Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Plain speaking

There is a theory I am quite drawn to that humans have factory settings. The idea is that Homo sapiens developed and evolved to fit particular circumstances and that we still fit that specific groove. Depending on where you measure from, that means our default mode is the one that corresponds to the Great Rift Valley or an area just north of Johannesburg. We are built to escape from lions.

It’s an idea explored a bit in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy. A bloke called Frank links the things that stimulate him – going for runs, trying out different foods, solving problems and getting himself laid – to the behaviours that would ensure early man prospered.

Running, goes the example, is ingrained in us because back on the savannah you’d chase after your meals and sometimes things would chase after you. A varied diet is a useful thing to like because you’d always be on the move. It helps if you can live off what’s on offer. Problem solving and curiosity leads to experimentation, tool use and becoming the planet’s dominant species. And getting to pass on your genetic sequence is the only way these qualities survive. That we get a thrill from these things explains how we’re not extinct.

It’s a nice idea and one that I’m more drawn to having been to Africa. I understand all the things other people have said about how you feel drawn to it, in your blood. Yes, it’s all very romantic and just the kind of absolutist genes-make-us-do-what-we-do guff that often has me throwing books across the room. But it’s a nice idea. I can see its use in stories. And I’ve already used it in my other work. Because it helps explain what the written word is for.

Words tell us what stuff is doing and where it is. The simplest proper sentence is a thing and what it’s doing – or, to use the technical terminology, a noun and a verb: “Simon writes”. The smallest version of this construction in the English language, and so the smallest proper sentence, is “I am”.

Pretty much everything else – adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions – is just qualifying this construction, placing the thing and what it’s doing in the context of other things and actions. It’s all about making sense of where things are.

(We also need something to help flag up when this is especially important information or in need of an urgent response. These are called interjections.)

I’ve heard some people object to this reductionist idea, saying that language is for all other kinds of expression. And yet poetry struggles to find the best and most concise expression, so that it can’t pack the same meaning into fewer words. The best prose can use the richest vocabulary to precisely, vividly position you in a scene – or even the opposite when the author wants you caught up somewhere strange.

Our language is, then, fit for purpose, doing no more than it needed to back in our early days in Africa. A system for explaining where things are is good for hunting, good for teamwork, good for survival. It allows something that most animals cannot do, the sharing of individual solutions. And in its abstraction from the real, it works as a model for testing new ideas.

This can all be achieved simply and easily, the complexity of a sentence never more than it needs to be. So when you’re writing think of early Homo Sapiens, just getting used to being out of the trees. If he doesn’t keep things simple, specific and straight-forward, he’s going to be something’s lunch.

It doesn’t need to be harder than that. Indeed the whole point of Sir Ernest Gower’s “Plain Words” is that is shouldn’t be harder than that. But I don’t think he used “plain” to mean “savannah”.


Rob Stradling said...

Modern Man: "If I stayed out 'til quarter to three, would you lock the door?"

Renaissance Man: "Had we but world enough and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime."

Savannah Man: "Ugh! Ugh! Ugh! Ugh! Ugh! " ("Shag! Eat! Shag! Kill! Shag!")

I'm claiming progress.

0tralala said...

Read Renaissance plays or history and see how little we are different. In fact, look at how groups of apes operate and see what a short distance we've come.

I don't think we're any more intelligent, but language has let us pass information on to subsequent generations. Got the book on ape metaphysics to read before a longer post on this!

Rob Stradling said...

Oh I'm not saying you're wrong - just that I quite like my world of clean water, Ella Fitzgerald, and hardly any lions, and wouldn't want to go back to Africa, thanks.

Have you read any Richard Leakey?

He's become a dodgy politico in his old age, but his paleoanthropology is cracking stuff.

He's got a theory that the entirety of Human culture (why we stopped racing lions in the first place) is all to do with us being bipedal (HOW we raced lions in the first place.)

Nutshelled: Because human females need small pelvic girdles in order to walk upright, they must give birth to young way too early. Consequently they drop these helpless foetuses, which require impossible levels of supervision for solitary animals. Hence the grouping together in bands and sharing of parental duties, development of language and social skills, campfire tales to pass the time... and eventually the Sistine Chapel.

Meesa lika dees.

0tralala said...

Hmmm... That is interesting, and I've heard of rather than read him.

But apes and lions also live in young-supporting communes. And they don't have Sistine Ceilings. Yet.

Rob Stradling said...

No, but they've got dumb cat brains that were never going anywhere. What if the chimps didn't have neanders and us cramping their style?