Autistic Songs

Alan Griswold


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The Dual Root of Human Language

Human language has shot forth from two distinct roots, from two very different sources of fundamental influence.

The first source has been the temporal, spatial and logistical pattern that constitutes the order of the surrounding, non-biological world. This influence is seen most clearly in language’s underlying structure: object and concept, noun and verb, temporal tenses, spatial adjectives, all manner of nuanced prepositional form. This aspect of language did not arise from humanity’s biological and evolutionary past, but instead originated from the struggles of this species’ unusual interloper—it came from the autistic perceptions and cognitions that gained significant foothold within the human population. Autistic individuals, not cognitively grounded by the usual species-centered perceptions, create cognitive grounding instead out of the patterns and symmetries to be found within the surrounding environment. But since autistic individuals are biological creatures themselves, and since they have need to convey their unique form of perception both to themselves and to others, they have uncovered also the means by which biologically remote perception can be represented within one’s own biological immediacy—they have uncovered that essential accompaniment called language.

And yet, as has happened on so many other occasions of autistic discovery and invention, language was quickly adopted, transformed and widely spread by the more numerous non-autistic population, and thus language swiftly acquired a significant second root. This influence shows up most noticeably in the core vocabularies of the world’s languages, dominated by words, phrases and metaphors derived out of the conditions of humanity’s evolutionary, animal past. As the majority of humans were introduced to language, they adapted its content (autistic individuals might say they corrupted its content) to reflect those features of existence more natural and common to them—the businesses of eating, excreting, tribalizing, procreating. It is telling that it is this aspect of language that is most often accompanied by non-verbal cues and subtext.

In the early twenty-first century, human language stands as a well-mixed blend of its two sources of influence. The evolutionary, biological aspect of human language continues to hold prominence as its most frequently employed feature, from small talk to international diplomacy, and thus continues to serve its essential purpose of being the linguistic glue that helps hold the species together. But language’s accelerating changes and additions, especially those introduced over the last several hundred years, reveal how the autistic root of human language has continued to become increasingly more influential, threatening to regain once more what might be described as its birthright. The periodic table, blueprints, box scores—one does not need to look far to recognize that the non-biological, non-evolutionary aspect of human language has been rapidly transforming the behavior of the human species and rapidly transforming the manner in which it communicates. And consider the education of children—the majority of whom pick up the core, biological aspects of language by the time they are five—but who require with each new generation more and more time, and a greater variety of instructional technique, to absorb just a fraction of the many new aspects of human language, absorb all the communicative structure being added with each passing year.

There is much we can learn about humanity simply by teasing from out of its language the various structures and contents, an analysis made most fruitful by recognizing that human language did not arise from a single source alone.

Copyright © 2011 by Alan Griswold
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