponder whether there were any deaf/mute people on the earth before then as well. One can only surmise that there were not, but the mind’s ability to create such activity opens up all kinds of fantastic questions. It appears that, when God created multiple, yet completely organized, languages with their perfect tenses, form and grammar–even when they caused confusion among the masses–He did so by opening up the human mind to a hitherto untapped creative resource for communication.

    • That is very possible. There are is an enormous range of sounds that human beings can make, but languages only capture small bits of them, making other sounds impossible to fully recognize.

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Unexpected Evolution Of Language | Edge Induced Cohesion

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