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A decade of writing about humanness of language

For 10 years now, I’ve had the luminous privilege of sharing “Lederer on Language” with you, my verbivorous readers. I am unstintingly grateful to the Union-Tribune for expanding my life-long mission of teachership. The decade has whizzed by because, as one frog said to the other, “Time’s fun when you’re having flies!”

This tenth anniversary provides an occasion for me to state my core belief about that astounding phenomenon that we call language.

For more than six decades I’ve experienced the surpassing joy of writing about language — from puns to punctuation, pronouns to pronunciation, diction to dictionaries, palaver to palindromes, and philology to etymology. From the time I began pouring my words about words into articles, columns, and books, I have always felt that I was writing about the most deeply human of inventions — language. Words and people are inextricably bound together. Whether the ground of your being is religion or science, you find that language is the hallmark, the defining characteristic that distinguishes humankind from the other creatures that walk and run and crawl and swim and fly and burrow in our world.

In the Genesis creation story that so majestically begins the Bible (Genesis 1:1-31; 2:1-6), we note the frequency and importance of verbs of speaking: “And God said, Let there be light; and there was light . . . And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night . . . And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters . . . . And God called the firmament Heaven . . . And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called the Seas. And God saw that it was good.” [Emphasis mine.]

Note those verbs of speaking and naming. God doesn’t just snap His fingers to bring the things of the universe into existence. He first speaks them into being, and then He names each one.

And what happens when God creates Adam?: “And out of the ground the lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:19-22). In other words, Adam does what God has done: He names things; he names voraciously. He names everything. Perhaps this is what the Bible means in Genesis 1:26-27: “And God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” Like God, man is a speaker and a namer.

If your mythos is science, you believe that many early hominid species, some of them co-existing, preceded the tenure of Homo sapiens. Today we take for granted that we are the only hominids on Earth, yet for at least four million years many hominid creatures shared the planet, including Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and, of course, Homo neanderthalensis.

What made us different? What allowed us to survive while our precursors disappeared? The answer is on the tip of our tongues. While some of these other species possessed the physical apparatus to talk, only with Homo sapiens did speech tremble into birth, did speech embrace thought, did speech become creative and generative, did speech inflame us to name everything.

The birth of language is the dawn of humanity, and each is as old as the other. The appearance of language made us human, and our humanity ensured the survival of language. We human beings have always had language because before we had it, we were not fully human and the sounds that escaped from the holes in hominid faces were not fully language. Not only do we possess language; we are language.

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DEAR RICHARD: The word swims upside down is still swims. Are there other such words? –Diana Glimm, Solana Beach

Upside-down words like swims, which read the same rightside up and upside down, are called ambigrams. ZOONOOZ, until recently the name of our San Diego Zoological Society magazine, is one example, along with dip / dollop / mow / NOON / pod / SIS / swims / suns.