Why Language is a Piece of Technology

Because we created it to fulfill a set of needs.

We combined the existing tools of voice, gesture, and thought to create something that would allow us to collaborate faster. We needed to collaborate faster because nature was trying to kill us. We didn’t have enough food. It didn’t come out of the ground fast enough and it ran away before we could catch it. The winters were too cold and the summers were too hot. There were other tribes of us who were happy to kill us for our food.

I say this because we writers have a terrible habit of forgetting this fact. We like to get romantic about the origins of language because it supports our own grandiose fantasies of possessing a form of magic others cannot access.

Here’s a helpful example from history you should keep in mind: in the 13th century, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II believed he could prove that Hebrew was God’s language by depriving a set of human babies of all forms of speech. After all, if the babies were not taught any particular language, they would have to speak the “natural” language, the one language that exists without any outside influence.

The babies died.

It turns out, the human infant cannot survive without language. It is critical to our survival in the same way that most of our oldest technologies have become. Most people living today would not be alive without agriculture. Pay attention, though: language and agriculture are not organs. We are not born with them. The mature members of our species maintain them so we can plug our young into them as soon as possible.

This is also to say that language does not love you back. It cannot, just like your computer will never love you back. You can spend your life worshipping it and it will give you nothing, or you can learn how to skillfully manipulate it and it will give you rewards beyond your wildest desires.

If you feel at all discouraged or disappointed by this, don’t worry. I felt that way too when I first figured this out. The alternatives to this truth (and there are many) are intoxicating illusions. Yet, imagine this for a moment: you meet a painter one day who produces the most amazing portraits you’ve ever seen. His technical prowess is beyond question, and his work crackles with an intensity that seems to pull you into the very soul of his subject.

Now imagine you ask this painter how he does it, and he sings the most enthusiastic praise for his paintbrush. He explains to you that his paintbrush is the very embodiment of a sacred energy, that it is connected directly to God and may in fact be God itself. When you try to tell him that he played an important role in the work too, he only deflects back to the paintbrush, claiming that anything sublime in his work must have come from the brush itself.

At best, you would laugh at him. At worst, you would question his sanity. Either way, you would recognize the folly of his belief system.

So why should writers get a pass for worshipping language? Why do we let ourselves fall into a belief system that’s equally ridiculous? Because it’s like any other cult: you can gain a lot of money and sex by signing other people up for it.

If you’ve ever been through any sort of collegiate creative writing program, that’s exactly what you get. It’s Jonestown for poets. Incidentally, you’re welcome to skip going to college for writing or go through with it anyway. That decision will have absolutely no bearing on your ultimate success or fulfillment as a writer. You’ll end up using the same technology either way, and you’ll have to learn the same set of skills to get the most out of it.

As far as technologies go, language is pretty good. It’s open source, which means you can do quite a lot with it. However, that also means a lot of amateurs have worked on it, which is part of why it breaks so often. Probably the best part of it is that it’s so moddable. It’s so moddable, in fact, that it’s never going to be fully replaced. We’ve made drastic changes over the millennia, but the core structure is still there. If it was replaceable, we would’ve replaced it by now.

Since language is a piece of technology, here are some things that are not:

  • Stories
  • Curiosity
  • Imagination
  • Courage
  • Wisdom
  • Your value as a writer
  • Your value as a human being

You might want to make a habit of focusing on those things instead of the technology you use to explore them. Those are things you can tie your identity to. Those are things that will give you something back. Those are things worth your deep contemplation.

Write, while you’re at it, because the technology is there and you might as well.