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The Parable of the Language Tree

There once lived a primitive tribe that settled in a remote valley (the area we know of today as the Valley of the Crescent Moon) and because of the perfect climate, were able to develop a sustainable agricultural civilization. As the story goes, this society, like most societies at the time, did not have a way of recording the language which they spoke, so they passed their history down through oral narrative from generation to generation in the form of stories, fables, and song.

In the specific valley where this tribe settled, there grew a beautiful tree that produced a small colored nut or “seed” in abundance once a year. This hard little seed, no larger than a small pebble, was shaped with a small hole through its center. Although inedible, the seeds produced by the tree were beautiful to behold, as they would come in rich vibrant colors of many shades and hues that were reminiscent of all the rich colors that were observed in nature. This solid color would persist without fading for a great many years making it a natural resource, which the tribe harvested and exploited for the production of beads and jewelry for which they soon became known throughout the area.

As legend goes, a soldier was standing guard in the grove of these trees and hit upon an idea which would change the world that we know today.

As part of his professional duties, to insure that the history of the tribe would continue in the event of a war or natural disaster, officers were to memorize several hundred stories. It is thought that because this particular soldier had difficulty remembering the stories, he developed a clever system of mapping the specific colors of the seeds that littered the ground around the tree under which he stood guard to the individual sounds that made up the words in his tribe's language.

His thought was that for every sound used to make a word, he would substitute a distinctly colored seed. There were only 23 different sounds (what we now have come to understand as phonemes) used in this culture’s language, so the officer chose one colored seed for each individual sound. It is believed that his initial choice for which color would go with which sound was based on the abundance of a particular seed in the grove as it related to the frequency of a particular phoneme in his language, but this speculation is open for debate.

He then assembled these “colored sounds” on a string and separated the words with a small knot that would eventually stand in for the spaces we use in our writing today. These groups of strings that held the words would later become known as “sentences”.

From that time forward, this type of tree would be known as a Language Tree, or in some customs and religions the “Tree of Knowledge”, and it is from this story that we learn how the first major invention of civilization was made. This invention came to be known as the Alphabet.

This simple invention spread to other cultures, and while the choice of colored seeds used to represent sounds in the different languages would vary, the basic idea of using color to record sound would persist. This gift of nature would propel the world forward in a way unimagined at the time.

The use of beads has long ago been replaced by the pigments and printing of our modern era, but it is on this foundation, at the root of the Language Tree, that all modern culture rests.




The Language Tree (original)

The Language Tree (translation)