It implies that the origins of language are not rooted in grunt and sign references to objects – perhaps a banana to eat or a leopard to avoid – that were then loaded up with extra meanings by fanciful human brains. Instead, words were from the get-go loaded with the inner and outer meanings that our ancestors detected in the world around them, and consciously articulated when they first started to speak.
Language is a phenomenon that arose when hominids engaged with life not just to survive but to share in the great rush of it that they felt teeming around them. It sprang from an involvement with things. ‘The first metaphors were not artificial but natural,’ summarised Barfield.
They are the tokens of a prehistoric communion. They are the record of an increasingly conscious awareness of links with the inner life of the cosmos. That participation split apart when our very much more recent ancestors, on the cusp of a modern, scientific consciousness, stopped experiencing the world in the enchanted, natural way.
You could say that it would be better to assume what language itself implies. It is so powerfully meaningful because it is innately meaningful. Its poetry enables us to perceive deeper structures of reality that our empirical senses alone couldn’t detect. Words channel that vitality. They have soul because nature does – for all that, these days, we struggle to feel it and are quite inclined to disbelieve it.
It is, in part, a recognition of this loss that has led the English writer Robert Macfarlane on a project to rescue words. As he explains in Landmarks: ‘[What] is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.’
The point is that words that have come to describe the inner life of human beings can have evolved only if the cosmos is full of spirit. The first humans were not inventive, but often deluded, onlookers. They were intelligent participants in that wider consciousness. Their difference from other creatures lay only in a capacity consciously to communicate the meaning they felt pulsing around them.
In History, Guilt and Habit (1979), Barfield concluded that the evolution of words ‘always points us back to a cultural period when there was a much closer interpenetration between thinking and perceiving than is the case with us today’.
Or as Alexander von Humboldt, one of the key figures at the origins of modern science, realised: ‘Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.’ And moreover, Humboldt concluded, this is the reason science can be done.
(Some of this section comes from a longer essay I wrote on the evolution of language published by Aeon, which is online here.”