Language- the Greatest Technology
Imrath Keith, Division 3, College freshman

Historians, scientist and philosophers have long argued on what development has had the most impact on human civilization. Arguments range from the integrated circuit, to steam power, to the first bronze tools, to stone spears. But, in my opinion, all of these are but derivatives of a greater technology- language. Language is the cornerstone of humanity, the first and greatest technology that we can be credited with the creation of, and the single greatest factor in the further advancement of our civilization.

The first question one might ask in deciding which technology deserves the appellation of “most important” is “what is technology”? Merriam-webster dictionary gives a definition as “the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area” or “a capability given by the practical application of knowledge”. Language fits these definitions almost exactly; what is speaking but the application of an understanding that one has as to the designations of objects, the workings of concepts, and the connections between them? Furthermore, what is the understanding of speech other than the application of a shared understanding of words and, therefore, the ability to draw meaning from them? Thus Language, as a creation dating back to humanity's first interactions with each other (no matter what primitive form it might have originally taken), can be said to be one of the, if not the, earliest technology(ies).

The second question one might ask in deciding the “most important technology” is “why do we make technology at all?” This, too, has been heavily debated and many answers have been given on the subject. Some believe that necessity is the mother of invention, that we create simply in reaction to the environmental pressures that shape our daily lives. Others believe that creation is a fundamental part of human nature, that we create because it is in us to do so. Others beyond them believe that we create because to do so brings us closer to god; that we seek to be closer to “the ultimate power of creation”. And, to be frank, there is some truth in each argument- there are some pressures in life that humans are not prepared to meet, and with technology we bridge that gap. Humans are capable of creating art from a very early age, with no need to be taught how to do so- the ability to create seems almost an inherent trait. And many scientist have claimed that in the pursuit of more advanced technologies, and science in general, they grow closer to the mind of god. None of these can be considered incorrect, but I, personally, feel that technology is something more. While these viewpoints do point towards truths about our nature and our interactions with that which we create, I feel none of them encompass the fact that many of our technologies are in fact the product of society itself. Would the steam engine have been created if there wasn’t a need to transport people and materials between cities? Would the telephone have been created if there wasn’t someone to talk to with it? Would advanced weaponry be needed if there were not other humans to war with? One of the greatest truths about technology is that it is scarcely created in isolation. Technology is often the impetus behind human interaction and the forward march of civilization- and communication, the advance of civilization- is the meaning behind technology. No technology has meaning beyond individuals and the relationships between them.

Even after acknowledging that language is a technology, the question remains- what has its use been, and what impact has it had that could elevate it to the position of the “most important technology”? It can be said that “bridging the gap between individuals” summarizes, to a point, the importance of technology and its role in human advancement, but only to a point. If one considers the true impact that language has had on human society, it might not be an exaggeration to say that language is human society. Any historian can tell you that the oldest form of history is spoken history. Much importance is now attached to crumbling pictographs, steles that have been inscribed with the edicts of past civilizations and ancient tomes that have outlived dynasties, yet all of these are just a drop in the ocean of human history. Long before we had the technology to create paper, before we had the tools necessary to carve stone, language was still used to pass down information. The histories of entire peoples were made into oral sagas, the telling of which could span days or weeks. Everything from the birthplace of their earliest remembered ancestors, to the wars they had waged against their fellows, to the right time to plant crops, was passed down generation to generation through the spoken word. With the creation of the first pictographs, people became able to record information in exquisite detail, without the warping of information that came from relying solely on memory. In the age of the printing press it became possible to disseminate knowledge cheaply, easily and widely. This made it possible for the common man and woman to educate themselves, making easier the creation of skilled labor, and hastening the rise of modern society. Even now, in the digital age, the importance of language has not waned. We now can communicate with each other literally at the speed of light through laser based signalling and, through the internet, spread knowledge technical and cultural to everyone with access to a computer. But, no matter which method we use to send the signal, human language is still the medium that allows us to understand each other.

Even as we march into the future we will still have need of language. We will still talk to our neighbors, our friends, our families. We will still inscribe our thoughts for posterity. We will still create new technologies, share new ideas, and describe new philosophies. Even the computer systems that we have grown to rely on will communicate with us through speech; artificial intelligences will grasp our words and turn those ideas into reality. Language is the backbone of human civilization. It has followed us from our times roaming plains as nomadic peoples, to the small agrarian cultures that sprung up on the banks of rivers, to the sprawling metropolises that characterize the twenty-first century, and will follow us still- perhaps in explorations of new worlds. Past, present and future- language has been, and is, our most important technology, perhaps in its truest and most elemental form.

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