People acting in the world reflect it in a dual manner as both something to act upon, nature, and something consciously produced, culture. Accordingly, one can treat language in two complementary ways, as a natural formation or as a cultural phenomenon. Both treatments are equally valid, and they are normally intertwined in language studies, so that the prevalence of one particular aspect is but temporary. Still, scientific and cultural research should not be confused, as they are essentially different in quality and scope. Thus, discussing the problem of the origin of language, science will look for related phenomena in other nature thus explicating the directions of objective development; on the contrary, in cultural studies, the issues of interpretation and possible extensions will be of primary importance. Similarly, the functioning of language can be considered either as a consequence of its inner organization, or as a matter of practical usage, application. Here, I will only touch the objective side of language, mentioning sometimes its cultural manifestations for illustration.
Since language is essentially related to culture and it cannot exist outside it, some people are apt to think that it has nothing natural at all about it, being entirely artificial. In view of the thousands of artificial languages of today, they believe that any language at all is due to some act of invention, or convention, even if we cannot track it in the deeps of history. They point at the documented cases of intentional changes in the language, to infer that the rest of the language has been similarly introduced many centuries before. After all, there must be somebody who has said it first!
This argument does not seem too convincing, since one can always ask: "Why?" How does it come, that somebody decides to put it that way, and not the other? Well, let's assume that he or she did it just following a momentary inspiration—but why this particular inspiration could be possible? And why the others have so readily accepted it, to bring to our days? Whence the idea? Now, the adepts of creationism would only admit that ideas either exist on themselves as independent entities, or are given us but some superior entity, a god. Of course, when it comes to blind belief, no science is further possible, and there is nothing to talk about. Accept and admire. No need to explain anything.
A variety of this approach is known as teleology. Why do we have fingers like ours? Obviously, because they are so convenient to type on the keyboard! Why did people invent the wheel? Because it's really practical, when transporting heavy things. Why do they speak English? Because it's the best language ever...
Well, jokes aside, can we suggest anything better? Yes, we can—but it won't be that trivial, or maybe not that complicated.
The primary mode of the existence of a conscious being is productive activity. The subject takes something from nature (an object) and transforms it into a cultural phenomenon (a product). Schematically, we could write:
O → S → P
In reality, such acts of production will be reproduced again and again, by different people, as a part of universal reproduction. Also, the product of one's activity usually becomes an object for another person, proceeding with transformations:
... → O → S → P = Oʹ → Sʹ → Pʹ → ...
This identification of a product with the object of another activity, the (P = Oʹ) link, lies in the core of ideation, the formation of ideas. When such an identification becomes common in the culture, the subject S, producing the product P, means its further transformation into Oʹ, it has the idea of the product Pʹ in the form of the object Oʹ. The activity thus becomes idea driven, rather than product driven. Similarly, Sʹ, in his activity starting with the object Oʹ, has the idea of P'. Thus people's products start to represent their activities. Exchanging their products, people can exchange their activities.
Of course, I have omitted many details and reservations, just to jump on to language proper. Anyway, as soon as we have ideas (as objectively developing cultural phenomena) we can discuss the means of their expression.
Any cyclic reproduction like
... → O → S → O → S → O → ...
can be considered as the unity of two complementary acts, material production
... → O → S → O → ...
... → S → O → S → ...
In the first case, the accent is on the changes in the material culture due to conscious activity, while in the second case, we rather stress the motion of ideas from one subject to another, and consequently, the development of the subject. On the other hand, material things passed from one person to another in the process of communication not only represent (and direct) certain activities; they also represent the relations between the subjects. When I give you a rose, I don't simply mean that you can admire it and smell it; I also express my positive attitude towards you. Material things can thus represent ideal (cultural) phenomena.
Originally, things become associated with ideas in the syncretic way, as an aspect of some activity. Each thing can represent any idea. With time, such associations become more stable, thus constituting a part of culture. Certain things mean certain ideas, in accordance with the organization of the culture in general (and primarily, the way of production). Random exchange of ideas becomes regular and socially regulated. On this level, people start producing things (signals) intended for communication rather than for immediate consumption, but the same idea is still expressed in many complementary ways and there is no preferable carrier. And finally, some material things entirely lose their consumption value, becoming mere mediators of communication. This is the dawn of language.
In this picture, language does not necessarily imply speech. Oral communication is only one of the available possibilities. Sign language, color code, or odor symbolism are equally acceptable as dedicated communication carriers (like, in economy, the capital can be evaluated in dollars, gold bullions or oil barrels). However, the material of certain carriers makes them preferable in mass exchange, universally applicable. That is, in its complete development, language must mediate communication in a universal way. Recalling that the subject is primarily a universal mediation of material reproduction, we comprehend the importance of language in the culture: it culturally represents the subject as such, and hence there is no cultural phenomenon that could not be expressed in language.
Of course, no material thing could become the unique basis of language. The universality of speech and writing is but relative. New areas of reason expansion will probably demand new forms of language. Thus, sound cannot exist outside atmosphere, and writing is of no use for those without eyes. In any case, we need to distinguish the specific material representation from language proper, a hierarchy of ideas. Language as universal mediator of communication can only exist as a number of individual languages; each of them will express a particular cultural organization, a specific way of life.
The obvious corollary is that translation from one language into another is only possible to the extent of the mutual penetration of the corresponding cultures, the existence of similar ideas. One can name anything; but that anything must first exist, it must first shape itself in the culture as clearly recognizable entity, to become labeled with a commonly recognizable word. Any linguistic creativity follows the objective development of the organization of the public activity. Everybody may invent a formal language of any kind, but this exercise, first, is impossible without certain cultural premises that drive the inventor to selecting quite definite forms, and second, it will remain a sort of personal entertainment until the society is ready to adopt it for its real needs.
The existence of numerous national languages is like national currencies, which can be exchanged one for another in a limited way, often with a certain loss. The global economic development leads to a gradual unification of the way of production, which results in the corresponding cultural shifts. This objective process brings national languages closer to each other, by the expense of some ethnic specificity. Any national language has its own history, and the historically different forms of the same language are only partially interpretable in the terms of each other.
We know that even those who speak the same language cannot always come to mutual understanding. Conversely, language barriers do not deny profound intimacy. The efficiency of communication has nothing to with the language; it is determined by some other factors. Basically, to understand each other we must do something together. A common activity provides the context for assimilating the subjective patterns of the others. The name comes to explicate the already existing commonality.
This observation could give hints to understanding the early history of the word. Certain gestures and vocalizations are involved in most activities. When many people get engaged in the same activity, these lateral expressions become synchronized by the very rhythm of activity, thus simplifying effort coordination. The traces of this early stage could be found in tribal dances, labor songs, or in the art of orchestra conductor. The social association of certain sounds with certain activities can trigger the corresponding activity in the presence of a definite sound.
It is important that mere signals are not enough for developing speech. Animals use numerous sounds for communicating important information to the other members of the biotic community, and some researchers tried to derive language from this biological premise. However, the possible use of such reflectory calls in primitive languages is but a secondary phenomenon developing on the basis of the already formed speech behavior. That is why humans could use for communication, beside their own voices and gestures, the imitations of the voices and gestures of various animals.
The primary function of the word is activity exchange. In collective labor, the possibility of passing individual tasks to individual performers is of crucial importance. People rarely do anything from scratch up to the final product. Usually, they only pick the baton from somebody else to hand it on to somebody else after a while. The characteristic sound can indicate the proper moment for taking control of an incomplete activity, thus meaning the intended action. The hierarchy of culturally acceptable actions becomes reflected in the hierarchy of sounds, speech.
However flexible, the verbal language cannot convey any kind of idea at all, and any communication will combine verbal and non-verbal components. In fact, the major part of human communication is implicit, with the word being a mere reference to the whole hierarchy, its cultural representative. Nothing prevents us from using any other representation. Still, all such specific forms of language involve the same mechanism of substituting one activity with another. Instead of demonstrating something, we only denote it. Once again, there is a straightforward economic analogy. Stock exchange does not deal with any real assets, it speculates on their substitutes, producing an illusion of economic growth without any real production; this inflationary trend eventually leads to economic crises. Similarly, word speculation can produce an impression of deeper comprehension in the absence of new ideas, resulting in ideological crises of all kinds. However, like a banknote is rather a representative of a social relation than mere scrap of paper, words do not mean anything on themselves, outside a definite cultural context. The development of language is impossible without the development of economy.
Consciousness, as soon as it passes beyond the most primitive forms, cannot develop without language. Universal schemes imprinted in language become an instrument of self-construction and self-reconstruction for the subject; this circumstance can lead primitive minds to the illusion that entire consciousness arises from language, and verbal activity precedes any other activity in the culture. But the objective universality of language does not mean that consciousness cannot develop in other ways. In particular, in any culture, there are numerous language-like activities which can occupy a significant portion of the cultural space. With time, any modes of communication become language saturated; in their turn, they influence the development of the language. Linguistic studies are very important to comprehend consciousness in general, though they can never bring any definite knowledge without recourse to the organization of a particular culture. The very existence of some language pattern is an indication of the existence of some culturally fixed modes of activity; but we cannot always tell for sure, what in the culture has resulted in the development of this particular way of expression.
Since the perception of language depends on the cultural background, one has to exercise care judging about the other's words and never thoughtlessly dismiss any apparent absurdity. This concerns both the form and the content of the message. Misprints, weird pronunciation, screwed grammar or improper lexical choices—all that should not distract us from the ideas expressed. Accordingly, when somebody says something obviously foolish, it is not necessarily that your partner is a fool; it might rather mean your own insufficiency. Thus, for a musical piece to be comprehensible, the listener must share the same scale hierarchies with the composer. Pieces written in an uncommon scale will most probably be perceived as lacking order and harmony. One has to learn the appropriate musical culture, to properly evaluate them, regardless of the personal preferences. To understand each other, we need first to accept each other as we are, without trying to fit the other in the habitual standards. Such an acceptance is only possible on the basis of a common activity, and hence shared interests and mutual dependence. If I need you, and you need me, we are more likely to find a common language.
Participating in a collective activity means that individual efforts become essentially correlated, thus acquiring a sense. This resembles the behavior of quantum systems, where the possible sequences of microscopic events are only meaningful in the context of a macroscopic outcome. When people communicate within a common activity, they form a higher-level subject, thus becoming its components, its representatives, its participants. This collective subject is the effective agent of activity, and, for him, the outer communication of its participants is one of his inner processes, his thoughts. The collective subject behaves in a way that is relatively independent of the individual activities of the people involved; it has its own cultural function. The formation of such group subjects is one of the manifestations of the universality of language.
Though communicating people have to lose a part of their individuality, transferring it to the group, the positive effect of language mediated communication is in the enhanced efficiency of the individual participants, increasing their universality.
The entire society as a collective subject, uniting individual subjects and groups is impossible without a common system of communication, and a common language. Language barriers restrict people's universality, and hence they are incompatible with the development of consciousness. Consequently, the humanity will have to establish a common language to become true unity, and if any non-human forms of reason come to existence, they will have to find common language with humans.
In the development of consciousness, verbal and non-verbal forms of communication have always been complementing each other. A significant part of the human culture can be assimilated without words. For instance, one does not need a word for an axe to learn its usage. Mere observation and imitation is enough. Dance, music, and painting are essentially passed from one generation to another through example and practice. In personal relations words are mostly used to hide the true attitudes than to reveal them.
On the early stage of language development, verbalization was more important to coin the core of human intellect, to develop the ability of abstract thought. Today, we observe an opposite tendency, attempts to rehabilitate non-verbal communication. However, there is no way back, and the revival of the unspoken is far from re-discovering an ancient wisdom. The people of the past were no wiser than us, and generally more primitive. Instead of borrowing somebody else's wisdom, we should rather develop our own. The early form of non-verbal communication were syncretic, they could only exist in a very limited cultural context. The non-verbal communication of the future will be synthetic; it will comprise the verbal experience, generalizing and extending it. The universality of language cannot be lost in its higher-level forms, which appear as reduced verbalization and always imply it. In a way, instead of merely notating speech, we develop a system of ideograms, higher level abstractions including both verbal and non-verbal components. It is important that the higher level sign systems incorporate components that have never been and should not be verbalized. Referring to essentially non-verbal aspects of human activity, such a system will differ from the traditional hieroglyphic writing, though its experience will certainly be appreciated.
The reduction of verbalization involves direct communication as well as written language. A verbal message can be efficiently "compressed" using commonly accepted symbolic systems; with the present physiology of humans, verbal communication can be folded in ideomotor sequences, which still are able to deliver the message to the partners as reliably as (or even more reliably than) explicit verbalization. Of course, humans will hardly always stick to mere biology; they will develop new communication skills integrating organic and inorganic components.
As for written language, it essentially depends on the available technologies. The digital libraries of today are as different from the collections of papers as a typographic book from the ancient parchment or a clay tablet. The very word "writing" is hardly applicable to the complexes of digitalized media used to store information in our days. Still, the basic idea remains the same: language can be used for communication through space and time. And my odd thoughts of here and now may reach somebody far away years after my death.