The development of human language plays a complex role within this process of adaptation. It seems to have developed from signalling among social animals; but I propose the thesis that what is most characteristic of the human language is the possibility of storytelling.
It may be that this ability too has some predecessor in the animal world. But I suggest that the moment when language became human was very closely related to the moment when a man invented a story, a myth in order to excuse a mistake he had made – perhaps in giving a danger signal when there was no occasion for it; and I suggest that the evolution of specifically human language, with its characteristic means of expressing negation – of saying that something signalled is not true – stems very largely from the discovery of systematic means to negate a false report, for example a false alarm, and from the closely related discovery of false stories – lies – used either as excuses or playfully.
If we look from this point of view at the relation of language to subjective experience, we can hardly deny that every genuine report contains an element of decision, at least of the decision to speak the truth. Experiences with lie detectors give a strong indication that, biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying. I take this as an indication that lying is a comparatively late and fairly specifically human invention; indeed that it has made the human language what it is: an instrument which can be used for misreporting almost as well as for reporting.
From Karl Popper, “Karl Popper, Replies to my Critics” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, La Salle, Illinois, 1974, pp. 1112-1113, cited by George Steiner, A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. p. 404.
Illustration inspired by a colonial painting from Bokkeveld, Western Cape, South Africa
To tell a story is to throw shadows to the fire. In that very instant, everything that the word reveals is consumed by silence. Only those who pray given their entire soul know the meaning of that burning, that fall of the word into the abyss.
Mia Couto, La confesión de la leona, from the Spanish translation by Rosa Martínez-Alfaro, Madrid: Alfaguara, 2016, pág. 79
Illustration based on a Buddhist image.
Myth is a language made of timeless, not of momentary, forms. The themes [of performance improvised by Haida storytellers for anthropologist John Swanton] are not concocted for this occasion. They are original in a different sense. They are thousand- or ten-thousand-year-old stories put to current use; they renew the present world by rehearsing what is known of how the world came to be.
Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999: 220
Inspired by the drawing of a shield found in a Greek vase.
I think that an interest in storytelling is part of our way of being in the world. It comes from our need to understand what has happened, what people have done, what they may do: the dangers, adventures, trials of all kinds. Where are not like stones, immobile, nor are we as flowers or insects, whose lives are preordained. We are beings for adventure. Man will never be able to give up listening to stories.
Mircea Eliade, La prueba del laberinto: Conversaciones con Claude-Henri Rocquet, traducción de J. Valiente Malla, Madrid: Ediciones Cristiandad, 1980, p. 159
Illustration inspired by the ceramic bowls of the Hausa people (Nigeria).
The intellectual nature of a story is exhausted with its text, but the functional, cultural, and pragmatic aspect of any native tale is manifested as much in its enactment, embodiment, and contextual relations as in the text. It is easier to write down the story than to observe the diffuse, complex ways in which it enters into life, or to study its function by the observation of the bast social and cultural realities into which it enters. And this is the reason why we have so many text and why we known so little about the very nature of myth.
B. Malinowski, “Myth in Primitive Psychology”, in Bronislaw Malinowski, Malinowski and the Work of Myth, edited by Ivan Strenski, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 89.
Illustration inspired on engravings from a cave in the island of Götland.