Language is the main method of human communication which can be spoken or written, and it consists of use words in structured way. According Linguist Susanne K. Langer’s essay “Language and Thought”, “Language is the highest and most amazing achievement of the symbolistic human mind… The birth of language is the dawn of humanity. The line between man and beast- between the highest ape and the lowest savage – is the language line. ” The line separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.
When we can imagine, dream, and have morality, ethics, and arts, animals can only eat, survive, and reproduce. Language contains the symbol of thought. Before we speak we think about it, imagine, visualize, and remember. In other words we use symbols to think, communicate, and conceive. However, we also can react without symbolizing, just by a sign. Langer distinguishes between signs and symbols in order to show that humans are different from animals because of language. I support her argument because language is directly connected with a symbol.
Langer starts her essay with defining a sign term; “A sign is anything that announces the existence or the imminence of some event, the presence of a thing or a person, or change in the state of affairs. ” A sign is often a warning of something, or something we directly encounter, or something meant to give direction. Thunder is a sign of rain; a punch in the nose is a sign of anger. In the most obvious example there are street signs, like warning curve ahead or stop signs. A migration of birds can be taken as a sign that there is winter or spring ahead, or a rainbow during ordinary day could be a sign that good luck is coming.
The author says that “If man had kept to the straight and narrow path of sign using, he would be like the other [nowadays] animals”. How good man tried to use signs to build better social system like ants do, he would always have lived life of highly sign-using animal. But to us who are human to use symbols was very special ability, Langer explains: “A symbol differs from a sign in that it does not announce the presence of the objects, the being, condition, or whatnot, which is its meaning, but merely brings thing to mind”.
She tells us that “The difference between a sign and a symbol is, in brief, that a sign causes us to think or act in the face of the thing signified, whereas a symbol causes us to think about the thing symbolized”. Birth of symbol made a line between humans and animals. A symbol is something that represents an idea. A simple example is a wedding ring that is worn to symbolize that you are married. Another is a red octagon; it can be a symbol for stop. Personal names are symbols representing individuals. For instance, name “Barack Obama” is very popular name which now symbolizes the president of USA and represents whole nation.
A red rose symbolizes love and compassion. Words and numbers, which we daily see and use, are symbols which gave crucial steps in the entire history of human beings such as birth of mathematics, science, linguistics. Though a symbol is very unique and one of main reasons in evolution of humans, the author connects the conception of symbol with a sign to show its ambiguity, “… in religious experience, for instance, the Host is not only a symbol but a Presence”. Here we can see that by the Presence she meant a sign which she defined as the presence of a thing. This is one of cases where a symbol means also a sign.
The human mind has processed all direct experience into symbolic expression which was turned into language. Langer agrees that the symbols caused conceiving of language which we can see from here: “The essence of language is symbolic, not signific; we use it first and most vitally to formulate and holds ideas in our own mind. Conception, not social control, is its first and foremost benefit. ” I support her argument that a word, which is a symbol, is the beginning of language and thought. Invention of symbol in human history was the most important step. There was a word after there were thought and language.
Unfortunately, we just are guessing there was certain continuity between animal and human mentality. Langer writes that sign using evolved to a symbol, but she believes this doctrine is wrong. Therefore, she separates these two conceptions and believes language is very unique for humans: “The sounds, intended or unintended, whereby animals communicate do not constitute a language because they are sign, not names. They never fall into an organic pattern, a meaningful syntax of even the most rudimentary sort, as all language seem to do with a sort of driving necessity.
That because signs refer to actual situations, in which things have obvious relations to each other that require only to be noted…”, Langer connects symbols with language where I agree this is humans’ unique ability: “…but symbols refer to ideas, which are not physically there for inspection, so their connections and features have to be represented. This gives all true language a natural tendency toward growth and development which seems almost like a life of its own. Languages are not invented; they grow with our need for expression”.