Argha was brimming with excitement. He’d figured out a brilliant way to take down the mastodon. But he couldn’t do it himself. He needed the other hunters, working together. He ran into the camp where the others were huddled around the fire. He started pounding his chest, growling and hooting at them. Waving his arms and doing a sort of dance. His mates thought he’d lost he’d gone off his rocker and thumped him over his head with a club to help him out. That lot didn’t last the winter.
Orgma however, a few years later, had the same idea. He had a slightly different approach. When he got to the camp by the fire, he managed to calmly get the attention of his fellow hunters. He made drawings in the sand. As he did so, he made specific intonations with his vocal cords. Specific grunts for a mastodon, for hunters, for spears. The others picked up on this. Late that night, they’d figured out a strategy. They used the same intonations as part of working together. Language, as a technology, was born. This is unlikely how it really happened and very simplified.
So is language evolving in the digital age? And what are the implications for cultures around the world? How about in developing User Experiences and communications technologies such as Virtual and Augmented Reality? What role can Artificial Intelligence play? Why is this even important to understand?
Language is cultural technology. And humans use culture as a means of survival. It is how we teach one another about everything from literal survival techniques to how to build other technologies such as software and most importantly, language enabled us to work together more efficiently. We have evolved language in incredibly complex ways, far more than our primate cousins.
One example of how we’re evolving language today in more complex ways is the increasing mix of symbols (e.g. emojis), emoticons (textual symbols), voice, gestures and text. Using symbols as language is not new. All are elements of language. Human language is infinitely creative. Just think about how every year, we add a new word to our dictionaries. Or how we’ve added prefixes to words to describe concepts of new technologies; the iPhone or eBay.
The increased use of symbolism today is quite interesting in and of itself. A major form of early communication by our ancestors was, at current estimates (which are likely to change) by neanderthals around 64,000 years ago. One might argue that emoji’s are a sort of digital evolution of cave drawings. A current trend in UX design for software products is the use of emojis alongside words, or the option of just emojis and no words in navigation. Most of us became comfortable with the use of emojis through the use of GUIs in software apps. We may send messages to friends, family and coworkers entirely written in emojis on our devices. Short video apps like TikTok or Instagram Reels expand our ability to communicate with the spoken word, gestures and index signs (emotional expressions to convey meaning) all at the same time.
This is all happening at what could well be considered breakneck speed in terms of human evolution. It took us thousands of years to evolve language, writing and symbolism as communications technologies. We have ancient runes used by Nordic and Celtic cultures as well as the ancient Egyptian use of symbols as language. While they’ve always been combined in different ways, we’re now able to combine them simultaneously and all at the same time as well as globally. A human first.
Layer in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and our ability to translate languages in near real-time, and toss in AR glasses or VR goggles and we’re upping our communications ability across cultures at an even greater scale.
Human history has shown that as we mix with other cultures, we adopt words and symbols while evolve our languages. All languages have evolved through trade, conflict (empires and colonisation) and migrations. This is represented in the language tree and here’s a great diagram that shows language evolution.
As we increasingly interconnect with one another at a global scale, sharing ideas and figuring out how to solve huge, incredibly complex problems such as climate change and new economic and societal models, we will have to evolve how we communicate with one another and that means language, including symbols and gestures.
Digital communications technologies are becoming more embedded in the everyday desiderata of our lives. The main tool that brings our various forms of communication together right now is the smartphone. Eventually, AR glasses will be more broadly accepted in our societies (this only just beginning to happen) and we may well wear VR goggles for a portion of our work day and for entertainment. The increasing use of sensors will mean that some gestures will be a part of how we navigate our world and voice as well.
This will impact how UX design works, especially if a digital product or service has to consider multiple affordances and use-case scenarios with products used in multiple contexts. This of course, means a deeper understanding of language and how humans communicate; in one product we may use a mix of voice, gesture and text. This is already starting to happen.
Translation technology will face some significant challenges as well. Right now it is largely constrained to textual use. Soon it will have to include voice and perhaps, even certain gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication such as facial expressions, head and body movements. The better humans figure this out, the faster we will solve major problems and advance our societies. It is a fascinating time indeed.