From a baby’s first cry, language is an attempt to convey an experience, usually to another. The sounds uttered are the outer expression of an inner mentally experienced state, as well as its bodily-felt counterpart. The response of the “other” also enables a growing sense of self for a baby, and its impact on the world. At least the self with a small “s”, the relational self. The development of language reflects this: first the subject-object, then the verb as an awareness of intent or wish, and action; with conditionals following. In different languages, vowels and consonants evolve as tools to convey feeling and meaning, superimposed on which is the way something is said – intonation, stress and rhythm, or prosody. Prosody reveals something of the emotional state of the speaker that may not otherwise be encoded by grammar or choice of vocabulary.

Vowels, consonants and syllables

All languages use units of speech that have come to be named as vowels, consonants and syllables. A vowel is a sound pronounced with an open vocal tract, so that the tongue does not touch the lips, teeth or roof of the mouth. And vowels can be shorter or longer, according to the feeling to be conveyed. A consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract, and they establish structure and boundaries between different segments of speech. A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. A syllable is typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel) with optional initial and final margins (typically consonants). Syllables are building blocks of words; they can influence the rhythm of a language, its prosody, its poetic meter and its stress patterns.

The neurology of speech rhythms

There is a remarkable correspondence between average durations of speech units and the frequency ranges of cortical oscillations. Phonetic features (durations of 20–50 ms) are associated with gamma (>50 Hz) and beta (15–30 Hz) oscillations; syllables, and words (mean duration of 250 ms) are associated with theta (4–8 Hz) oscillations; and sequences of syllables and words embedded within a prosodic phrase (500–2000 ms) are associated with slow delta oscillations (<3 Hz). In line with this correspondence between cortical oscillations and critical units for the representation of speech, Poeppel (2003) proposed a multi-resolution model where speech is processed concurrently on at least two different time scales (a slow and fast rate), and then information is extracted and combined for lexical access. Correlation between the acoustics of spoken language and EEG and MEG responses was demonstrated by showing that temporal cortical responses in the theta range and the beta range contain enough information to discriminate single words (Suppes et al., 1997). This growing understanding of the relationships between speech and brain activity, confirms the links between speech and the involvement of various areas of the brain related to emotion, memory and somatic activation.

Somatic basis

In line with the above, the sounds we make have to fit with the capacity of our physical structure, the musculature of the jaw and mouth, flexibility of the tongue and palate, etc. Also (Morrillon et al., 2010), auditory asymmetry in brain function, and hand preference are traits humans share with other primate and non-primate species, and both have been proposed as the functional origin of human cerebral dominance in speech and language. The motor theory of language evolution argues that speech evolved from a pre-existing manual language involving lateralized hand/mouth gestures. Such asymmetric control of gesture or pharyngeal musculature could have led to left lateralization of speech and language. Conversely, if auditory preceded motor asymmetry in evolution, the alignment of vocalization to gestures might have gradually led to left-lateralized motor and executive language functions. It remains unknown and controversial which of these scenarios accounts for asymmetry in speech and language processing.

Esoteric, “secret” or “twilight” language

The Buddha taught in Northeast India where the spoken language would have been a version of Maghadan-Prakrit, and as a former Prince he would also know Sanskrit. Initially his teachings were passed on orally, before being written down first in Gandhāri and later in Pāli, which has come to be known as the language of the Theravada Buddhist texts. These texts were written with great reverence and appreciation of the forms of the characters, first on birch leaves and later on palm leaves. Some birch-leaf fragments found in sealed clay jars and dating from the early 1st century are in the British Museum collection. It is not difficult to understand how these early written records became revered as “sacred texts”, in that they represented the teachings of the Buddha. And how for largely illiterate people hearing them read, that the characters themselves, and their forms, became almost magical in containing the meanings spoken. Based on this reverence for the almost magical properties of language and script, developed the special “cults” or tantras around syllables, yantra and mandalas.

In the Buddhist Patisambhidāmagga, The Path of Discrimination, believed to date from the mid-3rd century BC, it is stated that one of the attainments of the Arahat is mastery of the four discriminations (patisambhidā) - of meaning, dhamma, language and perspicacity. This is another way of formulating wisdom and insight, but also suggests that the Arahat penetrates to the underlying roots and meanings of language itself. Related to this is the comment in the later (1st-4th century CE) Vimuttimagga, Path of Freedom, that “knowledge of others’ minds is called the knowledge of discrimination”.

The Yogavacāra texts mentioned elsewhere on this site, make flexible and creative use of language, form and symbolism. They point to the elusiveness and multiple levels of meaning in language, the importance of form, and a need to let go of a too-dogmatic attachment to “concrete” language. Bucknell and Stuart-Fox (1986) refer to this as “Twilight Language”.


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