Bicameralism and Bilingualism

A paper on multilingualism was posted by Eva Dunkel in the Facebook group for The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: Consequences of multilingualism for neural architecture by Sayuri Hayakawa and Viorica Marian. It is a great find. The authors look at how multiple languages are processed within the brain and how they can alter brain structure.

This probably also relates to learning of music, art, and math — one might add that learning music later improves the ability to learn math. These are basically other kinds of languages, especially the former in terms of  musical languages (along with whistle and hum languages) that might indicate language having originated in music, not to mention the close relationship music has to dance, movement, and behavior and close relationship of music to group identity. The archaic authorization of command voices in the bicameral mind quite likely came in the form of music and one could imagine the kinds of synchronized collective activities that could have dominated life and work in bicameral societies. There is something powerful about language that we tend to overlook and take for granted. Also, since language is so embedded in culture, monolinguals never see outside of the cultural reality tunnel they exist within. This could bring us to wonder about the role played post-bicameral society by syncretic languages like English. We can’t forget the influence psychedelics might have had on language development and learning at different periods of human existence. And with psychedelics, there is the connection to shamanism with caves as aural spaces and locations of art, possibly the earliest origin of proto-writing.

There is no reason to give mathematics a mere secondary place in our considerations. Numeracy might be important as well in thinking about the bicameral mind specifically and certainly about the human mind in general (Caleb Everett, Numbers and the Making of Us), as numeracy was an advancement or complexification beyond the innumerate tribal societies (e.g., Piraha). Some of the earliest uses of writing was for calculations: accounting, taxation, astrology, etc. Bicameral societies, specifically the early city-states, can seem simplistic in many ways with their lack of complex hierarchies, large centralized governments, standing armies, police forces, or even basic infrastructure such as maintained roads and bridges. Yet they were capable of immense projects that required impressively high levels of planning, organizing, and coordination — as seen with the massive archaic pyramids and other structures built around the world. It’s strange how later empires in the Axial Age and beyond that, though so much larger and extensive with greater wealth and resources, rarely even attempted the seemingly impossible architectural feats of bicameral humans. Complex mathematical systems probably played a major role in the bicameral mind, as seen in how astrological calculations sometimes extended over millennia.

Hayakawa and Marian’s paper could add to the explanation of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. A central focus of their analysis is the increased executive function and neural integration in managing two linguistic inputs — I could see how that would relate to the development of egoic consciousness. It has been proposed that the first to develop Jaynesian consciousness may have been traders who were required to cross cultural boundaries and, of course, who would have been forced to learn multiple languages. As bicameral societies came into regular contact with more diverse linguistic cultures, their bicameral cognitive and social structures would have been increasingly stressed.

Multilingualism goes hand in hand with literacy. Rates of both have increased over the millennia. That would have been a major force in the post-bicameral Axial Age. The immense multiculturalism of societies like the Roman Empire is almost impossible for us to imagine. Hundreds of ethnicities, each with their own language, would co-exist in the same city and sometimes the same neighborhood. On a single street, there could be hundreds of shrines to diverse gods with people praying, people invoking and incantating in their separate languages. These individuals were suddenly forced to deal with complete strangers and learn some basic level of understanding foreign languages and hence foreign understandings.

This was simultaneous with the rise of literacy and its importance to society, only becoming more important over time as the rate of book reading continues to climb (more books are printed in a year these days than were produced in the first several millennia of writing). Still, it was only quite recently that the majority of the population became literate, following from that is the ability of silent reading and its correlate of inner speech. Multilingualism is close behind and catching up. The consciousness revolution is still under way. I’m willing to bet American society will be transformed as we return to multilingualism as the norm, considering that in the first centuries of American history there was immense multilingualism (e.g., German was once one of the most widely spoken languages in North America).

All of this reminds me of linguistic relativity. I’ve pointed out that, though not explicitly stated, Jaynes obviously was referring to linguistic relativity in his own theorizing about language. He talked quite directly about the power language —- and metaphors within language —- had over thought, perception, behavior, and identity (Anke Snoek has some good insights about this in exploring the thought of Giorgio Agamben). This was an idea maybe first expressed by Wilhelm von Humboldt (On Language) in 1836: “Via the latter, qua character of a speech-sound, a pervasive analogy necessarily prevails in the same language; and since a like subjectivity also affects language in the same notion, there resides in every language a characteristic world-view.” And Humboldt even considered the power of learning another language in stating that, “To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint in the world-view hitherto possessed, and in fact to a certain extent is so, since every language contains the whole conceptual fabric and mode of presentation of a portion of mankind.”

Multilingualism is multiperspectivism, a core element of the modern mind and modern way of being in the world. Language has the power to transform us. To study language, to learn a new language is to become something different. Each language is not only a separate worldview but locks into place a different sense of self, a persona. This would be true not only for learning different cultural languages but also different professional languages with their respective sets of terminology, as the modern world has diverse areas with their own ways of talking and we modern humans have to deal with this complexity on a regular basis, whether we are talking about tax codes or dietary lingo.

It’s hard to know what that means for humanity’s trajectory across the millennia. But the more we are caught within linguistic worlds and are forced to navigate our way within them the greater the need for a strong egoic individuality to self-initiate action, that is to say the self-authorization of Jaynesian consciousness. We step further back into our own internal space of meta-cognitive metaphor. To know more than one language strengthens an identity separate from any given language. The egoic self retreats behind its walls and looks out from its parapets. Language, rather than being the world we are immersed in, becomes the world we are trapped in (a world that is no longer home and from which we seek to escape, Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison and William S. Burroughs Control). It closes in on us and forces us to become more adaptive to evade the constraints.