‘This Marvellous Invention’

‘This Marvellous Invention’ | ‘This Marvellous Invention’

Of all mankind’s manifold creations, language must take pride of place. Other inventions – the
wheel, agriculture, sliced bread – may have transformed our material existence, but the advent
of language is what made us human. Compared to language, all other inventions pale in
significance, since everything we have ever achieved depends on language and originates from
it. Without language, we could never have embarked on our ascent to unparalleled power over
all other animals, and even over nature itself.

But language is foremost not just because it came first. In its own right it is a tool of
extraordinary sophistication, yet based on an idea of ingenious simplicity: ‘this marvellous
invention of composing out of twenty-five or thirty sounds that infinite variety of expressions
which, whilst having in themselves no likeness to what is in our mind, allow us to disclose to
others its whole secret, and to make known to those who cannot penetrate it all that we
imagine, and all the various stirrings of our soul’. This was how, in 1660, the renowned French
grammarians of the Port-Royal abbey near Versailles distilled the essence of language, and no
one since has celebrated more eloquently the magnitude of its achievement. Even so, there is
just one flaw in all these hymns of praise, for the homage to language’s unique accomplishment
conceals a simple yet critical incongruity. Language is mankind’s greatest invention – except, of
course, that it was never invented. This apparent paradox is at the core of our fascination with
language, and it holds many of its secrets.

This Marvellous Invention’ | ‘This Marvellous Invention’