Money emerged before language in human history.
Early human societies sought increasingly efficient methods of trade and cooperation.
Our early ancestors lived in small, nomadic groups where survival depended heavily on hunting. In such small communities, the need for complex language was limited. Instead, rudimentary forms of communication, consisting of gestures, vocalisation, and simple symbols, was enough for basic survival.
Trade and exchange were essential for accessing resources that were not locally available. Early humans engaged in barter systems, exchanging goods directly. However, barter systems can be inefficient and cumbersome, especially when attempting to exchange goods with different perceived values. Imagine trying to trade a cow for wheat without a shared agreement of value.
Shells and furs
This inefficiency led to the development of primitive forms of money. Objects with value, such as seashells, animal pelts or agricultural produce, were used as proto-money. These objects had value in themselves, were easy to carry, and served as a medium of exchange within a community. They predated the need for a complex language system because their value was universally understood within the group, and between groups.
These early forms of money were symbolic and required little verbal communication. They conveyed value through physical presence, avoiding the need for elaborate language to express worth or to negotiate exchanges. A person holding a pouch of earth minerals or a bundle of furs could communicate value effectively without uttering a single word.
As human societies expanded, so did the complexity of their economic activities. Proto-money evolved into standardised forms like tokens or small metal objects, further reducing the reliance on language in economic transactions. The acceptance of these standard forms of money within a society required basic agreement and trust rather than the extensive communication language necessary for negotiations.
The establishment of the first cities in Mesopotamia (c. 3000 BCE) provided the infrastructure for the next simplest form of money of account – asset-backed credit. Farmers would deposit their grain in the temple which recorded the deposit on clay tablets and gave the farmer a receipt in the form of a clay token which they could then use to pay fees or debts to the temple. Since most of the deposits in the temple were of the main staple, barley, a fixed quantity of barley came to be used as a unit of account.
Language, on the other hand, emerged as a tool for sharing knowledge, stories, and beliefs within larger communities. Its development was closely tied to the evolution of settled agriculture and the need to organise collective activities like farming, construction, and defence. With the rise of agriculture, the ability to communicate became crucial, as larger groups needed to coordinate activities and allocate resources.
While language flourished within communities, the role of money expanded beyond the confines of small groups. As trade networks grew and societies became more interconnected, standardised money helped to conduct economic interactions among strangers. Money’s universal common acceptance allowed individuals from different backgrounds to engage in trade and cooperation without a common language.
This universality of money has persisted throughout history, transcending linguistic, cultural, and geographical boundaries.
Language is a dynamic and evolving construct, subject to variations. Dialects, accents, and idioms abound within a single language, making effective communication a challenge in diverse settings. Money, however, provides a stable and universally understood medium for trade, bypassing linguistic barriers.
Money is not just a medium of exchange but also a store of value and a unit of account. These functions of money require precision and stability, which are best achieved through standardised symbols or tokens.