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The Origin of Speech and Language: Excerpts from Steiner Lectures

The Origin of Speech and Language

I told you the other day how we can observe human beings. We do not need to experiment; all we need to do is pay attention to how nature experiments with people whenever they have any kind of illness. If we know how to look at what happens to the physical body when a person becomes ill in any way, we discover that nature herself arranged such an experiment for us and that we can gain insights from it.

You know, don’t you, that when we remove the top of the skull, we can see the brain? This brain has convolutions. We call one of them the temple convolution because it is located near the temple. Well now, in every person suffering from speech impediments or. muteness, there is some damage in this left convolution of the brain. This injury happens when someone has a so- called brain stroke. What happens in that case? The blood, which normally flows only through the vessels, is forced out through their walls and enters the tissue surrounding the vessels, where it should not be. Such a hemorrhage produces the stroke, the paralysis. In other words, whenever blood flows into the wrong place, into this convolution of the brain, it ultimately disables this temple convolution completely and prevents the person from speaking. This is an interesting connection: Human beings can speak because they have a healthy left convolution of the brain. We must now understand what it means when a person has a healthy left convolution of the brain. But in order to grasp this, we need to look at something else first. When we examine this same area of the brain in small children who have passed away, we find that this portion constitutes a fairly uniform, mushlike substance, especially at the time before the child has learned to speak. As the infant gradually learns to speak, more and more small whorls develop here. They continue to form in an artful way. In other words, the left cerebral convolutions in the child who has learned to speak or in a fully grown adult are artfully structured. Clearly, this means that something happened to the brain while the child learned to speak. And we should not think about this any differently than we think in ordinary life. You see, if I move a table from there to here, nobody would say the table moved itself this way. It would be just as wrong for me to say that the brain has formed these convolutions by itself. Instead, I must think about what has actually taken place and what caused it. In other words, I must ask why the left temple convolution developed this way. You see, when children learn to speak, they move their body. In particular, they move their speech organs. Before that, when they could not yet talk, they were merely fidgety, cried, and so forth. As long as the child is only able to cry, its left convolution of the brain is still a “mush,” as I described it. The more the child learns not merely to cry but also to turn this crying into individual sounds, the more this convolution receives definite shape. As long as the infant simply cries, there is only brain mush in this area. When the child begins to utter sounds, this uniform mush is transformed into the artfully structured left portion of the brain we can see in healthy adults. Now, gentlemen, the matter stands like this: When children cry, the sounds they utter are mainly vowels such as A (as in “father”) or E (as in “gate”). When they merely cry like this, they do not need a developed left cerebral convolution; the children utter these sounds out of themselves, without having anything artful developed in the brain. If we pay some attention, we will discover that children initially make A sounds; later on they add those of U (as in “shoe”) and I (“bee”). Gradually, as you know, they also learn to utter consonants. First they form the sound A; then they add M or W and say MA or WA. In other words, out of their crying children gradually manage to form words by adding consonants to the vowels. And how do they form these consonants? All you need to do is to pay attention to how you pronounce, for example, an M. You’ll see that you must move your lips. When you were a child, you had to learn this through imitation. If you say L, you must move your tongue. Thus, you must always move some organs. From mere fidgeting the child must progress to regular movements, carried out by the speech organs in imitation. The more the child moves beyond the vowels formed in mere crying and utters consonants such as L, M; N, R, the more the left cerebral convolution is structured in an artful way. Now we could ask how children initially learn to speak. They learn to speak only through imitation. They learn to speak, to move their lips, by imitating out of their feelings the way other people move their lips. All of this is imitation. This means that children take in, see, perceive what happens around them. And this perceiving, this mental activity, forms the brain. Just as a carver shapes a piece of wood or a sculptor works on marble and bronze, so the child’s movements “sculpt” the brain. The organs the child moves carry their movements right into the brain. If I want to pronounce L, I have to use my tongue. The tongue is connected with the brain through nerves and through other organs. This L penetrates into my left cerebral convolution and produces a structure there. In other words, the L produces forms in which one section joins the next, resembling the intestines. The M produces spherical convolutions. So you see, these sounds work on the brain. The movements of the organs the child activates through observation are at work here in the brain. It is very interesting that since it became known that a brain stroke damages the left cerebral convolution, thus destroying the ability to speak, it became possible to know that the formation of vowels and consonants by the child continuously works on this convolution. This in turn is based on the fact that the eyes and other sense organs perceive what takes place in the world around us. And what happens in the world around us? Well, you see, whenever we speak we are also breathing. We breathe continuously. And in this process, every breath first enters the human body, moves up the spinal column and enters the brain. This means that even while the child is crying — though as yet unable to pronounce consonants — this breath moves up and enters the brain. What is actually entering the brain in this process? Well, blood, of course.

As I explained to you in the last few days, blood flows everywhere. Through our breathing, blood is constantly being pushed into the brain. This activity begins the very moment we are born and even before, except then it occurs in a different manner. Anyhow, when we are born, we begin to breathe. This intake of air begins, which then pushes blood into the brain. Thus we can say that as long as the baby’s breathing merely pushes blood into the brain, it can only cry. Children begin to speak when not only blood is forced into the brain, but when they also perceive something through their eyes or any other organ, especially the ears.

In other words, whenever they see another person move, children inwardly repeat this movement. At this moment not only the bloodstream goes up to the head, but another stream goes there as well, for instance, from the ears — the stream of the nerves. In the left cerebral convolution, like everywhere else in the human body, blood vessels and nerve fibers meet. The latter are affected by what we observe and perceive. The child’s movements in uttering consonants reach the left convolution, that of speech, via the nerves. This area is structured by the combined effect of the breathing, which is carried there by the blood, and of whatever activity comes in through the ears and the eyes. In other words, blood and nerves together structure this brain mush beautifully. Thus we see that, at least in this particular region (and it will later be found to be the same way in others), our brain is actually structured through the combined activity of perception (via the nerves) and of the constant intake of breath, which pushes the blood into the brain. At this point, we need to understand also that this is how the child learns to speak, that is, by developing the left cerebral convolution.

Since left-handed children are not supposed to write with their left hand, my task is now to gradually direct everything previously carried out by the left hand to the right one. This way they will initially learn to do simple things with the right hand and get into writing much more slowly than the other children. But it does not matter if they learn to write a bit later. If I simply were to make left-handed children write as fast as the right-handed ones, I would make them less intelligent because I would ruin the development that has taken place in the right side of the brain. Therefore, I must make sure to treat left-handed children differently from right-handed ones when I teach them to write. This approach will not make them less intelligent in later life, but more so, because I gradually transform their left-handedness into right-handedness, instead of merely getting their entire brain confused through making them write with the right hand immediately. If you want to affect the entire human being through writing and force this change to the right hand, pedagogically speaking, you would achieve the very opposite of what you are striving for.

Nowadays we find a widespread tendency of teaching people to do everything with both hands. This is how we really get their brains mixed up. This tendency of making people do the same thing both with the right and the left hand merely proves how little we know. Mind you, we can strive for such an ideal, but before we could realize it, we would have to change something. Gentlemen, we would first have to change the entire human being! We would slowly have to shift activities from the left side to the right and then gradually reduce them on the right. What would happen then? You see, what would happen is that, below the surface, the left cerebral convolution would be more artfully formed; but on the outside, it would remain mush. The same would happen to the right convolution. Instead of distributing two activities between the left and the right sides, we would develop each convolution into an outer and an inner half.

The inner portion would be more suitable for speech; the outer one would exist merely in order to add the vowels and consonants in crying. However, speech is a combination of what happens in crying and in articulating. This remains the same throughout life.

You see, we cannot just tinker with human beings and their development. In education, even in the lower grades, we need an understanding of the entire human being. For with everything we do we change the human being. The really criminal thing is that nowadays people monkey around considering only superficial things and ignore the inner effects of what they do.

Actually, very few people have both sides of the brain fully developed. Usually the right convolution contains more blood vessels, whereas the left one has fewer and instead is more permeated with nerves. This holds true for the human brain generally; the right side carries more blood, and the left is more used for perceiving.

Once we realize that the brain is shaped under external influences, we can appreciate how important these influences from the outside are. We see that they are tremendously significant once we understand that they affect everything that takes place in the brain. Also, out of the understanding of what occurs in the brain when we speak, we can get an idea of how the human brain works.

You see, when we examine it further, we discover that there are always more blood vessels on the outside wall of the brain than inside it. Thus we can say that the exterior part of the brain contains more blood and the interior more nerves.

Let us now consider a child learning to speak in the ordinary way, a right-handed child. How is the brain of such a child being formed? First of all, the brain of a young child is surrounded by a layer or coat, so to speak, of blood vessels. Then nerve tracts begin to form. Because of this, gentlemen, because of these nerve tracts in there, the inner brain substance appears whitish when you take it out and look at it. However, when you take out the brain matter surrounding it, it looks reddish-grey because it contains so many blood vessels.

Now what happens in this region when the child learns to speak and consequently the left cerebral convolution is structured accordingly? What takes place, you see, is that the nerve bundles, as it were, gradually extend more toward the inside and less in the area where the blood system expands. In other words, in children who develop normally the inner part of the brain shifts more to the left and the remaining portion follows. The brain thus moves to the left side, where it turns ever more whitish. It shifts that way. All of human development is based on such artful details.

Now let us talk some more about speech. You see, there are languages that have many consonants and others that contain many vowels such as A, E, I and so forth. In some languages people squeeze out the sounds, like S, W, so that one barely hears the vowels. What lies behind all this?

We know that languages differ in different regions of the earth. What does it mean when someone lives in a certain area where people focus more on the consonants? It means that he or she experiences the outer world more, for the consonants are formed in the experience of the surroundings. Therefore, in people living more in the physical world the white portion of the brain shifts more to the left. In people experiencing life more inwardly, people living in a region where things are experienced more inwardly, the white brain matter does not move quite so far to the left. These people will tend to utter melodious vowels. This varies with the regions of the earth.

Let us now assume the following, gentlemen: Let’s imagine the earth and people standing at various points on the earth. And one person, let us say, is given a language rich in vowels and another one a language rich in consonants. What must have happened in their respective regions? A lot may have happened, quite a lot, but I want to focus on one thing that may have taken place. Imagine that we have high mountains and a level area, a plain. Picture then steep mountains on one side and a plain on the other. Now, wherever there are flat regions, we perceive that the language people speak there is richer in vowels. Wherever there are steep mountains, the local language tends to be richer in consonants.

But you see, this matter is not so simple after all, because we must ask how the mountains and the plains came about. This is the way it is: We have the earth, and the sun shines upon it. At one time our entire earth was unformed mush. The mountains first had to be pulled out of this mush. All right then, the earth was basically mush and the mountains were pulled up out of this mush.

Well, gentlemen, what was it that pulled the mountains up? The cosmic forces that work out there did. We can say that there are certain forces of a cosmic nature that pulled up these mountains. In some places the forces were strong and developed mountains; in other places there were weaker forces coming in out of the universe that did not produce mountains. In this latter area the earth crust was not pulled up so strongly in primeval times. And the people born on those parts of the earth crust less affected by these cosmic forces use more vowels. Persons born in areas more strongly influenced by the cosmic forces use more consonants. We see now that the differences between languages are connected with the forces of the entire universe.

Now how can we support such a claim? Well, gentlemen, what we have claimed here must be considered in the same way we look at clocks to check the time. We look at the clock to see if we must start working or if it is time to leave. But we never say, “Now this is too much! This awful minute hand is a terrible fellow who whips me on to work.” We wouldn’t dream of saying that. All the clock does is tell us when we have to go to work, and so we cannot blame it for having to work, can we? In this case, the clock is completely innocent.

Similarly, we can look up to the sun and say that when we stand here at a certain moment, the sun is between us and the constellation of Aries. That is the direction where these strong cosmic forces work from. It is not Aries itself, of course. This constellation merely indicates the direction where the strong forces come from. If a person is standing in a different place at that same time, he or she is affected as follows: When the sun has moved to that place, it is in Virgo, let us say. The forces coming from this direction are weaker. Instead of going through the entire process now, I can therefore say that when someone is born in an area where at a certain time, let’s say at his birth, the sun is in Aries, that person will tend to use more consonants. However, when someone is born with the sun in Virgo, he will tend to use more vowels.

You see, I can read the entire zodiac like a clock from which I can see what happens on earth. But I must always keep in mind that it is not the constellations that cause these events; they are only indicators. From this you can see that the zodiac can tell us a lot, even about the reasons why the languages on earth differ.

Now, let us look at the earth and imagine that we put a chair out there into space and look back at the earth. Of course, this is only possible in our imagination and not in reality. When we look from our chair in space at the various languages on earth, as in a sort of language map, then we get a certain picture. When we then turn the chair around and look out into the universe, we get a picture of the stars. And the two pictures match.

If we study the Southern Hemisphere and the languages there and then turn the chair around and examine the southern firmament, our experience is entirely different from the one we would have if we did the same thing in the Northern Hemisphere. This means that we could draw a map of the starry skies above us, and from our study of the connection between the stars and language we would then be able to tell which language is spoken under a particular constellation.

You see now that as soon as we begin to observe human spiritual life, for example, the formation of our minds through speech, we must look up to the stars in order to understand anything. The earth alone does not give us an answer; you can think about why languages are different as long as you like, but based on the earth alone you won’t find an explanation.

If you want to know what takes place in your stomach, you must examine the earth, the soil below. If a region grows mainly cabbages, you will understand that people there must constantly re-enliven in their metabolism the heads of cabbage pulled out of the soil. In other words, if you want to know what people in a certain area eat, you must examine the soil. If you are interested in how people breathe in a particular region, you have to study the atmosphere. And if you want to know what happens inside the skull, in this brain of ours, you must look at the position of the stars. You always have to see the human being as an integrated part of the entire universe.

You see now that it is indeed mere superstition to say, “Whenever the sun is in Aries, such and such takes place.” This kind of statement is not worth anything. However, if you understand the full context, the matter ceases to be superstition and becomes science instead. And that will lead us from understanding the transformation of substances to an understanding of what is really happening and its connection to the vast universe out there.