When I began studying communication in college I discovered various theories about the origins of human beings’ communicative capacity. I was intrigued — and still am.
You and I did not create our communicative abilities. We did not fabricate the capacity for gesturing or speaking, lying or truthtelling, remaining silent or speaking up on behalf of others. The ability to communicate was forged before we came along, even before historical records. Communication is a gift that we have received and that we surely ought to pass along for the benefit of future generations.
A somewhat mysterious gift? Yes. At least I think so. I’m astonished that the ancient Hebrews described God as a speech agent, not just a thinker, listener, or creator. Perhaps there is something extra-biological in humans’ capacity to converse deeply, morally, and faithfully about nearly anything. Maybe even something extra-natural, supernatural. Consider prayer, one of the most widely practiced forms of human communion with God on behalf of others.
The twentieth-century rhetorical critic and theorist Kenneth Burke wrote about human beings’ symbol-using (and misusing) abilities. According to Burke, humans invented “the negative” (the capacity for moralizing, for saying “no” as well as “yes”) and created their own, unnatural communications “instruments” (or media). In today’s world, this is a compelling way to look at the origin of language as a purely human concoction. But as Burke adds, humans’ symbol-using and symbol-misusing ability, when viewed from such a purely humanly creative standpoint, results in a strange conclusion; humans are “rotten with perfection.” If we are a bit god-like (perfect) in our speech, we are also a bit devilish (rotten). We are simultaneously devils and angels.
While the research about the origins of language continues, we can still accept the gift, no matter how perfect or rotten the gift seems to make us at times. Generally speaking, gifts engender gratefulness even when they are not exactly what we wanted. We tend to be thankful enough to accept a gift because of the generosity of the giver. We don’t just study the gift. We don’t question the motive of the giver — at least not usually. Instead we celebrate the gift and, if appropriate, use it well in order to reciprocate by honoring the giver.
So I offer thanks to my parents for teaching me the value of language. To the teachers who helped me learn how to speak and write well. To friends who guided me as an adult to use the gift as wisely as possible. Indeed, I offer thanks to all of those who contributed along the line, through the centuries and even millennia, to the forms of speaking and gesturing that equip us to know and love each other, near and far. May we all have enough grace to avoid rotten communication while never pretending perfection. Finally, and most mysteriously, thanks to the extra-biological instigator beyond and before the apes.