The Broca Divide

A child’s first word.

No matter the word, it is a milestone. It is the first time a sound finds a shape, curling and wrapping itself into a formulated expression of thought and feeling.  Every parent, every person who loves that little child celebrates that first word; celebrates the process of a developing mind. Do we feel an evolutionary responsibility to ensure linguistic development of our young, or do we just want them to stop crying?

The answer, of course, is both of those things. We teach our young to speak well and communicate grievances. We teach them to speak out and speak up, and we no longer believe that children should be seen and not heard. We say things like, “Use your words, and use them well. Be kind. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” We teach our children all of these things and more, and we guide them to be expressive. We marvel at the simple clarity of their conversation; we laugh at their candid observation. And we wonder:  What will that child be capable of saying?

What about us? What is humanity capable of saying?

Paul Broca

Paul Broca (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What was the first word of the human race?

There are about 6,700 languages in this world of ours. About 2,000 of them are spoken by less than 1,000 people. In the next 100 years, about half of those languages will disappear along with the people who speak them. Our languages are dying out, but our need to speak more clearly is growing with urgency. Paul Broca was a French physician, scientist, and anthropologist who, in 1861, discovered the area of the brain responsible for complex speech production; it would become known as Broca’s Area.

Anatomically, Broca’s Area is located in the frontal lobe and made up of two parts of the interior frontal gyrus – pars opercularis and pars triangularis. Roughly speaking, they sit up above each one of your eyebrows. Broken down into the briefest of layman’s terms, this is the area of the brain that gives us the gift of speech. Our sharp tongues, dull thoughts and bitter words, they all stem from there. This is what separates man from ape, right? Isn’t it?  As one theory goes, when humanity began to peer out into the light from the caves and began to stretch our legs and explore, we wanted to talk about it. We had to talk about it. Our day-to-day activities became more complex, and our desire to vocalise it forced our brains to evolve. Recent studies have also shown activity in Broca’s Area when the arms are used to either articulate or underscore a meaning or thought. On an evolutionary scale, this supports the theory that we decided we needed more from our relationships than grunts and swinging arms. Sound studies of baby apes and baby humans show an evolution in sound – baby apes make a repetitious outburst when pleased; babies giggle. If the two sounds are overlaid as a wave pattern, there are remarkable similarities in the structure and virtually the same activity takes place in the brain. We needed a more complex linguistic structure, and as we learned to speak in ways that became more and more complex, we left our hominid brethren behind. Human beings defined our humanity by literally becoming able to define it.

English: Orbital part of the inferior frontal ...

Brain: Orbital part of the inferior frontal gyrus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We stepped, as it were, across The Broca Divide.

So here we are. Though ever evolving, modern-day humans have settled firmly into a brain-to-mouth system. We know what we want to say, we know how to say it – and we say it, a lot. Some will say more words in their lifetime than breaths they take. Some will find other ways to communicate. Paul Broca’s studies focused primarily on aphasia, a term used to describe a number of disorders, all of them affecting the ability to express language in some way.  Although aphasia can affect a person’s speech, complex thought is often unaffected and still finds other ways to communicate. Some will never be able to talk, but will speak so deeply and with such complexity, that it will change the way we see The Universe. Some will, without uttering a single word, use the immeasurable power of language to teach us things that will change the way we look at each other for the rest of our lives.

However we do it, the complex language skills have been given to us. Through God, or evolution, or God creating evolution, or evolution creating God – we talk about that, too. We’ll continue to teach our children to use their words.

So what happened to us? Why did we cross The Broca Divide and then fill it with ugliness? Yes. Here comes the “what is wrong with you people” speech. Except, it isn’t. I’m “you people”, too. What’s wrong with me? We promise to teach our children to learn by asking questions, but sometimes we forget that we need to answer responsibly. According to the FBI, in 2006 there were 9,080 reported hate-related offences, including hate speech. We all know what hate speech is; we know our history and know about the Nazi’s and the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church.

We also know the guy down the street who hates “brown people”. And the guy who makes jokes about “black people”, but lately, instead of the word “black” he uses the word “Obama”. Or the girl who makes jokes about Mormons, but they’re about Romney, so it’s her “political voice”.  Do you think we don’t see it? That your words are terrible? Politics doesn’t bring out the worst in you; or the other guy – the worst is already there, but politics give us an excuse to be mean because it’s our “political platform”. When the election – any election – is over, every time you said “if you support (this person/issue), you should (be taken out and shot/go die/leave America/you’re a retard)”, people will remember, and those “other” people will just go back to being what, your friends? Your family? Your neighbour? When you said those things to me, did you care that you were talking about me?

Remember that old saying, “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you”? As a child that was my mantra, because I was vocal and nerdy and couldn’t tear my eyes away from reading something; not even for a minute. I loved words, and books, and language, loved them so much that I had to be reading something all the time; even today I buy handbags and purses only if they are large enough to hold a book (or kindle). Words are everything to me, and I can be as deeply hurt by them as I can be hurt by someone who smashes my head in with a baseball bat. Do you think because you can’t see it, that I don’t feel it? When I described myself, I used the word nerdy. I didn’t even think about it as I wrote it; I instinctively labeled myself as a protective measure against your potential labels.

The next time you’re in a social situation with a group of five people (face-to-face), conduct this experiment: If there are five people together in a group – and I mean in a social situation where there is no conversational leader; not when someone is speaking in a business meeting, or one person is engaging the attention of others by telling a joke or story – when there is just a group of five, watch what everyone does. Without stopping your conversation (therefore no longer participating and taking yourself out of the experiment), observe what happens when all of you are chatting. Five people, maybe sitting at a coffee shop or hanging out at a bar, all chatting lightly. What you’ll find is that all five people cannot sustain an all-inclusive group conversation for more than a few minutes. Inevitably, the pack will split. The conversation will break off into two side conversations, each with two people. The third person will rotate, participating between the two conversations but not fully engaged in either. That third person will also change every few minutes; each person in the group of five will take on the role and the change will flow naturally. We talk about feeling like a “third wheel” or a “fifth wheel” because it is uncomfortable for us on an evolutionary scale. We are actually incapable of a five-person pack.

Broca’s area is also responsible for comprehension. When we crossed The Broca Divide, we were also given the gift of understanding words. Not just the definition. Think about what you read. If you polled a room at any given time, the chances are favourable that you would find a majority who agree that politics equals dishonesty. That politicians are liars. This same majority of people would then go home and log on to Facebook, see other status updates and memes, and repost them. How many times have you seen, on a social media site such as Facebook, someone post a list of “facts” about welfare, socialism, right-wing agendas, left-wing agendas, etc. – something underscoring some point the poster is trying to make? How often do you see a meme – some photo and a list of “facts” to go with it, “like” it if you agree, and re-post some of this same information? You may dislike politics, don’t want to get involved in debates, but suddenly you have become enraged at what you have just read. We all do this. I’ve done this. Then you comment. Insult. Say things that start with “those people should…” “I am/my tax dollars are not supporting…” and then do you re-post what you have read?

How many of you, after feeling strongly enough to get enraged by what you read, then took two or three minutes to look up some information about it?

We often hear about “taking the power back” – taking a derogatory or hateful word and empowering the original recipient to use the word in their own context, thereby rendering the insult useless.  However, the list of words that have been snatched away and twisted into something terrible is getting longer and longer. Look up the definition of few of these words: Liberal. Conservative. Socialist. Capitalist. Welfare.  Define them yourselves, and then take a moment to actually look them up. There is beauty and power in each and every one of those words, but each and every one of those words has been twisted in an all-out war of the words; of linguistic propaganda. Look up propaganda.

Thinking about what we say, and how we say it, is not a revolutionary idea. No matter your background or upbringing, it is very likely that you’ve had, or seen, situations that called for people to speak their truth, use their voice, and always be themselves. Why do we, as human beings, fight so very hard for our right to speak? Why do we work so hard to teach children that they must always speak their own truth, and be kind, and learn how to use their words?

Could it be possible that we are hard-wired to crave dialogue not only because we’ve evolved, but also because we cannot evolve without it? If this is the case, then have we put our own future at risk because we are forgetting why we use our words? Our very own, beautifully evolved, individual, unique, and perfect words?

I don’t care if you don’t care about politics, or social issues, or sociolinguistics, or long-winded blogs.

I care about the fact that we are experiencing our lifetimes together.  Build your fence and make your camp wherever you want. But please, build it with beautiful words, not ugly ones. Beautiful doesn’t have to mean positive, but it can mean well-thought out. It can mean we don’t have to be mean. Do your homework and learn why words can be so powerful and question what you read. If information is passed to you in an instant, consider if it was created in an instant, without depth and authenticity.

We have so many words, and so many things to say. None of them are the same, and all of them are important. Remember that wherever you stand, we are all on one side of The Broca Divide.

Humanity’s first word – what I think? I shouldn’t have to preface it with anything, shouldn’t have to label myself with something in anticipation of being labeled, but somehow I have to; somehow we’ve gotten to a place where I feel like I will be ridiculed, perhaps called a dreamer, or a hippie, or a bleeding-heart, or defend my politics, or fight for my beliefs – just because I believe that humanity’s first word, the first time we needed to vocalise something so strongly that it actually forced our brains to evolve a way into saying it, was love.



  1. You blended your research so succinctly with your voice. It’s all here: the self-consciousness, the half-apologies and defenses thrown up, the history, a little evolutionary theory, psychology (both developmental and social), the “I” and the “we” in near perfect harmony. You did good. Real good.

    • Thank you; I’m really touched by your words. I’m glad that you saw all of those things, and you make it sound so much grander than I imagined it to be. I’ll take that!

  2. Beautifully put Lisa. You have such a wonderful way of stirring others to pay closer attention to their own behaviors and obligations in our fragile world. Thanks for Thank you also for your part in setting this blog up. And thanks to Dave for bringing this blog to us.

  3. Brian Thompson says:

    Wow….powerful… well done

  4. M. Steele says:

    Really outstanding post Lisa. Respect.

  5. This was a very *nice* blog. Very well-written. And of course, you point is correct. However, being the do-as-I-do-not-as-I-say type that you know me to be, if, of course, won’t adhere to your guidance the next time I am faced with some Twitter/Facebook Neocon calling Obama a non-citizen, socialist, terrorist. I’ll most assuredly build my camp with hateful words :). But your words are well-received.

  6. marcher72 says:

    Compelling,thought-provoking,well-written and informative. Anagram for “evolve ” contains “love”. Without love, newborns fail to thrive, even if given food and warmth. Is it any wonder humanity fails without it?
    I doubt too there is anyone who doesn’t still carry the wounds from words that made us bleed emotionally. Long after the original injury, I can reinflict harm to myself by calling myself ugly or stupid or fat. Those words that have the most power are spoken by those whom we love. The vulnerability and strength of your inner nerd give voice to this blog.
    Well done, Lisa. You know how to “use your words” and “use them well.” If I may add, with this blog, “use your outside voice!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: