Chapter 6: One Last Time Before You Go: The Conclusion and Final Review
In his coy opening paragraphs, Justice describes the many uses of language as if they are features of a “new communications app” he “just invented.” Justice notes how language use “facilitates an expanding network of people” and “opens up incredible possibilities for creativity and cooperation.” Such clever itemization of language’s many features enables Justice to establish effectively language as a human tool that has at its root the human desire to connect and work together. Though centuries of migration and conflict may have turned the world into a “Tower of Babel” in which populations are divided by different languages, “all of us living today have a common history” in which language was developed first and foremost to create community.
Justice stresses that such a created community is often defined by “a commons,” which he defines thusly: “A commons is a level-playing field. Everybody gets to breathe air, and we have that in common with most other species.” He establishes language as one of the first such commons, “available to everyone free” and a “common way for us to share information and create enduring knowledge.” Thus, whether it is being used to foster cooperation or perpetuate conflict, language has always been a commons accessible to all members who wish to contribute meaningfully to their community.
Justice defines language as “A method of communication that is available to virtually all humans to use;” a “common property, available to everyone free.” Justice thereby establishes language as a common human right and desire—an inherent need that is obvious even in the simple naming and describing of a “proto-language” like “Me Tarzan, you Jane”: “Once you begin to share information you are creating a common space of understanding amongst you and your fellow speakers.” Even if that common space is used to express difference—Tarzan is not Jane—it is still a vital tool that can ensure that even those who do not share opinions, backgrounds, or identities can still share ideas.
Justice notes that sometimes such differences, even when expressed, still lead to divisions that may seem insurmountable. “We parcel up land into properties,” Justice writes, marking our divisions from one another. In more extreme cases, we are “separated permanently by mountains or water barriers” which seem to end definitively any sense or hope of unity: “because of our success in outgrowing our original environment we ceased to have a common place and identity.” This insurmountable division seems an unavoidable result of human evolution and prosperity, Justice implies—as the earliest groups of humans thrived in their shared landscape, “eventually, as population grew over generations, a new band would split off.” Such splits would drive groups of humans further afield from one another, resulting in a mutual forgetting of their “common place and identity” and likely the “evolution of different languages.”
Yet, Justice claims, even as humans mark their property or separate themselves by mountains and water, it seems inherent in the human creation of place that “much land is held in common in the form of parks, trackless wilderness, public rights of way and public spaces.” Justice utilizes much natural imagery when defining “a commons” like language: “The sunlight that falls to earth is common to all, plants and animals on land, fish and the whales in the sea.” Further, Justice asserts that “Here in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, fresh water is a common resource,” implying even has he invokes the human naming of a region, that this does not override the deeper human tendency to share resources and foster a space that is mutually beneficial.
This mutually beneficial space is a worldwide commons manifested and made accessible by language. Despite that fact that “in outgrowing our original environment we ceased to have a common place and identity” and despite this initial “outgrowing” producing varied groups with diverse languages and varying levels of prosperity, Justice still believes that language, that one commons that is accessible to all, can be the “level-playing field” upon which all groups can interact and share. Like most successful technological innovations, this “new communications app” is intuitive and accessible, addresses a common need, and possesses the ability to perform task thought previously to be impossible.
Justice’s cunning misrepresentation of language as a “new communications app” encourages his readers to consider language in a new way, to shirk off the notions of defeatism and division that often accompany discussions of language and recognize it instead as a “free” application that is linked ineluctably with the very “humanity and human origins” we have “in common with everyone else alive today.” Viewed in this way, the many languages across the globe present a challenge, but they do not simply create a frustrated and disconnected “Tower of Babel.” Instead, they represent a gigantic “level-playing field” that spans the entire commons that is the “Earth’s biosphere.”